Who Is Bisexual on Television? More Importantly, Why Should We Care?
When considering sexual acceptance in mainstream media, bisexuality is really the last frontier.
In 1952, when Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate adjacent twin beds on I Love Lucy, but somehow still had a baby together, CBS and the FCC were sending a message to American audiences: You know what’s really going on, but we’re not going to show it. Though clearly not all married couples conceive their children in this particular locale, the twin beds represented a wink from the network to the audience (this issue, and television in the '50s in general, is elucidated beautifully in the movie Pleasantville).
Everyone knew that the real Lucy and Desi shared a bed, as did most couples watching the show. But because they did not show a realistic couple doing realistic things together, CBS and other networks fed into a culture of silence that invalidated the life choices of heterosexual couples all across America. It's small choices like two beds that told mainstream America that sex was taboo, even if it did take place in a marriage.
What do bisexual characters today have to do with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's sleep arrangements? They, too, are inaccurately depicted on television. As does most forms of media, television mirrors our society’s confusion over whether bisexuality is a valid life choice. The message being sent right now? Bisexuality is not a valid life choice.
American heterosexual couples have somewhat recovered from the sexual repression of their past, and even the gay ones have made strides, as well. This is remarkable, especially considering it would have been unheard of to do more than elude to the potential homosexuality of a character on television during the early years (see Uncle Arthur in Bewitched). When considering sexual acceptance in mainstream media, bisexualism is really the last frontier, and the one that appears to be the most out of reach. Some have argued that there are more bisexuals than actual gays on television. I disagree: there may be more bisexuals, but they are rarely treated as seriously as homosexual or heterosexual characters and relationships.
Having “a bisexual character can give the networks a safety net”, noted one contributor to the Edge. “They are able to incorporate a LGBT character, but if there is an outcry from viewers and sponsors, writers can pair the person into a straight relationship without having to completely rewrite history.” We’ve seen this time and again; with Olivia Wilde on both The O.C. and in House, as well as numerous CW shows (90210, to name just one) who use a bisexual character spice up a sweeps season and chalk it all up to teens "just experimenting".
Glee may handle a lot of issues poorly, but at least it's a show that confronts them head on. It's perhaps the first show that I’ve seen that has attempted to treat bisexuality as a valid life choice. In a recent episode titled "Sexy", it became apparent that Brittany (Heather Morris) is a “true” bisexual; she clarified her love for both her boyfriend Artie (Kevin McHale) and her long time best friend/love Santana (Naya Rivera).
Santana, who also dates men, seems to now appear more interested in women, or at least in Brittany, than any man before. She shows confusion over the attachment Brittany has to Artie, telling her distainfully “He’s just a stupid boy." Santana even goes so far as to angrily wonder aloud, "Whoever thought that being fluid meant that you could be so stuck." This dichotomy between Brittney and Santana realistically depicts the confusion people have with individuals who don’t pick “a side" in the sexuality wars, while also validating Brittany's bisexuality.
There have been other bisexual characters who have faced this dilemma; after having her first lesbian relationship, Callie (Sara Ramirez) on Grey’s Anatomy became incredibly hurt when her partner said, “You can’t be 'kind of' a lesbian.” But Callie has found that, yes, you can. She has great sex with her friend Mark (Eric Dane), is pregnant with his child (last time I checked) and has a loving and also sexual relationship with her on-again/off-again partner Arizona (Jessica Capshaw).
But adults like Callie are few and far between on television -- especially male adults, who are virtually unseen -- and teen girls going through "life changes" that include a plotline riddled with sexual confusion are the norm for bisexual characters. The overwhelmingly representation of bisexuals as teen girls not only becomes part of a sexualization of faux-lesbian youth, it ignores bisexual men, as much of our society does.
The website After Ellen explored this issue when discussing the character of Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin) on Bones, who has had relationships with both men and women. "If [Bisexuals are] not suffering disdain and resentment because of the 'flaky' way they 'change teams,' they're getting bashed, because being attracted to either gender means they're attracted to all people in both genders, and are, in fact, sleeping with all of them at the same time. Or, you know, they're just passing the time with a woman until the right guys comes along," wrote Heather Hogan.
Of course, one could ask why we care at all. The Good Wife, one of the best shows on television now (just ask anyone!), has slowly dealt with the sexuality of Kalinda, played to perfection by Archie Panjabi. Whether by convenience or on purpose, Kalinda is by nature an extremely private person, so the topic of her sex life has to be approached gently. But she has had to stand up for her continued choice to sleep with both men and women, recently explaining that she likes women more than men... "sometimes".
Perhaps we should listen to Kalinda, and realize that at the end of the day, it's really none of our concern who she's sleeping with. Perhaps that would be a wise course to take in real life, too.