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.