Bisexuality has been rare and misunderstood on TV, but with the rise in internet streaming, that’s finally starting to change
Try to name a bisexual character on mainstream television and many people will struggle. Bisexuality has long been under-represented on screen – even compared to some other groups within the LGBTQ community. When it is shown, it is often used as a lazy plot device rather than explored with depth or nuance. Or worse, storylines play into harmful tropes, portraying bisexual characters as promiscuous, manipulative and untrustworthy.
That combination of ignorance, dismissal, misidentification and misrepresentation across the media is known as “bisexual erasure”. But as internet streaming services have flooded the market and created opportunities to tell stories that are more diverse, it seems that TV is finally starting to get to grips with what it means to be bi.
The show is commendable for its LGBTQ representation and most notably for its bisexual lead character, the ambitious student politician Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who is seen in romantic relationships with men and women within the first episode. It’s a glossy, heavily publicised series for the streaming giant; Payton is set to be one of the highest-profile bisexual male characters on TV.
Bisexuality, says Maria San Filippo, author of The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, is often “leveraged for its attention-getting appeal… instrumentalising – some may say weaponising – bisexuality as a means to capture eyeballs and social media buzz.” It is a criticism one could see levelled at The Politician, advertised on one poster with a winking pun on “bi partisanship”. But the series itself treats its characters, particularly its protagonist, with empathy and consideration.
The Politician is not the first time Netflix has been ahead of the curve on LGBTQ representation: prison drama Orange is the New Black broke new ground in 2013 with its roster of queer characters, including Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the series’ bisexual protagonist.
Sense8, Big Mouth, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all feature queer characters, and though House of Cards has been shunted to the graveyard of problematic content after Kevin Spacey was accused of sexual assault (which he denies), during the series’ initial run his (implicit) bisexual lead was a rarity – a charismatic anti-hero in the vein of Tony Soprano.
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Mackenzie Harte, Coordinator of the GLAAD Media Institute (the American LGBTQ Media watchdog) says that “streaming services have been, for the most part, a positive force for bi+ representation”, allowing for “creators of a wider array of identities to share their work”.
San Filippo is also positive: “The plethora of LGBTQ-themed films that Netflix algorithms can send your way has given viewers an experience akin to having a queer-owned video store.” This applies to TV, too. Schitt’s Creek, for example, is a charming Canadian sitcom, with a prominent pansexual character, which would have almost certainly eluded a British audience without the targeted algorithmic advertising – and bank of international programmes – that Netflix offers.
Queer art has long flourished on the fringes of the internet. Before making The Bisexual, last year’s pioneering sitcom about a woman who breaks up with her girlfriend and dates men for the first time, Desiree Akhavan crowd-funded a 16-episode webseries called The Slope about a lesbian couple in Brooklyn.
High Maintenance, about the intersecting lives of New Yorkers, regularly explores unconventional sexual relationships and began life as a web series on Vimeo. San Filippo also cites Brown Girls, F to 7th, The Impossibilities, Let Me Die a Nun, Little Horribles, and Strangers as other strong examples of web content going where traditional TV would not, arguing that the “low-budget/DIY model allows for more creative autonomy and less urgent financial concerns, with the result being that bisexuality (and other queer identities) are rendered in more true-to-life, individualised, and nuanced terms.”
Offline, avenues for representation are opening up elsewhere. Perhaps because of the rise of streaming, mainstream broadcasters no longer intend every programme to have the broadest possible appeal, and are increasingly recognising the value of making television for varied demographics.
Killing Eve was one of the BBC’s most successful series in years and featured several bisexual characters, including both its leads, Villanelle and Eve. The Bisexual confronted the stigma surrounding bisexuality in a prime time slot on Channel 4. Recently, EastEnders announced plans for a new bisexual character.
Things are improving in the traditionally conservative arena of children’s TV, too. Nickelodeon cartoon The Loud House includes a bisexual teenager in its core cast. Steven Universe is one of the most popular series on Cartoon Network; it features several queer relationships, with characters who can be characterised as bi- or pansexual.
Creator Rebecca Sugar – a bisexual non-binary woman – has been celebrated for putting the show’s future on the line to (successfully) demand the network allow the portrayal of a same-sex wedding. Depressingly, however, Cartoon Network still censors some of the LGBTQ content for UK broadcast.
“While some shows are doing an outstanding job of including bi+ people and characters,” Harte says, “many other shows are behind in that regard.” Brooklyn Nine-Nine features one of TV’s most popular bisexual characters in Latin-American police detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), whose coming out plotline in 2017 received wide media attention because it was rare – bi representation on TV is still overwhelmingly white, cisgendered, and non-disabled.
Representation for bisexual men is also substantially rarer than for women – a trend that can be tied to the fetishisation of queer women by straight men. One notable exception is found in the AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire – originally intended as the successor to Mad Men – in which Lee Pace plays Joe MacMillan, a ruthless 1980s businessman out to capitalise on the advent of the internet. The series’ pervasive techno-babble failed to find an audience, but Joe remains one of the most interesting, fleshed-out bisexual characters on TV – a Don Draper wannabe who blossoms into someone else entirely.
Bisexuality has long proved too difficult for TV, too fluid and expansive. The term itself incorporates a diverse spectrum of meanings, a kaleidoscope of sexual identities and preferences. It is impossible to capture “the bisexual experience” in any singular work of art – there is no singular experience (and straight narratives are never expected to be universal: note the absence of “heterosexual films” as a category choice on Netflix).
But with the TV landscape growing more diffuse, doors are starting to open for more varied and complicated bisexual roles. Series by series, it accumulates: it’s just important that programmes like The Politician are seen as steps in the right direction, rather than worthy, box-ticking outliers.