As today is Bisexual Visibility Day, I asked one of our wonderful guests, Marion Jochmans if she could write a guest article for us on the lack of representation of bisexuality on our screens. Particularly focusing on the screen within many of our own homes. As the years have gone on, and I have become more accepting of my own sexuality, I have come to realise that Western media has been brainwashing me my whole life. In the words of Florence Given, the author, illustrator and mastermind of 'Women Don't Owe You Pretty': '...queer representation in the media isn't going to brainwash your child, boomer. Because heteronormativity already has.' So please take the time to read this article and consider the ways in which the media has been erasing bisexuality for years, and how that is finally starting to change. You can also check our our episode with Marion by clicking here. Grab a chosen beverage and snack of your choice and read on!
Television’s Role in Bi-Erasure and How it is Changing
I was thirteen-years-old when I watched Katherine and Robin kiss in the sixth season of Desperate Housewives. Katherine, a character that had prior to this relationship been portrayed as heterosexual, suddenly found herself attracted to another woman. Throughout their storyline Katherine drives herself mad trying to find her place on either side of the binary. She is constantly questioning herself over and over again on whether she is gay or straight. Not long after she accidentally outs herself in front of the entire neighbourhood by yelling ‘just because I enjoy having sex with you doesn’t make me a lesbian’ during an argument with Robin, they decide to move to Paris and consequentially disappear from the show. Katherine returns two seasons later in the final episode of the series, on her own, claiming that she simply isn’t ‘into women anymore’. The word “bisexual” is never uttered; it is not an option, it does not exist.
This is one of many TV examples of the noughties where lesbian attraction is explained as a passing phase. Bisexuality, although never named, is used as a narrative struggle to explore for a couple of episodes. Growing up with this representation is twofold; on one end it made me realise that I was attracted to girls; on the other, it instilled in me the idea that I was going to grow out of it. Enjoying sex with a woman wouldn’t make me a lesbian, after all. The idea of bisexuality to me was just that, an idea; it couldn’t be real and it definitely would not be accepted. Whether it was the media or the people around me who verbalised it first. From a young age I associated bisexuality with greedy, attention-seeking, promiscuous, and untrustworthy. For years I told myself that my attraction to girls was an ‘experimental’ phase that I would go through before settling with a man. I remember fantasising about dating women, but the daydream would always end with “and then I’ll meet a man and we will live happily ever after and nobody ever needs to know that I like girls.”
You cannot be what you cannot see, and for years I never saw myself represented on screen. That is why representation matters. Not seeing an openly bisexual and confident character on screen made me ashamed of my romantic attraction to both men and women and forced me to bury it deep down for a long time. Bisexual people make up 50% of the LGBTQIA community, yet only 25% of the queer characters on television (across all platforms: broadcast, cable, and streaming originals). According to GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV 2019 report, this is a decrease in percentage from the year before. Television is one of the most influential media forms in popular culture, and inaccurate depictions of queer characters on screen is damaging to both queer people and the people around them. When media representation is false or when it erases an entire part of the population, it can have harmful consequences. Research from the American Psychiatric Association has shown that the bisexual population show poorer mental health compared to heterosexual, lesbian, and gay people. In part due to ‘hostility’ from within the LGBTQ community itself and because bi people are more likely to hide their identity which leads to more stress and anxiety. According to the LGBT Movement Advancement Project , bisexual individuals also show poorer physical health and higher poverty rates. Last but not least, according to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, ‘Within the LGBTQ community, transgender people and bisexual women face the most alarming rates of sexual violence’. These statistics are terrifying, yet we do not discuss them enough and bisexual issues remain underfunded or not funded at all.
Bisexuals are often seen as the ‘invisible minority’. In a world so focused on compulsory monosexism, bisexuality is, to some extent, invisible. People are put in boxes according to the gender of the person that they are dating at a certain time, furthering the belief that bisexuality is a stepping stone towards either heterosexuality or homosexuality. Television, by not naming the few queer relationships it has portrayed as ‘bisexual’, has played a part in bi-erasure. However, in recent years it has slowly moved in the right direction. Unlike films, the serial aspect of television offers an opportunity to portray bisexuality accurately. Series can follow the lives and therefore, relationships, of characters over years and even decades, making it the perfect medium to portray accurate, or at least, better, representations of bisexuality. In recent years bisexual+ representations on screen have evolved from a punchline to an important discussion. Having openly bisexual characters on TV today such as Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Petra Solano in Jane the Virgin, and Darryll Whitefeather on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will help the normalisation of bisexuality and therefore minimise marginalisation. There is still a long way to go, especially in terms of representation of bi men, but this progress is significant. Hopefully bisexual representation will continue to increase, helping more and more people coming to terms with their sexuality and that of the people around them.
Introduction By Kirsty Taylor
Article by Marion Jochmans