Increasing Representation of Bisexuality In Film and Television

Misconceptions regarding bisexuality, including the idea that bisexual individuals are “confused” or that they “need to “choose” to be either only gay or straight,” can serve as one explanation for these groups’ lack of on-screen representation.

Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Rosa in "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Credit: Getty Images
Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Rosa in "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Credit: Getty Images

It’s 2021, and the film industry is just now beginning to come to terms with the need to represent more diverse groups of people. In terms of race, gender, and sexuality, there is a lot of work to be done to provide a more visible and holistic view of sexual orientation. One group that is consistently overlooked in film and and television is the bisexual and bisexual-plus community. In the 2020 USC Annenberg Report, researchers found that there were only eight bisexual characters present in the top 1,200 films of 2018, and only three present in the top films of 2019.

Misconceptions regarding bisexuality, including the idea that bisexual individuals are “confused” or that they “need to “choose” to be either only gay or straight,” can serve as one explanation for these groups’ lack of on-screen representation. Another myth, that “bisexuals cannot be fully satisfied with only one partner because half of their desires must then obviously be denied,” often leads to bisexuality in TV and film to be linked with infidelity in these fictional relationships, according to media professor Dr. Nora Madison. Historically, bixsexual characters have been portrayed as evil or morally reprehensible, such as Frank Underwood in House of Cards. The Washington Post identifies that in these plot lines for bisexual characters, “sexual fluidity equals moral fluidity. In this regard, sexuality is not seen as an identity, but rather, as a personality trait.” The same article later points out that,“When there are relatively few depictions of bisexuals, the representation and integrity of each bisexual character holds more weight...It perpetuates negative stereotypes about bisexuals.”

In the past, some television characters have also exhibited biphobic behavior. Sex and the City’s protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, once said, “I'm not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it's just a layover on the way to Gaytown.” Liz Lemon of 30 Rock has uttered similar lines, such as, “There's no such thing as bisexual. That's just something invented in the 90s so they could sell more hair products.” Instead of amplifying the voices of the bisexual community through accurate representation within fictional narratives, comments like these, especially when pronounced by well-known TV characters, ultimately belittle and deny the bisexual experience.

The harmful representations of bisexuality across screens limits the ability of young viewers to identify film and TV characters as role models. In certain cases, when characters begin to observe a bisexual orientation, engaging in a bisexual relationship is often a sidebar in their character’s plotline, instead of a focus. For example, in a Vox article from 2018, author Caroline Framke shared that, “Growing up, seeing someone on my TV consider the idea that they might not be strictly heterosexual usually ended one of two ways: They would “experiment” with someone of the same sex only to conclude they were straight, or they would come out as gay. Letting them exist somewhere in between was rarely, if ever, presented as a viable option.”

Now, there are more bisexual characters on screen who provide honest insights into the spectrum of bisexuality. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Rosa, played by bisexual actress Stephanie Beatriz, Jane the Virgin’s Petra, Madam Secretary’s Kat, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Darryl, are just some well-known bisexual tv characters. The longest-running season-regular, bisexual character is Callie Torres of Grey’s Anatomy, played by the same actress who plays Kat in Madam Secretary, Sara Ramirez. Characters like Callie continually validate and recognize the bisexual identity for dedicated Grey’s Anatomy fans.

Maria San Filippo, author of The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, has applauded the recent increase in bisexual representation in TV, stating, “Bisexual characters are now central and recurring rather than peripheral or one-off characters brought in for ‘very special episodes’ during sweeps week.” However, a challenge that persists in San Filippo’s eyes is that, “unless a character explicitly identifies as bisexual, we tend to assume someone is straight or gay based on their current partner — something real-life bisexuals also contend with.”

Still, San Filippo argues that there is still a lack of male-identifying bisexual characters and bisexual male relationships. In her book, San Filippo discusses how the industry tends to favor “bromance” relationships rather than budding relationships between two bisexual male characters unless they have explicitly identified as gay. In the 2017-2018 TV season, LGBTQ+ advocacy organization GLAAD noted that there were only 17 regular or recurring bisexual-plus male characters, compared to 75 female bisexual-plus characters.

The industry has taken note of these oversights and has tried to address them by increasing efforts to reveal that both male and female characters idenfitying as bisexual is meaningful to characters’ identities (see Darryl from Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s “Gettin’ Bi” song). This distinction is significant, as bisexual relationtionships were often misconstrued as mere “flirtations,” or “distractions” from a character’s hetersexuality. In Framke’s words, past storylines often only suggested that “every bi, pan, or queer sexuality story is just a temporary layover on the way to a more palatable, monosexual destination.”

Sexuality is a spectrum, and it’s time for the industry to reckon with its need to develop plots around more diverse, underrepresented populations of people. Dr Madison insists that more broader representation would have positive impacts on all viewers, stating, “The more people are exposed to a variety of sexualities, especially in positive or affirming contexts, the more opportunities individuals have to figure their own identities out as well as broaden their viewpoints about others.”

In a 2015 Rolling Stone article, author Eliel Cruz explained the urgency behind the need for positive bisexual representation in television and movies, when he said that this kind of visibility “puts a face to a community that otherwise wouldn’t be seen, and that’s something we can’t put off any longer.”