Bisexuality as portrayed by the media

In recent years, there’s been a lot of exciting social progress surrounding the LGBT movement: the Supreme Court declared that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed, more celebrities are coming out as queer, and there’s been an overall increase of gay representation in the media. Unfortunately, even with the increased acceptance of homosexuality, bisexuals have been left out of this progress.[1] There is still a severe lack of bisexual representation in the media, and the representation that does exist is generally surrounded with many negative stereotypes and misconceptions.[2] Bisexuality is most commonly defined as being attracted to one’s own gender as well as other genders—it isn’t necessarily as simple as being attracted to both men and women.[3] Of course, there are positive stereotypes about bisexuality as well, such as the idea that bisexuals are very open-minded and more interpersonally flexible. Some people admire bi individuals for being attracted to a person’s personality over their gender.[4] While the media does sometimes highlight these characteristics, more often the negative stereotypes overshadow the positive, thus perpetuating negative ideas about bisexuality. In this essay, I’ll discuss a few common stereotypes surrounding bisexuality, as well as the concept of queer baiting, and how both of these things contribute to bi erasure. How society views the bi community is directly influenced by the media’s portrayals of bisexuality, which in turn affects the lives of bi people.

One of the most common stereotypes regarding bisexuals is that they are hypersexual.[5] Often bisexuals are shown as being unable to “pick a side” because of their sexually greedy nature; they are too obsessed with sex to sleep with members of only one gender, and are thus incapable of monogamy.[6] Bisexual women in film or on television tend to be highly promiscuous and are often typecast as the “temptress,” existing only to fulfill heterosexual male fantasies.[7] This association with greediness and depravity usually results in bisexual characters appearing in villainous roles or in otherwise immoral roles. Their sexuality isn’t part of their identity, it’s more just a result of their dark psychological issues.[8] Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct is a classic example of this phenomenon.

This oversexualization also results in the thought that bisexuals are less trustworthy or less loyal than people who are monosexual (either hetero or homosexual).[9] Television shows might be the most common place to see this stereotype. In the TV show House, M.D., the character Dr. Hadley (nicknamed “Thirteen”) exemplifies some of these stereotypes. Although her sexuality is ambiguous at first, it’s eventually confirmed that she’s bisexual. Dr. Remy "Thirteen" HadleyThirteen’s orientation and sex life are the target of many of Dr. House’s jokes, and the other (male) doctors seem to assume that she has many sexual partners. Sometimes her character is played up as having questionable morals, as she seems more rebellious and secretive than the other doctors are. This can be seen when, at the end of season seven, she returns from a prolonged leave of absence and reveals to House that she spent most of it in jail.[10] And although she’s only a main character for three out of eight seasons, she appears in more physically intimate scenes than any other character. This doesn’t really surprise me, since she is the only bisexual character on the show, not to mention the only non-heterosexual character. Combine this with the fact that she’s also a woman, and it becomes even more stereotypical.

Like Thirteen, Game of Thrones character Oberyn Martell is complex and dynamic, but is not free of the stereotypes surrounding his bisexuality. Oberyn is portrayed as sexually voracious from the start. His first appearance is a scene in which he and his bisexual female lover, Ellaria, stand in front of various male and female prostitutes, deciding who to hire.[11] Pedro Pascal, the actor who plays Oberyn, said in an interview that “[Oberyn] enjoys life. He does not discriminate in his pleasures. This is the way he understands life, to live it to its fullest.”[12] That’s great, but his statement basically confirms that Oberyn’s bisexuality is simply a characterization tool, rather than part of his identity.[13] Many fans have praised Game of Thrones for including a bisexual male character, and while I agree this is certainly a step in the right direction (it’s better than nothing), I don’t quite agree that Oberyn is truly a “progressive portrayal” of bisexuals, as one article put it.[14] Oberyn and EllariaIt seems that, instead of being portrayed as a man who happens to be bisexual, he’s portrayed as a man who is sexually insatiable. To clarify, I am not arguing that bi characters should never be sexual or shown in sexual situations—that would be unrealistic. But, the fact is, bisexual characters are consistently stereotyped this way, and it continues to negatively impact the bi community.[15] There’s already a serious lack of bisexual representation in the media,[16] [17] and this pattern of oversexualizing the few bi characters that do exist is obviously an unfair misrepresentation: bisexual individuals can fall anywhere on the spectrum of asexual to hypersexual, just like any person. Now, returning to Oberyn: the fact that this character enjoys sex with both men and women is not what’s problematic. What is problematic is that the only two bisexual characters on Game of Thrones—Oberyn and Ellaria—are both stereotypically extremely sexual. If there had already been another recurring bisexual character in the series that didn’t feed these stereotypes, Oberyn and Ellaria’s characterizations wouldn’t really be an issue. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and Game of Thrones is still one of the many shows that play into this stereotype.

While all of the negative stereotypes that come from oversexualizing bi people can be hurtful, what arguably hurts most is the commonly held belief that bisexuality is not a real sexual orientation nor truly exists at all. This denialism is the most common stereotype about bisexuality, and is largely responsible for the lack of bi representation in popular culture.[18] The overall tendency to ignore or falsify bisexuality in society is usually referred to as “bi erasure.” Bi erasure doesn’t necessarily involve overt antagonism, but it does happen because society is uncomfortable with and threatened by the fact that bisexuality does not fit into the accepted binary of gay or straight.[19] Society seems to have a relatively easy time accepting that people are either heterosexual or homosexual, because binary oppositions are easier to understand. But, by its nature, bisexuality challenges all of that, because it presents sexual orientation as fluid, and rejects the idea that attraction has to be dependent on gender. Of course, because we’ve been taught to accept this gay/straight binary, many people are still confused by bisexuality—and unfortunately, people tend to dislike and ignore what they don’t understand. This clearly isn’t even remotely helpful to bisexuals, who often feel silenced, ostracized, and invisible because of the absence and erasure of their identity in the media.[20] Bisexual youths, including myself, especially tend to feel their identity isn’t valid simply because they rarely see positive portrayals of themselves in pop culture.[21]

A common stereotype specific to bi erasure is the idea that bisexuals are people who are actually gay or lesbian, but have yet to come out as such.[22] Or, as Carrie Bradshaw notably put it in Sex and the City, bisexuality is “just a layover on the way to Gay Town.”[23] My own mother seemed to believe this stereotype when, after coming out to her as bisexual in high school, she responded that I was “probably just gay.” Not only did I feel somewhat rejected, I was upset that I should have to defend my identity to my mom. Bi erasure can also come from within the gay community itself, stemming from the assumption that identifying as bisexual is just taking the easy way out—that these individuals can be part of the gay community without having to commit to the hardship of being homosexual, while also still having the option to benefit from straight privilege.[24] In reality, bisexuals face discrimination from both communities and often don’t feel quite welcome in either one.[25] This general feeling that bisexuality is less “real” than being gay or straight is something I come across somewhat regularly in my personal life. For example, I’ve heard my gay and lesbian friends say things like, “If Kristen Stewart isn’t a lesbian, then she’s at least bi.” At first I wasn’t sure what specifically bothered me about these comments. After giving it more thought, I realized I did not like implication behind my gay friends labeling Kristen Stewart as “at least bi.” It implies that her attraction to women would be automatically less valid or less serious simply because she could also feel attraction towards men. It suggests that she is somehow not committed to being a “real” lesbian, that her bisexuality makes her less capable of loving a woman as deeply as a lesbian could. Obviously, these sentiments aren’t true, and I’m sure if my friends thought about the implications of what they were saying, they would agree it doesn’t make sense.

Bi erasure is also responsible for the many movies and TV shows that depict bisexuals as either straight people who occasionally experiment with gay sex, or gay people who occasionally experiment with straight sex, depending on the intended audience.[26] For example, shows that are aimed at a gay audience such as Queer as Folk or The L Word treat their bi characters as gays that have had heterosexual flings[27]—one of the bisexual main characters in The L Word literally renounces her bisexuality under oath, instead identifying as a lesbian.[28] This can be very disappointing for bisexual viewers who had expected to find better representation in a show for queer people, only to feel totally let down. Personally, I find these kinds of shows boring as well as disheartening, because I wonder, “Why don’t they want to put someone like me on their show?” I’ve stopped watching a lot of shows that I used to enjoy because the lack of queer inclusivity has become too obvious, and I end up feeling like I’m watching a show made for someone else.

Because of the lack of representation in pop culture, bisexuals (and other queer individuals in general) tend to quickly latch on to characters that represent their identity, however ambiguous that representation may be. In recent years, movie and television show creators have begun to capitalize on this, starting an unfortunate trend that has been coined by fans as “queer baiting.”[29] This happens most often in television series, when creators intentionally include just enough queer subtext for queer fans to recognize, but not enough that a straight viewer would notice or, rather, take seriously. This way, creators can profit off of the viewership of a queer audience while still avoiding any backlash from their conservative viewers.[30] Writers will continuously hint at a queer relationship between two of the main characters (usually “straight” males), but have no real intention to actually go through with it, which both dismisses the validity of queer identities and relationships as well as avoids any social progress.[31]

I’d like to specifically address the characterization of Dean Winchester, from the CW’s Supernatural—a show that is perhaps the most famously criticized for queer baiting.[32] Dean and his brother Sam are the stars of Supernatural; they hunt monsters, fight angels and demons, and stop apocalypses. On the surface, Dean embodies all that is classically masculine, but anyone who watches the show can easily see that he does not fit this ultra masculine stereotype.[33] It has also become apparent to many fans, both queer and straight, that Dean is bisexual.[34] Dean and Castiel, season fiveFans have speculated about his sexuality since the premier of season four, when the angel Castiel was introduced. Viewers responded so positively to Castiel and his obvious chemistry with Dean that the writers changed the storyline to permanently include him, having originally planned for him to only appear in that fourth season.[35] The next six seasons are filled with queer subtext, romantic tropes and boyfriend jokes all in reference to Dean and his relationship with Cas. I am not going to attempt to make a case for Dean’s bisexuality nor his “profound bond”[36] with Cas—it has already been proven countless times that it’s a legitimate interpretation of his character.

Although this interpretation is directly based on the collective decisions of the writers, actors, producers, directors, and editors[37] of the past ten seasons, these very same writers still sometimes publicly deny Dean’s bisexuality (as well the romantic subtext with Castiel), dismissing it as something fans came up with on their own.[38] Chad Kennedy, an executive at Warner Brothers, once tweeted, “I support the idea of bi lead [characters]. But on this specific show, it is not our intention for these [characters].” Then, when directly asked if this was a certainty, as the answer is important to LGBT fans, he responded, “I’ll put it this way: don’t know that we’ll ever go there, but don’t know that we never will…And if it served the story, I would support it.” Kennedy’s tweets have since been deleted, now only existing as screenshots,[39] but they quite accurately represent the nature of queer baiting; i.e., denial of queer subtext, followed by vague backpedaling and somewhat meaningless declarations of LGBT support. He also implies that there has to be a “good reason” for a character to be bisexual or queer in general, which is very offensive. Dean’s non-heterosexuality shouldn’t have to “serve the story” in some way; Dean should be bi just because some people are bi. Dean, season eightThe show also frequently includes demeaning jokes about (bi)sexuality, which serve two purposes: first, they are a way to further suggest to queer people (who have, undoubtedly, been picking up on the subtext) that maybe Dean really is bi, while also reassuring straight viewers that he isn’t, because of course, being queer is a joke. These jokes say, “Look, these characters are very heterosexual, very masculine, and to imply otherwise is ludicrous.” It would be truly disappointing if the creative team of Supernatural believed that bisexual men can’t also be masculine and strong like Dean is. I realize it’s not the responsibility of Supernatural to fix television’s lack of bisexual representation, and if they want Dean to be heterosexual, so be it; but I don’t think it’s that simple anymore. The fact is, they’ve created a likable and complex character that in many ways comes across as bisexual without being a stereotype, which is great. But they have also intentionally given fans (false?) hope for representation, which is why Supernatural should be held accountable, and should do the socially responsible thing by confirming Dean’s bisexuality. If this is not the case, the show will ultimately continue to contribute to bisexual erasure by dismissing bisexuality as a legitimate orientation, which would be unfortunate.

In conclusion, the majority of the current portrayals of bisexuality in pop culture aren’t acceptable. As a society that prides itself on equality, we should demand better treatment of bisexual characters and of bisexual individuals in the media. The current patterns of erasure are harmful to the bi community and especially harmful to bi youth, and things have to change. Although there’s been improvements of bi representation in the past few years, the examples I’ve given are all quite recent, and are perpetuating the negative ways in which society views and erases bisexuality. I hope we can all have a better awareness that bisexuality hasn’t necessarily been included in the positive trends of homosexual acceptance, and then work to collectively adjust these attitudes to be bi-inclusive as well. As society becomes more informed of what bisexuality actually is and isn’t, our attitudes will really start to change, and we can then see more realistic, non-stereotypical representations of bisexuality in the media.

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[1] Tanya Rubinstein, Shiri Makov, and Ayelet Sarel. “Don’t Bi-Negative: Reduction of Negative Attitudes Toward Bisexuals by Blurring the Gender Dichotomy.” Journal of Bisexuality 13, no. 2-3 (2013): 357.
[2] Amy Zimmerman. “It Ain’t Easy Being Bisexual on TV.” The Daily Beast. August 14, 2014.
[3] Rubinstein, et al. “Don’t Bi-Negative,” 357.
[4] Rubinstein, et al. “Don’t Bi-Negative,” 358.
[5] Robyn Ochs. “Why We Need to ‘Get Bi’” Journal of Bisexuality 11, no. 2 (2011): 172.
[6] Rubinstein, et al. “Don’t Bi-Negative,” 357.
[7] Zimmerman, “It Ain’t Easy.”
[8] Tom Hawking. “In Praise of ‘Game of Thrones’’ Prince Oberyn: A Genuine Bisexual on TV.” Flavorwire. May 20, 2014.
[9] Rubinstein, et al. “Don’t Bi-Negative,” 358.
[10] David Shore. “The Dig,” House, M.D. Fox. April 11, 2011.
[11] D.B. Weiss and George RR Martin. “Two Swords,” Game of Thrones. Home Box Office. April 6, 2014.
[12] Jennifer Vineyard. “Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal on Oberyn’s Bisexuality, Orgies in Westeros, and Boy Candy.” Vulture. April 7, 2014.
[13] Zimmerman, “It Ain’t Easy.”
[14] Hawking, “In Praise for Game of Thrones.”
[15] Rubenstein, et al, “Don’t Bi-Negative,” 357.
[16] GLAAD. “Where We Are On TV Report 2013.” Where We Are On TV 7 (2013): 6-7.
[17] GLAAD. “Where We Are On TV Report 2014.” Where We Are On TV 8 (2014): 7.
[18] Rubenstein, et al, “Don’t Bi-Negative,” 357.
[19] Ochs, “Get Bi,” 172
[20] Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli. “Erasure, Exclusion by Inclusion, and the Absence of Intersectionality: Introducing Bisexuality in Education.” Journal of Bisexuality 14, no. 1 (2014): 9.
[21] Zimmerman, “It Ain’t Easy.”
[22] Rubenstein, et al, “Don’t Bi-Negative,” 357.
[23] Darren Star. “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…” Sex and the City. Home Box Office. June 25, 2000.
[24] Jillian Todd Weiss. “GL vs. BT: The Archaeology of Biphobia and Transphobia Within the U.S. Gay and Lesbian Community.” Journal of Bisexuality 3, no. 1 (2004): 25-55.
[25] Weiss, “GL vs. BT.”
[26] Hawking, “In Praise for Game of Thrones.”
[27] Nicole Kristal. ““The L Word” Reinforces Negative Bisexual Stereotypes.” After Ellen. February 26, 2008.
[28] Kathy Greenberg. “Lay Down the Law,” The L Word. Showtime. February 24, 2008
[29] Sadie Gennis. “Supernatural Has a Queerbaiting Problem That Needs to Stop.” TV Guide. November 17, 2014.
[30] Emmett Scout. “Please Do Not Bait the Queers.” The Next. June 19, 2013.
[31] Scout, “Please Do Not Bait the Queers.”
[32] Eliel Cruz. “Fans Take Supernatural to Task for ‘Queer Baiting'” Advocate. July 17, 2014.
[33] Emily Asher-Perrin. “Supernatural’s Dean Winchester Dismantled His Own Machismo—and That’s Why We Love Him.” Tor. May 17, 2013.
[34] Samantha Pajor. “’Supernatural’ Needs to Admit Dean is Bisexual.” Arts.Mic. October 25, 2013.
[35]Veronika K. “Supernatural – 9.07 – Dean and Castiel’s Reunion and Queer-baiting.” Spoiler TV. September 20, 2013.
[36] Ben Edlund. “The Third Man,” Supernatural. CW. October 8, 2010.
[37] Pajor, “Supernatural.”
[38] Gennis, “Supernatural.”
[39] Aja Romano. “WB Executive Deletes Twitter Account After Angering ‘Supernatural’ Fans.” Daily Dot. October 24, 2013.

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4 thoughts on “Bisexuality as portrayed by the media

  1. Courtney,
    I love the number of sources you used! I feel like this essay had a lot of information to back up your claims which helped me to understand these negative stereotypes and believe how these are negative attributes that are being attributed to bisexuals unfairly. Also, I found your essay extremely engaging! I loved the use of GIFs I would have never thought about incorporating those into this essay, very very creative! You brought up some reactions to these stereotypes that I hadn’t yet truly thought about, even with my many of my close friends being members of the LGBT community. Overall, fantastic job on this essay. I really enjoyed reading.

  2. Hey Courtney-

    I enjoyed your rough draft and your final draft is great, also. I can see that you added a few different things in this version. You covered a topic that I don’t think is focused on very much and did so in a really thoughtful way. It just reads very well. Also, I’m jealous that you were able to get your gifs to line up to your writing as well as you did.

    Best of luck with the rest of the year!

  3. Courtney,
    I liked reading your essay, it was very well written. I am not very aware of many bi-sexual stereotypes so it was interesting to read some of them. I am familiar with almost all the sources that you used, and once you pointed out the stereotypes I can see the points you were making. To play devils advocate a little bit, I have been a big Supernatural fan since the beginning and I’d have to say I’ve never thought of Dean’s character to bi-sexual. I can see where people could see that but I don’t necessarily think the creators were intentionally “queer baiting.” Not to get into a debate but a big thing about the show is family and I think some people mistake his closeness with Cas as a brother as being sexual. However I really enjoyed reading your paper, good job.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, I really appreciate that. Again, I’m not going to “make a case” for Dean’s bisexuality here, or rather the “legitimacy” of it within the context of the show, but honestly either way, the writers are queer baiting fans. I realize that you don’t see it, but the fact that countless others have been picking up it is not an accident. I’m also not interested in getting into this here but if you’d like to message me I’d be happy to answer some of your questions. Thanks again!! 🙂

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