My friend Alyssa Rosenberg has teamed up with Lux Alptraum to start a new site, Pop Culture Pen Pals, and they’ve kicked it off with a great exchange on the impoverished portrayals (or lack thereof) of bisexual or sexually fluid characters on TV. As Alyssa writes:

As long as studios are anxiously divining what audiences want, and audiences don’t know what they want from queer characters, no one’s going to pay attention to what realistic, deeply sketched queer characters themselves might actually want.

It’s a thought-provoking – and agitating – discussion, and I agree with most of what they each have to say. One dimension I’d be interested to hear them take on is gender. TV characters that aren’t exclusively hetero or homosexual are few and far between – but the ones that we do see tend to be women rather than men. In GLAAD’s survey of LGBT characters on Network TV, the LGBT male characters were all homosexual (14 to 0); the LGBT female characters were mostly bisexual (7 to 2). The number’s were more balanced on cable, but the pattern was the same.

Why is this? There are a lot of potential explanations. The (overlapping) ones I’m drawn to are all downers.

I think there’s a sizable chunk of Americans who have an easier time wrapping their heads around women being bi because on some level they don’t really think of women as experiencing sexual desire or pleasure (they just picture women feeling romantic or lonely). In other words, people are less fazed by women being bisexual because they don’t really buy that women are sexual in the first place. Relatedly, I think a bunch of Americans still don’t buy that anything that takes place between women can qualify as sex. So same-sex intimacy between women, in this mindset, doesn’t conflict with opposite-sex sex because it’s really just foreplay.

And I think there’s a strain in patriarchal culture that is more threatened by lesbianism than by female bisexuality, but more threatened by male bisexuality than by male homosexuality. Bisexual women are seen as less threatening than homosexual ones because they’re imagined to still be sexually available to men (with this goes the myth that LGBT women are just waiting for the right man). Bisexual men are seen as more threatening than homosexual ones because our existence further complicates the dichotomy between normative macho heterosexuality and everything else – and increases the burden on men of proving they conform to normative exclusive heterosexuality. Sexual availability has a particular significance on TV, where many shows’ plot/ character arcs revolve around the number of real or potential romantic pairings among the cast. On most mainstream US TV shows, bisexual women (and maybe lesbians as well) are seen as potential partners for men, but bisexual men wouldn’t be seen as potential partners for women.

In other words, even when we get to see LGBT characters on TV, what we see is circumscribed by what least discomforts macho straight men. So what else is new? Would love to hear what Alyssa and Lux make of this.



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  2. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Or maybe it means that the slice of the population that identifies as bisexual is tiny, so that neither gay nor straight viewers would be particularly expected to identify with bisexual characters. Or maybe it reflects a lack of interest or creativity on the part of writers. Maybe the prevalence of bi women characters is a reflection of “girls gone wild” fantasies.

    Or then again, maybe not. It’s TV. Shows are made on an individual basis and evaluated on marketabiltiy. For all you know, or I know, there could have been a dozen scripts presented with bisexual male characters that were killed, not for political reasons, but because they weren’t entertaining in their non-romantic element. Maybe there are studio executives out searching for a storyline that will integrate a bisexual male character, but haven’t found the right script or actor. Maybe everyone at CBS loves some concept with a bi male character, but they’ve been told they need to find a slot for Burt Reynold’s attempt at a comeback, and he’s not interested.

    Maybe the problem is your own, expecting to see something in mainstream entertainment that isn’t related to entertainment or ratings but to desires for a more inclusive society.

    Seriously, though: they put women in bi sexual or gay relationships because Americans don’t think women experience sexual pleasure? Do you have any evidence that there is any sizeable chunk of the population that thinks women don’t experience sexual pleasure? If that were true, wouldn’t there be a flood of celibate women on TV?

  3. @Don-

    Bisexuals are a large sub-group in LGBT.

    In 2010, a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, based on a nationally representative probability sample of women and men in the U.S., found that among adults (5,042 respondents), 3.1% self-identified as bisexual, compared to 2.5% as gay/lesbian

    source: Bisexual Invisibility:
    Impacts and Recommendations

    Heck – I’d read the whole study – it’s almost perfectly on point. another quote from it:

    The implications of bi invisibility go far beyond bisexuals wanting to feel welcome at the table. It also has a significant impact on bisexuals’ health…
    In two recent studies on sexual orientation and health, based on the Canadian Community Health Survey (a national population-based survey using a representative sample), nearly half of bisexual women and more than a third of bisexual men had seriously considered (or attempted) taking their own lives. (emphasis in original)

    When controlled for potentially confounding factors, bisexual men were 6.3 times more likely and gay men 4.1 times more likely than heterosexual men to report lifetime suicidality. Among women, bisexuals were 5.9 times more likely and lesbians 3.5 times more likely to report lifetime suicidality than their heterosexual counterparts.

  4. I think the problem producers have with male bisexuals is that they can’t square it with the monogamous twosomes that typify the requisite and ultimately trite “happily ever after” scenario. Can someone who falls in love with a woman magically abandon his craving for dick? Then he’s actually straight and had a “queer” phase. If he “settles down” with another guy then he was just another “gay” in denial. There’s just no way that the entertainment industry is going to present a romantic solution that in anyway suggests or involves an open marriage. Not even the queer couples are allowed to forage outside the “marriage bed” for extra tasty bits because it destroys trust, is an act of depraved betrayal and fosters the fear, anxiety and raging jealousy that is the bedrock of fidelity. In real life many gay couples get over the monogamy issue in the first 3-5 years.
    I’d like to see a handsome, charming, friendly regular character whom both the female and male cast members pursue but he politely declines because he’s only interested in ever having sex with a bevy of South Asian tranny hookers. Or maybe even have a regular character who would rather masturbate to porn while excelling at his profession rather than become mired in a emotionally taxing and thematically unnecessary relationship of any sort.

  5. Honestly, I don’t think that the more common bi- women thing is more a result that the target audiences think women together is “hot”. Rather than not thinking women are sexual…

  6. Statistics….

    Figures for bisexuality from surveys vary considerably. “Self-identification” in the case of bisexuals can range from people who have same sex attraction but never or seldom act on it, to people who have maintained long term relationships with both sexes. How solid the figure is depends on how carefully the definition was crafted.

    The report you cite defines bisexuality as attraction to both sexes, and the “capacity” for intimacy with both genders.

    Sorry, this is a worthless definition. Katy Perry isn’t bi. Neither are the millions of people who masturbate to a few same sex fantasies. There are no social repurcussions of fantasy without risk.

    I can’t tell you who is bi. A person who has had a steady relationship with both genders? Someone who has sex with both genders at least once per year? Someone who has fantasies fairly equally divided between the genders? I don’t know if it is definable, but there is a large swath of the population who never or seldom act on their same sex attractions, and for whom their private fantasies have minimal impact on their life or worldview.

    “Suicidality” is pretty squishy too, without some clear definition. And where are the real numbers here? If one percent of population A exhibits “suicidality” and six percent of population B does, we have “6 times,” but do we have an epidemic? Whenever someone gives the “x times” routine, instead of the actual numbers, they are usually promoting an agenda, rather than informing.

    Chronic depression and the results, including suicide and shortened life expectancy, are much higher in the gay than the straight population. I think that’s been verified. I’m sure they are also more prevalent in the actively bisexual population (in part depending on how it’s defined). Without real statistics, however, (and they may be by nature unobtainable), the crisis of bisexual invisibility is unproved.

  7. Maybe Gore Vidal was right when he said that there is no such thing as a bisexual, “there are only uncommitted homosexuals.” OK, OK, I personally know that he’s wrong, but he had his Ann Coulter hat on that day; you know, the beanie of the agent provocateur. Vidal came of age in the era of Kinsey, but he has been exclusively gay all his life, whereas some folks marry and have children, sometimes to suffer in a closet, sometimes because they genuinely enjoy sex with women (and vice-versa if the bisexual is female).

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