Welcome to AH&HL’s third annual guest-post series for Bisexual Awareness Week! The “Bisexuals and their Laptops” series aims to share a diverse set of bisexual stories, histories, and celebrations. This post is by nonbinary bisexual writer, Milly Gribben (she/her). Read all identity posts.
I didn’t come out as bisexual until I was 20 years old. In truth, I didn’t even know that I was queer until I left my small Southern hometown and attended university in Leeds. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I knew that there was something ‘strange’ about me, something out of place. Discovering my sexuality and coming out felt like a fog lifting; I was able to look back on my teenage years, all those uncomfortable moments with female teachers or friends, the waves of shame and confusion, and make a fraction of bittersweet sense out of them.
Cinema and TV are a huge part of my life, and therefore, played a pretty significant role in my ‘coming out journey’. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that my teenage fondness for The Mummy (the 90s version, obviously) or The X-Files was due in no small part to my crush on both its male and female leads. However, cinema hasn’t always felt like a warm, comfortable or affirming space when it comes to on-screen representation of bisexuality. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to say that mainstream cinema and dominant culture ‘hates bisexuals,’ but it certainly hasn’t always respected, valued or humanised us.
I specifically refer to ‘dominant culture’ because queer folks have, of course, always been a part of the cinematic landscape and have, either overtly or covertly, told their own stories. Just watch the excellent documentary, The Celluloid Closet, or the 1930 film, Morocco, where queer icon Marlena Dietrich kisses a woman on-screen to see clear evidence of that. However, this isn’t the kind of representation that I was necessarily exposed to as a repressed teen who had yet to study film and explore its history.
So, what was I exposed to?
I mean, where do I even start???
Let’s get academic for a second. In his 2011 journal Muddy Waters: Bisexuality in the Cinema B.C Roberts describes the extremely limited roles and tropes in so many bisexual representations. He lists the ‘psychos, murderers, misfits, the victims, the runaways; the murdered, the suicides, the closeted or cheating husbands, the promicsuous and the morally ambigious’ (p. 333).
There’s a lot here, so I want to try and break it down. Perhaps the most prevalent stereotype regarding bi folks, something Roberts raises with his comment about ‘the promiscuous’, is that we are all supposedly having a lot of sex with a lot of people. Watch most movies with bi characters, from Rent to Basic Instinct, and you’ll see this cliché rear its ugly head. I guess the assumption is that because we are attracted to two or more genders, we just have way more options open to us? I don’t really know. There’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with bi folks having multiple sexual partners in fiction or reality, but it doesn’t account for the fullness and spectrum of bisexual desire and self-expression.
Personally, I’ve never actually had sex or been in a romantic relationship, even three years after coming out. I’ve therefore often felt quite divorced and distant from my own identity and sexuality because it doesn’t conform to this mainstream, popular idea of what bisexuality is. It creates an uncomfortable internal struggle because my bi-ness is wonderfully affirming and comforting, but I don’t always feel as though I’m performing it in the ‘correct’ way.
Female bisexuality in cinema is also very often regarded through a straight male gaze. It is used as a party trick, an extra bit of spice, edge or danger to shock and titillate. You can see it in Basic Instinct and Wild Things which both feature female bisexuality as a performance for the male audience and protagonist. Bisexuality is therefore boiled down to something intrinsically perverse and pornographic, only existing to serve the needs and desires of straight men. Thankfully, bi actor and writer Desiree Akhavan wonderfully skewers this trope during the painfully awkward threesome scene in her movie Appropriate Behavior.
Another thing Roberts mentions that I think is really important is the idea of bi folks as ‘ambiguous’. This could of course simply link to the stereotype that we are confused and inauthentic, something I’ve been accused of by both straight and LGBTQ+ individuals. Yet underneath this is something darker, a sense of moral ambiguity, an inability to understand boundaries, even a parasitic force.
From vampire movies The Hunger to Magic Mike we see bi characters who are predatory and physically invasive. This is by no means an innocuous trope but is rather one with deep roots. Bi individuals were demonised during the AIDs crisis, falsely labeled as vectors who spread the disease to the ‘innocent’ straight population. It’s depictions like the ones mentioned above that continue to perpetuate this idea of bi people as a threat. I’ve felt it myself, that caution around female friends, to not be too tactile or complimentary lest it be misconstrued. I’ve even had a family member accuse me of inappropriate behavior for accidentally walking in on her getting dressed, her exact words being “just because you’re gay now”. I do obviously have to mention that this false idea of perversion is not unique to bi folks, it is also used more generally against the LGBTQ+ community because The Straights are just FUN LIKE THAT!!!
Cinematic depictions of bi women very much fall into the dangerous, over-sexed and violent end of the spectrum that Roberts outlines. Bi men, on the other hand, are massively erased and underrepresented from mainstream media. When they are visible, it is typically as tragic and pitiful figures, destined to die or live unhappy, repressed lives. There’s also sadly a real dearth of representation for non-binary and trans bisexuals.
I’ve found that tv has a slight edge over film in terms of bi representation because its length and scope allows for more nuanced images of bi attraction and relationships. While I’m not a huge fan of them, I do have to acknowledge Brooklyn 99, Sex Education, Orphan Black and Wynonna Earp for their bi visibility. Harlots season 1-2 did a wonderful job with its representation of queer sex workers, although sadly the final season was a major letdown. I have yet to watch Vida, High Fidelity, The Magicians or Stumptown but I have heard positive things about their representation.
Two shows that I think are really underrated and were also important in my coming out journey are Black Sails and Halt and Catch Fire. Neither of them are ‘perfect’ in terms of their representation, no show will be given that writers always have unconscious biases and communities are not monolithic. However, they both told subversive queer stories and I’ve rarely seen them discussed with the same fervour as other shows that I personally find more flawed and less incisive.
Black Sails was a historical pirate drama featuring five (5!) bi main characters, and while its first season is a little…wonky, it vastly improves, exploring queer rage, shame and desire as marginalised and colonised groups band together to fight the tyrannical British Empire. It also features satisfying, cathartic and hopeful endings for many of its queer storylines.
Halt and Catch Fire is maybe a harder sell because it’s a fairly niche drama about the tech revolution of the 1980s and 90s. One of the 4 main protagonists is Joe, a bi man played by queer actor Lee Pace. Initially, the show does unfortunately fall into some of the previously discussed bi tropes. Joe’s queerness seems to exist more to add to his mysterious, morally grey characterisation and to dramatically disrupt his romance with a woman. However, like Black Sails, the show matures, painting a far more sensitive and human picture of Joe, even allowing him to form empathetic connections with lesbian and gay characters through his own queerness.
I firmly believe that if I had been exposed to media like these shows when I was younger, I would have felt a lot more comfortable exploring and expressing my sexuality. They highlight the varied shades of bisexuality instead of using it as a one dimensional shorthand for deviance, danger, hyper-sexuality and tragedy. TV, cinema and entertainment in general still have a very, very long way to go in terms of representation. Yet I am hopeful that bi writers and creatives such as myself can work to manifest far more complex, diverse and human visions of bisexuality.
Milly is a bi blogger, screenwriter, and former film student. She has an unhealthy obsession with Dungeons and Dragons, her cat and the music of Laura Marling. You can find her on Twitter and read more of her work on her blog. If you enjoyed this post, please consider giving Milly a few dollars on Ko-Fi!