Cultural Erasure: Where’s the B on Our TVs?

willowozA version of this post first appeared on Abigail’s blog, Experience Is To Be Believed.

About two years ago, I partook of some Netflix binges – re-watching all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and powering through the whole ofThe L Word were just too irresistible. Although I can’t deny I hugely enjoyed both of these binges, there was something I just couldn’t get past – the way bisexuality was treated in both.

Since then, I’ve kept them in my mind, and to be honest, I’ve yet to encounter any programmes made more recently which give bisexuality positive treatment, so let’s step back in time.

The year is 1997, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has hit our screens. (I was only 6, so of course I wasn’t watching it then. But for reasons which will become clear, I feel hugely influenced by this programme, so indulge me.) We have a ground-breaking strong female lead, fighting evil and generally being awesome. And she has two best friends, one male and one female. Let’s focus on them for a second…

It’s made very clear from the start that Willow has been crushing on Xander for a long time. It’s also apparent after not long that it’s not requited. And – remember this – Willow is devastated when it’s finally drummed home.
Fortunately for her, she moves on. She moves on to… Oz. It’s very obvious that their chemistry is strong, and I don’t think the depth of her feelings for him can be denied. Their relationship only falls apart because of one small complication, him needing to take time alone to understand his werewolf identity better. Don’t you just hate it when things like that get in the way?

I highlight these two relationships of Willow’s for an important reason. (Can you see where I’m going with this?) After Oz, her feelings for Tara and, later, Kennedy (both women) are just as strong as we’ve seen her experience previously, but something seems to have changed. We hear her say on several occasions that she’s ‘gay now.’
Now, let’s clear something up before we go any further. Everyone, 100%, without any exception, has the complete right to decide for themselves how they are defined, in every area of self-definition, and that goes for fictional characters too. If Willow says she’s gay, then within the canon of the Buffyverse, she’s gay. What I take issue with is the fact that this was the way her characterisation was dealt with. It was Joss Whedon and his team who put those words in her mouth. This is the same Joss Whedon who, when interviewed in 2002 about why Willow has a relationship with Kennedy after Tara dies, said ‘We can’t have Willow say, ‘Oh, cured now, I can go back to cock!’ Willow is not going to be straddling that particular fence.’ What particular fence might that be? Not bisexuality, surely?

I’ve given a lot of time here to one TV programme, but there is a reason for it. I don’t remember much of Buffy from the first time watching it, because I was in my early teens, or possibly even younger, and I only ever really watched it when my older brother did. It’s a bit… adult-themed. I definitely didn’t remember the details I’ve described above. The only thing that really stood out to me was Willow with Tara – not who she was with before Tara, or after Tara. My childhood brain saw this revolutionary LBGT+ character openly calling herself gay on screen, and processed it in a way which enforced a binary framework. I honestly believe it contributed in a massive way to my own repression of my sexuality.

Now I watch TV programmes with both a [mostly] conscious adult mind and an understanding of my own space within the LGBT+ community, and I notice things which upset me. There are certain patterns to how bisexuality is treated (or often isn’t treated) on screen which I find very worrying. You’ve either got the complete erasure of
bisexuality as a real identity, or the use of bisexuality to portray a character negatively in some way.

According to The L Word, bisexuality is merely a stepping stone to homosexuality, and it implies that people who identify as or act bisexual haven’t yet earned their place in the queer world.

Beginning just shy of a decade later, The L Word takes the prize with both of the trends described above. Set, as it is, around the lives of a group of mostly queer women, you might hope it would be interested in unpacking some of the nuances of sexuality beyond the straight-gay binary. Instead, the writers just don’t seem willing to explore any of the bi presenting characters in any kind of positive, affirming way.

Where the first series kicks off, we meet Alice, who self-identifies as bisexual, Tina, who has been with Bette for many years but dated men previously, and Jenny, who has just moved in with her boyfriend. Jenny begins to explore her sexuality through an affair with a woman, ultimately breaking up with her boyfriend, while Tina and Bette clearly have a troubled relationship, which eventually falls apart.

What troubles me as the characters and stories develop is firstly what is said within the script to rubbish bisexuality, and secondly the social status of these characters within their universe.

Towards the beginning, both Jenny and Alice identify as bisexual. It seemed positive in the pilot episode that when one of Alice’s friends asks when she’s going to choose between ‘dick and pussy,’ she responds quickly to this biphobic question. What’s disappointing, then, is how she and Jenny develop over the course of six seasons. Not only do both come to vocally identify as lesbians, but they are also responsible for making some achingly familiar biphobic comments about and to Tina when she dates a man, Henry, after breaking up with Bette. Upon seeing Tina dressed up for a date with Henry, Alice makes a ‘joke’ about now understanding that bisexuality is ‘gross.’  One particularly unpleasant scene in the following series sees Tina being excluded from a basketball team composed of her friends because of it; Jenny accuses her of ‘enjoying all the heterosexual privileges’ because she has a boyfriend, and says that Tina can no longer be part of their group. Interestingly, though, Tina insists that she is ‘still a lesbian’. As in Buffy, if that’s how she identifies, then we must accept her self-definition, but why could the writers not consider letting her use the ‘B’ word instead? And why do the writers stop challenging biphobia within the dialogue as they have Alice do in the pilot?

henryThis scene with Tina takes me smoothly to the second point – how the characters displaying non-binary traits are seen within the social group and portrayed to the audience. While Tina is dating a man, she is almost completely shunned by her social group because they see her as betraying the lesbian world. The implication that she is only doing it in order to spite Bette would barely even count as subtext. Yet another instance of bisexuality being used as a tool to portray duplicity in a character. When it comes to the social statuses of Jenny and Alice, I think the writing is more subtle, but both demonstrate the use of tired tropes too. Both are depicted as unstable, suffering from severe mental illness explicitly linked to their conflicted sexual identity, and neither really receives the support they need from those around them when they are at their worst. I doubt it’s any coincidence that the chronology of both of their storylines place their new lesbian identities as things acquired after the lack of support they receive from their friends.

So, there we go. According to The L Word, bisexuality is merely a stepping stone to homosexuality, and it implies that people who identify as or act bisexual haven’t yet earned their place in the queer world. The programme deftly manages simultaneously to erase and attack the bisexual identity.

I suppose we shouldn’t be all that surprised, though – bi-erasure is right there in the programme’s name.
This overview of bisexuality on screen is by no means comprehensive, and there are other excellent blogs examining the issue. (There are also plenty of other programmes I could have brought in, and the full version of this abridged article post includes an exploration of these common trends in Orange Is The New Black, Orphan Black and Jane the Virgin but alas – wordcount!) I think it’s important to note, though, that even where are pretty progressive in many ways, programmes exploring issues like sexuality, gender non-conformity, race, minority communities and power, and score relatively well on the Bechdel test, they still fall short on bisexuality.

I’m sure there’ll be people who think ‘so what if you don’t get the token positive bisexual character you want in TV? It’s not like it reflects real life or anything.’ But that’s just it. It should, and it needs to.

It’s not all that long ago that queer culture and identities started to be represented on screen in the first place, even though they’ve always been there. Now it’s becoming more common, and more accepted, to see same sex couples on mainstream TV or in films, which is fantastic. The more it’s seen, the more it becomes normalised in society. Being gay is far more accepted today in Western countries than it was not all that long ago, and I have no doubt that pop culture helps with that, because the law rarely leaves the ivory towers. It’s time for bisexuality to get that same recognition and acceptance, in both the straight and queer worlds.

For me, the real question is this. Would the on-screen depictions of bisexuality in TV programmes today be sufficiently visible and positive to allow a child version of myself to build a framework of sexuality which included bisexuality as equally valid? Sadly, I think the answer is a resounding no, and until the answer is ‘yes,’ I will keep pushing for our bi voices to be heard and our bi faces to be seen.

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Abigail Kay came out as bi relatively late, so now she's trying to make up for lost time by getting involved with the community as much as possible! Downtime is volunteering in schools, singing in one of two choirs, or planning the next solo backpacking trip. Check out her blog, Experience Is To Be Lived!

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