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Television's Brief And Confusing History With Bisexuality.

Kalinda is flexible and Piper likes hot people. They've both had long-term relationships with men and women, so why can't they say the word "bisexual"?

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“I’m not gay… I’m… flexible,” an uncharacteristically coy Kalinda (pictured top right with one of her love interests, Lana) confessed to her closest friend, Alicia, on The Good Wife.

“I like hot girls. I like hot boys. I like hot people,” Piper, of Orange is the New Black, flippantly explained to her best friend about her new relationship with another woman. Later, before Piper went off to prison, her mother asked, “You were a lesbian?” Piper replied, “At the time.”

Noticing a trend? Two characters who have been in relationships with both men and women, clearly expressing attraction to both and yet the term “bisexual” is never uttered once by their character or any other characters on their shows. There are at least a handful of other characters, though the majority is women, currently on TV that fall under the bisexual umbrella. So then why do TV shows rarely say the “B” in LGBTQ? It might be because within the last fifteen years, in most cases, when a character mentions the word they follow it with stereotypes and misconceptions.

“You know I did the date-the-bisexual-guy thing in college,” said Samantha in a 2000 episode of Sex and the City. “But in the end they all ended up with men,” she concluded. “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists: I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown,” theorized Carrie. Now this may be forgiven considering this was a discussion between thirty-something heterosexual characters fifteen years ago. However, this show was created by Darren Starr, a homosexual.

Cut to eleven years later. “Bisexuality is something gay guys made up so they could hold hands with girls and feel normal or something,” said Kurt, a gay guy, to his boyfriend, Blaine, during a 2011 episode of Glee. Blaine was, according to series creator Ryan Murphy, “openly questioning whether bisexuality is real.” Two years later on a 2013 episode Santana, a lesbian, is discussing her relationships with another lesbian, Dani. “I’ve never been with an actual lesbian, it’s been all bisexuals, or college girls trying to experiment,” she said. Dani replied, “You need a 100% Sapphic goddess.” Later, after the two expressed their interest in one another Santana said, “I don’t have to worry about you straying for penis.” Now, this may also be forgiven considering these were discussions between characters in their late teens/early twenties, but then again these are homosexual characters and this particular TV show was also created by a homosexual man, Ryan Murphy. Because both shows have homosexual and heterosexual voices behind them is this indicative of how they view bisexuality, do they not want to consider it as the legitimate sexual orientation that it is? Or, perhaps they don’t want own up to their own indiscretions and use these stereotypes as teachable moments.

The sexual orientations of the creators of these shows have little and everything to do with the subject matter they project through their creations. On a wildly popular show like Sex and the City, the fan base is bound to be diverse and even a homogenous cast of actresses can be diverse as well. In fact one of those actresses on Sex and the City, Cynthia Nixon, came out as bisexual years after that particular bisexuality-themed episode and years after the show went off the air. In the HBO documentary, “The Out List,” Nixon ironically admitted to sometimes identifying as gay because she said that, “bisexuality is seen as messy.” Probably because shows, like the one she was on for six years, portray it as such. Having a character voice such an opinion is one thing, but when a show’s creator also vocalizes that opinion or judgment then things actually become messy.

And things got really messy when Blaine on Glee questioned his sexuality, or rather, didn’t question his own but questioned the validity of bisexuality. Show runner Ryan Murphy took umbrage with viewers asking if Blaine was questioning himself, he said “Blaine will openly question whether bisexuality is real. I think that some people will love that discussion and some will not love it.” (Fun Fact: it has been proven time and time again that it is real, sorry Murphy.) This ostensibly gave way to Kurt’s mischaracterization of bisexuality. Murphy’s idea of a “discussion” was a one-sided crass comment and it seemed like the character of Kurt was Murphy’s vocalization of his own internal doubts about bisexuality. Not surprisingly Murphy and Sex and the City’s creator Darren Starr aren’t the first gay men to question someone else’s sexuality. Dan Savage, a long time sex advice columnist and co-founder of the It Gets Better Project for LGBTQ youth, has a long sordid history with bisexuals and bisexuality. Savage is frequently questioning the validity the sexuality. In an article from 2011 Savage said, “my life experience makes it difficult for me to accept a bisexual teenage boy's professed sexual identity at face value,” because he himself once identified as bisexual before he eventually came out as homosexual. The scope of Savage’s work doesn’t reach a wide audience like a television show, however his It’s Gets Better Project videos featuring celebrities and politicians do. It’s almost like Murphy, Starr, and Savage are saying, “I don’t feel like that so how could you possibly feel like that,” as LGBTQ-activist, Kristin Russo, pointed out in a bisexuality-focused episode of the online PBS docu-series First Person.

Because these particular shows have homosexual and heterosexual voices behind them is this indicative of how they really view bisexuality, do they not want to consider it as the legitimate sexual orientation that it is just because they’ve never felt like that? Or, perhaps they don’t want own up to their own indiscretions and use these stereotypes as teachable moments.

Whatever their reasoning may be, though let’s be honest there probably wasn’t much reasoning from the people behind Glee, these viewpoints are thankfully not shared across the television landscape. Post Sex and the City’s quizzical take on bisexuality and prior to Glee’s laziness (but during the time The L Word was erasing their one and only bisexual character's sexuality); Olivia Wilde seemed to be the go-to person to portray a bisexual character. Her character, Alex, on The O.C. lasted only one season in 2005, but never officially had the label applied. Alternatively, Dr. Hadley, Wilde’s character on House from 2007 through 2012, proved to be a thorough and positive representation of bisexuality. Also, during this time in the early 2000’s, there was the introduction of the character Angela on Bones. Angela’s arc has seen her in fully realized relationships with both men and women. Since then there has been an uptick in actually using the term and exploring it, though the consistency of this has left something to be desired.

In 2013 on Orphan Black the character Delphine says, "I’ve never thought about bisexuality. I mean, for myself, you know? But as a scientist, I know that sexuality is a spectrum. But, you know, social biases, they codify attraction. It’s contrary to the biological facts, you know?" Here is a show that managed to bring together the element of self-exploration and recognition of bisexuality and bring that to fruition by way of dialogue; a teachable moment that Glee was never able to wholeheartedly accomplish. This turned out to be a perfect juxtaposition to the lesbian-in-the-past-tense, Piper, on Orange is the New Black that same year and interestingly enough a show like this, that prides itself on diversity, has still shied away from the word bisexual. Unfortunately, a year later during Orphan Black’s second season the lesbian character, Cosima, referred to her girlfriend Delphine as a “budding lesbian.” So these two shows ended up being alike after all by throwing away or avoiding bisexuality. Transversely there have been instances in which “gay,” and/or forgoing a label has given way to characters eventually embracing the terminology.

Grey’s Anatomy has possibly the longest running bisexual character to date, as well as being one of the very few bisexual characters that is also a person of color. The character Callie, who was previously shown only dating men, started her coming out process in 2008 during the show’s fourth season. For several seasons Callie is only shown using the labels of “gay” and “lesbian” even though she occasionally dated a man while on a break from dating a woman, Arizona. In fact at one point the series creator, Shonda Rhimes, even referred to the character as a lesbian. It wasn’t until Callie and Arizona’s marriage started crumbling that bisexuality was actually used to define Callie’s sexual orientation – several years and seasons after the character first kissed another woman. The acceptance and frequency with which the word is used has certainly increased for the character. Callie mentioned it to her therapist later in season 10 and in the early part of the 11th season in 2014 when she said, “The B isn't for badass. Well, it is, but it also means bisexual.”

More recently on Chasing Life, in late 2014 and early 2015, a supporting character went through their own coming out process. Perhaps the youngest character on television to navigate her fluid sexual orientation, teenager Brenna initially chose to forgo a label and even went so far as expressing this vocally. Her process started when she ended up falling for another girl while dating a guy. Interestingly enough Chasing Life chose to briefly explore polyamory through Brenna’s relationships. Then Brenna figured out that her relationship with the other girl and bisexuality best suited her, she even reinforced the label while coming out to family members. Chasing Life, created and written by a straight woman, Susanna Fogel, and a lesbian, Joni Lefkowitz, (again not to deduce show creators to their sexual orientations but to showcase who is portraying all sexual identities favorably and unfavorably), easily managed to express a clear and concise representation of what it might be like to come to terms with one’s bisexuality without belittling their own viewers.

Currently Hannibal is the latest show to have a go at bisexuality by way of moving a reoccurring supporting character in to a same-sex relationship. Hannibal creator, Bryan Fuller, has openly labeled the character Alana as bisexual in interviews. It remains to be seen if that will be mentioned on the show given the fact that Alana's relationship is with Margot, who described herself as having the "wrong proclivity for parts" instead of simply stating that she is a lesbian. Unlike the other male show runners, Fuller seems set to align himself with more open-minded show creators like Fogel and Lefkowitz.

The television landscape has changed greatly over the last fifteen years. Even though a lot of shows still have a central straight white character there are also diverse main and supporting characters. Out of all these fluid, bisexual, or otherwise label-less characters only three (Kalinda on The Good Wife, Callie on Grey’s Anatomy, and Angela on Bones) have been people of color. Also, out of all of these characters none of them are male. Though, to be fair, there was the character of Nolan on Revenge from 2011 to 2015. But again, as has been the case with other characters on different shows, Nolan doesn’t use the term bisexual, nor does anyone else on the show. The lack of visible male bisexuality on television certainly reflects how people like Murphy and Savage project their inaccurate viewpoints. On a positive note, TV is moving beyond the days when female sexuality – bisexual or otherwise, was just used to titillate viewers. And TV is slowly becoming more comfortable with embracing bisexuality, or at least embracing the terminology without adding the problematic rhetoric – as it has also done with lesbian, gay, and transgender (although transgender-visibility has ways to go yet as well).

”Fluid,” “flexible,” and other placeholders that have become synonymous with bisexuality, are certainly acceptable. But, in an easily accessible medium such as television, labels matter when there is still so little representation.


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