Visi(bi)lity: Deconstructing Images of Bisexuality in the Media
I had a difficult time coming out as a bisexual woman.
This is not to say that I had a difficult time coming out as a woman who is attracted to other women. Amazingly, that part was deceptively easy. But figuring out what to call myself was another matter entirely. More than a decade after first coming out, I’ve settled on “bisexual.” But it took a long time for me to get here. “Bisexual” is a label with a lot of negative connotations attached to it, and despite the civil rights victories and advances in equality that gay and lesbian communities have experienced in recent years, the public understanding and acceptance of bisexuality, in both straight and gay communities, is still very minimal. There are a lot of reasons for this, but for the next eight weeks, I’m going to focus on just one of them—at the end of the day, there are not a lot of positive images of bisexuality in the media.
The original title I thought of for this blog was “Invisi(bi)lity,” referencing the invisibility of bisexualty in the media. But once I started to think about it, I realized that isn’t exactly true. In fact, pop culture seems awfully preoccupied with bisexuality these days. In recent years, openly bisexual characters have featured prominently on popular network television programs, such as Glee, The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, and House. Bisexuality was an underlying theme in last year’s Oscar-winning film Black Swan. Bisexual artists, from actor Alan Cumming to rapper Azealia Banks, are talking publicly about their sexualities. Reality television stars, like Kim Zolciak of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Krisily Kennedy of The Bachelor, and Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi of Jersey Shore, are also breaking down the closet doors of bisexuality. There are even posthumous rumors beginning to circulate about Whitney Houston’s alleged bisexuality.
There is no shortage of bisexuality in the media right now, but quantity does not always translate into quality when it comes to representation. Basic Instinct, arguably one of the all-time highest-grossing Hollywood movies that addresses bisexuality, depicts bisexual women as amoral, hypersexual, cold-blooded killers. Reality shows like A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila present bisexuality as purely titillating and scandalous, not to be treated seriously. And when gay-centric media like Queer As Folk, The L Word, and The Kids Are All Right decide to explore non-monosexual queer identity, it happens in the context of infidelity and promiscuity, typically among women who are not quite “gay enough.”
These representations are problematic, because they reaffirm the stereotypes that marginalize bi-identifying people in both straight and queer communities. The most common representations of bisexuality in the media are ones that depict bisexual people as confused, greedy, indecisive, morally ambiguous, and sexually indiscriminate. This sort of biphobic stigma is a factor that has lead to suicidal tendencies in nearly 50% of bisexual women and more than a third of bisexual men. In fact, a study conducted at Northeastern University and the Harvard School of Public Health has found that bisexual women are in the overall worst health of any sexual orientation demographic.
Bisexual people are suffering, and the media continues to treat them as a joke. We have plenty of bisexual visibility when it’s dramatic, when it’s titillating, when it’s controversial. But we don’t have nearly as much bisexual visibility where it counts—honest, realistic portrayals of bisexual people that counter stereotypes and create an environment of support and equality.
Over the next eight weeks, I will explore both progressive and problematic depictions of bisexuality in order to see how far we’ve come and how much progress still needs to be made. Together, we will look at examples in film, television, music, celebrity culture, and new media. And, with any luck, we will be able to start a discussion about what the media could be doing to increase realistic and positive depictions of bisexual identities and, by extension, advance bisexual acceptance.
One bit of housekeeping before we begin: I want to establish what I mean when I say “bisexual.” Robyn Ochs defines bisexuality as “the potential to be attracted—romantically and/or sexually—to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” I like this definition, as it covers a broad spectrum of identities and experiences. There are others who disagree with this definition and say that bisexuality refers to one’s attraction to only two sexes or genders. I respect that this is a complex topic and that not everyone will agree with my definition, but for the sake of this series, when I talk about bisexuality, I will be using Ochs’ definition.
I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to blog for Bitch, and I look forward discussing bisexual visibility in the media with you over the next eight weeks. And if you have any topics you’d like to see me cover, let me know in the comments!
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