Sarah Glenn Marsh Talks Bi Visibility in Pop Culture
by Sarah Glenn Marsh
It’s a lonely thing, searching for common ground in a crowded cast of characters and realizing there’s no one out there just like you.
Representation matters. In 2018, we all know this, and we know why – representation affects how we see ourselves and how we see others. Yet when it comes to the history of bisexual characters in our media, even when they were present (which wasn’t often), they seemed invisible.
Often, bi characters have been portrayed as awkward jokes, as people who just love to sleep around (something no one should be shamed for anyway if they aren’t hurting others, but that’s a rant for another day), or they’ve been subjected to a volley of harmful stereotypes, from the still-persistent ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope to the ‘But Not Too Bi’ storylines in which a character identifies as bisexual, but only displays attraction to one gender on-screen.
When I was growing up in the ‘90s (not that long ago, thank you very much), I didn’t even know there was a term for my attraction to more than one gender. When I went searching through both books and TV, my favorite escapes, I found some gay heroes, especially in adult SFF books, and fewer lesbian ones, but no leading characters who were openly bisexual.
Queer teens weren’t present in the literature or media available to me, save for a few harrowing coming-out narratives. Certainly, I never saw characters who identified as bisexual and had happy endings to their stories. Where were the bi girls like me, who weren’t ashamed of their sexuality? Who had big dreams and busy, fulfilling lives? Where were the trans bi people? The nonbinary bi folks? The bi people of color? Not in my books or on my screen.
But when I was in college, things began to change. In 2008, actor Sara Ramirez’s character Callie Torres (Grey’s Anatomy) realized she was bi on-screen. Callie would go on to become the longest-running queer series regular in TV history. Ramirez, who identifies as bisexual herself, was able to put genuine emotion into this reveal about Callie, and reach many viewers who likely didn’t understand bisexuality while doing so.
Other shows eventually began to follow suit with on-screen portrayals of complex bi characters, even centering bi characters as the heroes (yes, please!). Take, for instance, Nickelodeon’s animated series The Legend of Korra, sequel to the epic and wonderfully diverse Avatar: The Last Airbender. Our hero, Korra, has relationships with men throughout the course of the show, but her sexuality evolves and in the series finale, she begins a romantic relationship with Asami, a woman who she has grown close with. They decide, after an epic battle to protect their city, that they should go on vacation together. They hold hands and walk off into the sunset. It’s sweet, but it’s not ground-breaking—except that this was a show intended for children. The creators of Korra stood by their decision and the evolution of Korra’s sexual identity.
Sure, there were and still are shows that caved to censorship pressures from their networks and chose not to support bi narratives. There are shows that seem to be setting up a queer relationship, only to backtrack and say the characters were straight all along. But there’s a lot of positive rep to focus on lately when it comes to bi stories in our media, and that’s largely thanks to sci-fi and fantasy leading the way.
SFF onscreen has given us:
- Bo Dennis, lead character of the show Lost Girl. Throughout the series’ several seasons, Bo’s sexuality is portrayed as the norm, not the exception. While the representation here isn’t without its flaws (Bo is a succubus, which means she feeds off of sexual energy to survive, and has many partners as a result—nothing wrong with that, but it’s a common bi stereotype), Bo is a strong character who always strives to do what’s right. Better yet, she’s surrounded by other queer characters as the supporting cast, including Tamsin, Vex, and Mark).
- Waverly Earp, younger sister of the title character on the show Wynonna Earp. While Waverly begins the first season of the show in a relationship with her town’s typical jock guy, she has been in a sweet, supportive queer relationship with police officer Nicole Haught for much of this dark demon-slaying series. From this, viewers could infer that Waverly is bisexual, but this year, at ClexaCon 2018, actor Dominique Provost-Chalkley specifically stated that Waverly is indeed bi. Better still, the series’ creator Emily Andras has repeatedly assured viewers that this couple won’t ever be falling victim to the Bury Your Gays trope. Yay for positive rep we can feel good about!
- Eretria on The Shannara Chronicles, a knife-wielding rogue who is eventually given a queer romance in the show’s second—and last—season.
- The sci-fi show Killjoys also features a largely queer cast, where queer romances are given equal depth and weight as straight ones, and there’s no shame in loving whoever you choose.
And these are only a few!
Queer characters with diverse narratives are beginning to fill our screens. There’s David Rose on the hilarious Schitt’s Creek; Clarke Griffin on The 100; Sara Lance on Legends of Tomorrow; Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine Nine; Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder; Sarah Manning on Orphan Black; Ethan Chandler on Penny Dreadful…and many more!
Sometimes, the revelation of their identities is casual, while other times it becomes a plotline, where there are consequences to work through. In both cases, the representation is there. Bi people are finally being seen, and their stories are just as complex and important as any other. However, creators still have a ways to go in giving us the bi rep we truly deserve. You might have noticed a lack of male-identifying characters in my list above. Where are all the bi men? There are still only a few on screen. How about the nonbinary bi characters? Their stories matter, too. And bi female characters are sometimes still portrayed as overly sexualized, leaning in to tired tropes for the male gaze.
Still, the bottom line is that queer stories, including bisexual ones, are being centered now more than ever. I really hope this is the start of something bigger, and that we’ve only just begun to expand upon our offerings of queer characters and storylines until everyone can grab a remote, escape into their favorite show, and be seen.