Screen-wiped: Where are all the bi characters?

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“Piper’s girlfriend calls her straight, and her husband calls her a lesbian”

As a child, I always loved reading. I taught myself to read when I was four, and then I read everything. At first, I wasn’t very picky; the back of the milk carton was pretty much as interesting as any book, but as I grew older, I grew more discerning (as you do). As a young child, all I was concerned about was how many horses there were in the books I was reading, but as I entered puberty and turned into a self-aware teenager, I wanted stories that represented me. Around the same time that I hit that magic threshold, I became aware that apparently, I was different from a lot of other girls.

I’d always been kind of different, anyway – I often felt a bit clumsy in my social interactions, like I was just on the outskirts of polite society. Luckily, for someone who likes to read, there are amazing amounts of characters who feel the same, and still go on to have amazing adventures. When I found out that the same wasn’t true for bisexual characters, that became a confirmation of my suspicion that maybe it wasn’t ok to be like me. I obsessed about finding queer characters because every time I found one I felt less alone.

Fast forward to today, and I still want more queer characters. I find myself watching TV shows a lot more often than I read books, and while I think we’re definitely in a better place than we were 10 years ago, we still have a long way to go. It seems that more and more TV shows are featuring gay characters, and featuring them in a way that is increasingly often neither stereotypical nor near-invisible. I think visibility is an amazingly vital part of our quickly increasing acceptance in society. However, there is one thing that bugs; almost all these LGB characters are simply G.

To someone who’s never had to look for characters to identify with, it might seem like such a small thing, but if you can’t find more than one or maybe two, suddenly it becomes an always-present reminder that you are not the norm, no matter how much you feel that you’re not that different from your neighbours. It is a subtle but insidious reminder that you are not the ideal – and when there’s several gay characters around, but only very rarely any bisexual ones, that’s a reminder that you’re not even breaking the norm in the “right way”.

How many bisexual characters in mainstream media can you name right now? I know of two; Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones, who was absolutely delightful and left us way too soon, and Piper Chapman, from Orange is the New Black. When it comes to Oberyn, I have next to no complaints save his fate, and I wish I could say the same for Piper, but I cannot.

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“Oberyn from Game of Thrones was brilliant and left us far too soon”

The main problem I see with her is that not once do they actually use the word bisexual. She herself says that “I like hot girls. I like hot boys. What can I say? I’m shallow,” which, to be fair, is something that I’ve said myself a few times! But it’s not the only thing I’ve said; if someone asks for a label, I am more than happy to give it. “I’m shallow,” as an explanation for your sexuality isn’t actually problematic in itself, but the fact that she is one of the very, very few prominent bisexual characters out there today makes it a bigger deal if she says it than if any random bisexual off the street says it.

Other characters don’t do much better; Piper’s girlfriend calls her straight, and her husband calls her a lesbian, in a way that is very telling of a lot of monosexuals’ views of bisexuality. You are always the other, even when you yourself know that you can easily be everything at once.

Apart from those two, the most readily accessible “bi characters” aren’t even necessarily bi at all. So many shows today are rife with queerbaiting – i.e. giving the viewers teasing hints that a character might be queer, only to immediately make sure to throw them in the arms of a character of the opposite gender. Teen Wolf, for example, made their one lesbian character bisexual instead, just to bring us a moment where one of the main characters comes close to admitting his (canonically plausible) bisexuality, but stops just short of actually confirming it.

And why? A best case scenario would be that it’s a genuine desire to represent bisexual characters that just went pear shaped, but I think that’s too generous an interpretation. In fact, I would say that while queer representation increases acceptance both among straight people and internally, especially in LGBT youth, queerbaiting exotifies and “others” LGBT stories to the point where they seem more alien and it decreases acceptance. Queerbaiting is the media equivalent of wanting a “gay BFF to go shopping with” – superficially accepting, but actually, when you scratch the surface, it’s a lot more sinister and fetishising.

We need characters of all different orientations, not firstly so that straight people will support us, but for the young people who are only just figuring themselves out. As an adult, perhaps it’s not the worst thing to read or watch something that, though well written, contain no bi characters. For many kids, however, the stories they love are either a great way of either escaping the world or finding their place in it – and we need to make sure they know of all the places they could go.

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Amanda Gun

Originally from Sweden, Amanda has spent the past few years living in London and in Australia. If all goes to plan, she will get to call a few more countries home before she shuffles off this mortal coil. She loves big cities, pole dancing and selfies, and when she grows up she wants to be a circus princess/burlesque dancer/writer/makeup artist. One time, she met Mickey Mouse on a plane, and he told her she was pretty.

2 Responses to Screen-wiped: Where are all the bi characters?

  • Becky says:

    Wow! Glad it isn’t just me that’s picked up on OITNB skirting the B word!
    I’ve found myself yelling at the TV like a sports nut like “she’s a goddamn BISEXUAL!!! Call her BISEXUAL!!!”
    Because she so clearly IS yet nobody, not even Piper herself is comfortable using it.
    I must confess I haven’t read the book, I’d be curious to know if this is an issue of the real Piper and it isn’t used in the books and that has translated to screen, or this is the TV show writers issue??
    Though, in second thoughts, I’m not actually sure she’s the best representation of bisexuals in mainstream media :-/ maybe its better they leave her as one or the other and don’t drag out names through the mud any further! 😉 hehe.
    xXx

  • Gregory Ward says:

    Lee Pace’s character on Halt And Catch Fire is deliciously bisexual.

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