Gendering Bisexuality on TV

Significant gender disparities in any domain of mass media usually constitute a red flag to some form of sexism, and today’s lucky object of scrutiny is female versus male bisexuality (aka “sexual fluidity”) on TV. It’s an ostentatious inequality, just in terms of pure numbers – women outnumber men considerably – but perhaps even more noteworthy is the historical disparity of willingness to write ‘unplanned’/late-in-the-story queer disclosures for women vs. men.

Late-Game is for Ladies Only

When fandoms get into those most contentious and familiar of arguments about nominally hetero male characters being made canonically queer, a primary objection frequently forwarded is the fact that the character was originally conceived/written as straight and this original intent must be preserved at all costs, for some inexplicable reason. Why people think original intent always constitutes superlative writing, regarding sexuality or anything else, is a question I have yet to receive a satisfactory response to. After all, sticking with the original plan often produces debacles like the finales for Lost and How I Met Your Mother. But I digress.

My point is, this cultural resistance to evolving a character’s sexuality beyond its (seeming) original bounds is very distinctly gendered; for some years now, female characters – with demonstrable regularity – have had their ostensible sexual orientations altered/expanded by their writers in later seasons.

For a not exhaustive list see:

  • Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Marissa on The OC
  • Claire on Heroes
  • Callie on Grey’s Anatomy
  • Tara on True Blood
  • Brittany and Santana on Glee
  • Clarke on The 100
  • Korra and Asami on Legends of Korra
  • Shaw on Person of Interest
  • Alana on Hannibal
  • Ilana on Broad City
  • Clara on Doctor Who
  • Mulan and Aurora on Once Upon a Time (as very recently announced)

Although female queerness, and particularly bisexuality, has often been depicted with a certain amount of gratuitous sensationalism, and utilized not infrequently as a crass ratings ploy, the preservation of original intent seems a far less powerful cultural mandate for women compared to men. To be fair, there has been some hoopla over it as well; many of the (flat out ignorant) comments on the recent Aurora/Mulan announcement pieces can attest to this. Nevertheless, altering a female character’s sexuality has been treated as far less objectionable a proposition by popular media, as evidence solely by the fact that it happens so much more. Resistance to late-game male bisexuality continues to be exponentially more vociferous, and effectually powerful, and I think we can all venture a guess as to why.

Female queerness largely caters to a hetero-male gaze. That fact certainly does not undermine the validity or importance of increasing queer female representation. But it would be naïve to suggest straight male enjoyment of f/f eroticism is inconsequential to the aforementioned disparity. While I would never want to reduce depictions of queer women to male fan-service, the fact that those representations can simultaneously act as fan-service to straight male audience members likely is a primary reason for the radical gender differential in who gets, particularly, unplanned/later-in-the-story queer treatments.

Closeting For Straight Comfort

It is important to stress the types of storylines I’m discussing ought not be confused with closeted gay male arcs. Those popular culture has a substantial cadre of: Dave Karofksy on Glee, Paul Woodrugh on True Detective 2.0, Julien Lowe on The Shield, Will Lexington on Nashville, Rex Evans on Necessary Roughness, Drew Boyd on Queer as Folk. However, these characters are usually conceived as gay initially, are often relatively minor characters, and are typically disclosed as queer fairly early on in their series run (you know, before straight men have a chance to get attached to, or really identify with them).

Also, when male characters are revealed to be queer (read: gay) later on in a narrative, it is often done in such a way as to maximize shock-value to viewers and produce audience disassociation rather than identification. The disclosure is rendered via a gasp-worthy spectacle, written typically from straight character POVs, and depicted primarily through their effect on straight characters. Such narratives operate essentially as plot-devices, rather than substantive plots for the queer character themselves.

Epistemology of a Bi-Closet

bi flag2 Moreover, the on-the-ground differences between bisexuality and gayness become especially crucial in parsing out closeted-gay-male storylines from bisexual-self-realization storylines. Being closeted is typically a thing characters are written as being conscious of from the start, and which they perpetuate through strategized deception. This is an altogether different kind of queer story from the one where someone who previously identified as heterosexual (or homosexual sometimes) realizes they actually experience desire for more than one gender.

Bisexual people can also engage in strategized deception, of course, but bisexuality is arguably somewhat unique in that it can also often be a thing that surprises an individual about themselves. Amazing as this may seem (particularly to straight people) you don’t actually always know you are “in the closet” when you are…a fact to which myself and many other bisexuals can attest, if anyone actually bothered to listen to us about our own experiences. While the platitude that all sexualities are “the same” is typically well-intentioned, and meant to render all sexualities equally valid, it can sometimes also perpetuate the false idea that everyone experiences their sexuality in the same way, a notion that probably needs revision and contest, particularly from a bi-stand point.

There are many experiences of sexuality that are probably fairly unique to bi/pan people, relative to monosexuals, and those differences are exceedingly consequential to accurate media representation. For example, it is not uncommon for bisexual people to experience disproportionate desire for one gender versus another. This does not make anyone’s bisexuality less real, but it does often create a situation in which MOST bisexual people identify as either gay or straight for a period of time, before settling on a bi-identification.  Contrary to popular belief, heterosexuality and homosexuality are often waystations to bisexuality, not the other way around. When people demand all bisexual characters be written as bisexual from the outset, this mandate actually goes against what is typical for large segments of bi people in the real world.

Also, actual feelings of attraction for bisexual people can often be experienced differently based on gender. This is a difficult thing both to explain to others, and even to understand phenomenologically. Being slightly more ‘hetero’-inclined means heteronormativity encourages you to treat that kind of attraction as the model for how all attraction feels. When you start noticing people of your same gender in quasi-erotic ways, you dismiss it initially as just intense identification (I just want to look like/be like that person), as very devout friendship (I’ve never felt this way about another friend, but it must just be a more intense friendship), as a fluke that doesn’t mean anything, and so on. Heteronormativity trains bi people on the lower side of the Kinsey scale to give disproportionate credence to our own ‘hetero’ sensibilities, and disavow our queer ones, such that we often develop internalized hyper-skepticism about our own queerness, which can take years if not, yes, decades, to break free from, if we ever do.

And speaking of hyper-skepticism, this is also something bisexuals on the higher side of the Kinsey scale not infrequently endure in inverted form after coming out initially as gay. Certain factions of the LGBTQ community still treat women moving from a lesbian to bisexual identification as “traitors”, and as weak victims to patriarchy’s mind-games. Bisexual men, meanwhile, are still regularly accused of being really gay and just engaging in a half-hearted form of denial, or using bisexuality as a “stepping-stone” to the final homo-destination.

Tragically rare are real-world bisexual experience which don’t involve systematic incredulity from multiple sides.  There is so much societal skepticism and stigma about bisexuality – both from heteronormative people AND a fair amount of queer people – that it can often create enormous amounts of doubt in bisexual people themselves as to whether or not what they are feeling is ‘real. ’

And this is where the issue of media representation really starts to eat its tail around bisexuality.

The Faulty Circularity of ‘Realism’ Critiques

A large part of the reason bisexuality is so broadly misunderstood, and is often a difficult thing even for bisexuals to recognize about themselves initially is, guess what – we don’t have a ton of accurate media representation! We are often written as being ‘really’ just closeted gay people, or as just casually “experimenting.” Female bisexuality is often depicted for maximum appeal to straight men, feeding that faulty mythos, while male bisexuality is kept incredibly uncommon, feeding that faulty mythos, etc. Audience sensibilities of what is good/accurate/realistic bisexual representation typically arises from pre-existent media informed ideas of bisexuality. It is a terrible closed circuit that contains rampant misinformation that then gets trotted out as ‘accurate’ simply because it accords with what people already think they know, based on the media they’ve consumed, and the wheel just keeps spinning.

Frankly it must be acknowledged that “realism” is one of the most uneven and selectively invoked cultural critiques in existence anyway, seeming to matter solely in the face of potential disruptions to the status quo. To wit, how often are hetero women depicted as reaching orgasm through penetrative sex alone, even though we know physiologically that’s extremely uncommon in the majority of the female population? My point is, “realism” is a criticism we apply VERY selectively and which most often seems to surface when a social justice critique is on the table. Realism becomes the rationale for constantly depicting female rape in historical dramas, but somehow – in violation of any kind of realism – those same sexually violated women manage to have shaved legs and arm-pits, pristine teeth, etc.  We’re always cherry-picking which aspects of ‘reality’ to preserve or elide in our media, and what audiences will or won’t suspend disbelief for is often both a reflection and a re-inscription of their own pre-existing societal biases.

Nevertheless, I always have to emit a bitter laugh when I hear people say they find it “unrealistic” that a character would not know they were bisexual before. This critique is almost never issued by bisexual people themselves, and is often a skepticism born of straight and (some) gay people’s rampant ego-centrism. They assume because their sexuality always has been, for them, readily apparent and consistently experienced, it must be the same for bisexual people. Thus, it strains their ill-informed credulity when a man in his late 30s or 40s has only just begun to start questioning his sexuality, or to entertain the inkling that his close friendship might not be entirely platonic. My point is, none of this is unrealistic because it actually is. It just seems ‘unrealistic’ because monosexual paradigms of sexuality remain endemic and are often ill-suited to understanding bisexuality as a unique experience.

Housed in Horror – This is Bi Design

Will and Hannibal Granted, the recent canonization of Hannibal Lecter/Will Graham’s very unconventional romance on Hannibal begs to be considered in light of this larger analysis, because it is the one exceedingly recent exception to my larger thesis. And yet, in some ways, it’s not. I gestured earlier to the fact that hetero-male identification with characters likely plays a major role in the cultural unwillingness to write bi-male storylines, particularly unplanned/late-disclosure ones, and the entire narrative of Hannibal is based on a particular audience dis-identification with the protagonist.  While we are certainly meant to find Hannibal Lecter intriguing, charming, captivating, perversely engaging, we are never meant to identify with him. The fact that Will Graham narratively does identify/empathize with him, the fact that he can’t seem to stop himself despite Hannibal’s abject horror, also generates audience disassociation, even if we are meant to be more sympathetic to Will.

While I would suggest the canonized love-story between Will and Hannibal is far more complex than the run-of-the-mill gay villain/perverse queer trope, there is also no denying that history remains a forceful shadow here. Villainous/monstrous characters have often been disproportionately coded as queer in Hollywood, and arguably Bryan Fuller’s ability to write a m/m love-story between these protagonists was highly indebted to the fact that we, as audience members, are already supposed to view much of what occurs on Hannibal as shocking, horrifying, perverse, abject, etc. There is an argument to be made that Will and Hannibal’s love for each other is written as a humanizing force in the story, the one aspect of their relationship that redeems it and that makes Hannibal not a complete monster; I have time for that argument. But there is no getting around the fact that the narrative trajectory of the series basically amounts to Hannibal seducing Will into his own violent and homicidal urges, and directly paralleling that character arc with the consummation of their queer love for one another.

At BEST, Hannigram is an extremely ambivalent queer love story, containing the possibility for a redemptive reading, but also tying one man’s descent into queerness with his descent into the violently homicidal. It is also exceedingly telling that only against an endless tableaux of artistically mutilated bodies, serial killings, cannibalism and gratuitous psychological manipulation, does male bisexuality suddenly become a viable narrative option on a mainstream network TV show. Hyperbolic depravity becomes the one backdrop against which we don’t find an emergent male bisexuality too controversial to entertain. And let us also not forget the canonization of this queerness was timed right alongside Hannibal’s cancelation by NBC and contained no overt sexual contact between our protagonists.

My point is not that any of this makes the queerness/bisexuality less “real” but that its textuality was arguably highly enabled by its lack of overt sexual contact, its emergence at the finale, and its larger placement in a narrative so impacted with perversity and depravity that dis-identification and outright revulsion were often strived-for audience reactions. Not to mention the fact that both Will Graham and Hannibal are portrayed as highly mentally pathological in their own ways, and the conflation between mental illness and queerness is one that has a long and very entrenched cultural history as well.  When we consider Hannigram as the ONE exception to the no-late-game-queerness-for-men rule, all of these factors must be kept in mind.

All the more so as we undertake a juxtaposition with the emergent Aurora/Mulan storyline on OUAT’s 5th season. While a happy ending is certainly no guarantee, we have to acknowledge that female bisexuality is still rendered here as a literal fairytale, while Hannibal renders male bisexuality a literal horror story.  Indeed the horror genre is, by far, the most presently fruitful of male bisexuality (see Hannibal, In the Flesh, Penny Dreadful, True Blood), a fact made even more noteworthy when we consider that historically, even shows nominally classified as “queer” have often occluded bi male characters (e.g. Glee, Queer as Folk, Looking). The take-away here isn’t exactly subtle – male bisexuality is most culturally viable in narrative contexts of abject horror, of already radically inflated suspension of disbelief, often through characters who are not even strictly human (vampires, zombies, etc).

The Horror of Happy Women

Finally, although I would never suggest that queer representation ought to be reduced to pure slash fanservice, the fact that such narrative choices would disproportionately gratify female audiences is consequential here. Queer masculinity should not exist for a female slash-gaze, any more than queer female sexuality should exist for a hetero-male one. But the prospect of canonizing certain proto-bi male narratives is often explicitly rejected by people on the grounds that it would make certain segments of (overwhelmingly) female fans quite happy…as if women being happy is somehow an intrinsically objectionable thing.

Whether popular media should use canon male slash specifically to “pander” to female fans is a very complex question, frankly exceeding the bounds of the present analysis. But the larger, overriding suggestion that pleasing women en masse constitutes an inherently distasteful media goal is just patently misogynist. No idea is bad solely because it would make a large amount of women happy. I can’t believe that is a position that requires explicit articulation and defense, yet here we all are. A thing not is bad solely because it does, or would, make a lot of women very happy.  

Furthermore, if your objection to this dynamic is based on the larger critique that female pleasure should not be what guides depictions of male sexuality, I would remind you, dear reader, that male pleasure is and always has been the guiding principle in depictions of female sexuality, virtually since time immemorial. Stipulated, you don’t necessarily fix sexism by inverting it; but straight men who clutch their pearls over the prospect of female audiences usurping their sexual representations are issuing quite possibly the least self-aware complaint in the history of ever.

Canonizing slash probably will not fix male-gaze based depictions of women, or cause everything to ‘break even.’ However, I also just don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who think an injustice only is one when it is happening to them. Straight dudes don’t get to defend the constant, gratuitous parade of naked tits on Game of Thrones (aka straight male fanservice) and then turn around and balk at the idea of making Dean Winchester queer because, horror of horrors, female fanservice! That’s hypocrisy of the highest order, and in this particular arena, you can’t actually have it both ways.

5 thoughts on “Gendering Bisexuality on TV

  1. The fact that your article focuses mostly on a ship that is dubiously canon at best, not canon at all at worst severely weakens the premise. A hug that leads to Will pushing Hannibal off a cliff is hardly confirmation that he loves Hannibal.

    1. The New York Times declared it as such.

      “What was most curious about this episode (and much of the final season) was how it concluded the series by putting in all of the preconceived notions, good and bad, that viewers brought to it. The final season leaned hard on the amorous aspect of Will and Hannibal’s relationship, going so far as to call them “murder husbands” and having Bedelia specifically say that Hannibal was in love with Will. It’s no accident that one of the final images we see is Will resting his head against Hannibal’s chest in a scenario that could have been ripped from a fan-fiction Tumblr post.”

      That’s a source that’s basically as ‘neutral’ and ‘mainstream’ as it gets.

  2. I adore this so much for several reasons, not least because fandom (Sherlock in this case) is a space where I explored and explore my queerness. Moreover your discussion of the bi closet and how people assess queer representation reminds me so strongly of the ongoing debate in the Sherlock fandom over the possibility of canonical John/Sherlock especially regarding John as a possibly closeted bi man. There are some in the fandom who assume John coming out in some fashion in S4 or later would be automatically bad queer representation. This even though the subtle queer subtext was definitely ratcheted up for him in S3 (just as it was for Sherlock though it was even more obvious). Counter arguments have been made similar to yours, but your essay is particularly excellent because of the broader focus fandom-wise. Thank you so much for posting this!

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