Why is bisexual representation so important?
Representation is a major issue when discussing the media and their influence. Being represented in the media means to see people who look like, or share some part of their identity with you.
Diverse representation means that the celebrities, artists, and characters you see on TV, in the press and in the movies, are not just white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, etc. For everyone to be able to see themselves represented, we need to see people of all races, bodies, sexualities and genders in mainstream media.
Representation is so important because, when you see someone who looks, acts, and feels like you, especially if it is a multi-dimensional portrayal, you feel like you’re not alone, like you aren’t wrong or broken in any way. Seeing someone like you achieving things, failing, having hobbies, feelings, a job, love, or a family, and generally being human, is so important in order to be reminded that you are valid, that there are many people like you out there, and that you too can be successful in what you love and deserve what you need.
It has been evident since the 1960s in media studies, that expressions of unequal power in the media can be, as Michael Morgan told Huffington Post, “very dangerous” and “very damaging” to the viewers. “Stories affect how we live our lives, how we see other people, how we think about ourselves.” Representation is essential, considering the power the media has to inevitably dictate what counts as “real life” and what is and is not part of it. TV reflects what people think real life looks like, and when we don’t include diverse representation on TV, itʹs like telling us that some people don’t even exist. A lack of representation of a certain group of people in a diverse society is not only harmful, but also unrealistic.
Representation means having role models, having someone to look up to while trying to achieve our dreams. For so many people, all it took for them to get where they are in life were positive role models, and representation is the only way to provide them. There are countless examples of representation having a positive impact on someone’s life, but consider this: a character coming out as gay in Supergirl prevented a queer girl struggling with coming out from committing suicide.
Apart from a lack of representation, there is also misrepresentation – problematic or stereotypical representation of a group of people. Misrepresentation can do more harm than good, since it helps perpetuate damaging stereotypes in an already hostile society.
Why do bisexual people need representation?
As LGBTQ+ people, many of us growing up invisible and feeling like weʹre alone, we are desperate for representation. But why are bi and pansexual people different from the rest? Why do we also need to be specifically represented in the media?
Bisexual people – people who are attracted to more than one gender – experience biphobia every day. You know what weʹre talking about: notions that lead to the feeling of belonging neither in a heteronormative society, nor in the gay community. Weʹre either truly gay or straight, we should pick a side already, weʹre promiscuous and greedy, weʹre truly just confused, and all those misconceptions that, in the end of the day, are also perpetuated by the media.
Added to that, most of the time we are invisible, almost like mythical creatures – like unicorns and centaurs. We are often left out of the public discourse concerning LGBT issues, and if we played a drinking game every time an openly bisexual person appeared on TV, weʹd probably still be sober by the end of the year.
More often than not, we are either nowhere to be found, or depicted as walking stereotypes.
Studies show that Bisexual people face a greater risk than LG people when it comes to experiencing mental health issues. This is something we need to take seriously into consideration. Biphobia exists and itʹs apparent in the media too.
Objectification of women
One of the most common tropes in the media, is depicting who seem to have a bisexual identity as simply experimenting – fooling around – without really caring how many hearts will be broken in the process. They are either “the straight girl” – who, let’s be honest, may be called that way because she might have had one relationship with a man – shattering lesbian hearts to pieces, the girl whoʹs doing it for a manʹs attention, or the girl who has always liked men but falls for her lesbian best friend and is discovered to have been “a lesbian all along”.
Is bisexuality a word that hurts to utter? In all those cases the character is clearly bisexual, yet we very rarely hear that acknowledged, without their identity being painted as deceitful or otherwise problematic. Take Orange is the New Black for example: a series that made remarkable steps in diversely representing women. Why is it so hard to accept that Piper is attracted both to women and men, and that her being an asshole has nothing to do with her being bisexual?
Another trope is treating bi women as objects for male pleasure, over-sexualizing them and making all males in the party wolf-whistle when she says she “experimented” in college. Bisexual women and fem people in real life really do struggle with creepy dudes offering threesomes all the time, we could really do without the TV encouraging the conception that weʹre always up for that.
The absence of men
Unlike women being even implicitly bisexual, openly bi and pan men are almost nowhere to be found in the media. What with the casual queerbaiting, and bi men ending up “choosing a side” most of the times, bisexual men can rarely see themselves represented on TV.
Thatʹs probably connected with the fact that male bi voices are much fewer than gay ones in queer communities. If you look at TV shows, bisexual representation of men is limited to Doctor Whoʹs Captain Jack Harness, GoTʹs Oberyn Martell, and the excellent example of Crazy Ex-Girlfriendʹs Darryl Whitefeather with his spectacular ʹGetting Biʹ song – a fun and accurate representation of bisexuality.
Other than a few examples, most LGBT movies and TV series are about (mostly white, able-bodied and cis) gay men, yet on the rare occasions when a man is portrayed as bisexual, this is downplayed to fooling around, like in the example of the House of Cards threesome.
Where are we?
GLAADʹs Where Are We on TV Report for 2016-2017 shows us that things are slowly improving. 4.8% of TV characters identified as LGBT this year, a percentage higher than ever. Bisexual representation rose to the remarkable percentage of 30%, up from last yearʹs 20%. However, many of these attempts of representation are still stereotypical, men are still very few, and representation on cable TV series dropped to 32% from 35%.
As for representations of polysexual (umbrella term for being attracted to more than one gender) non-binary people, the verdict is probably even gloomier.
That shows us that weʹre going somewhere, that the media have finally grasped that we exist, although we still have a long way to go.
Bisexual people need representation as a form of validation of our existence, and as a way to remind us we are not a stereotype and that we do not deserve to be reduced into one.