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!

 

Comments

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I'm excited to have a series

I'm excited to have a series about bisexuality to look forward to. As an out and proud bisexual male, I always am pleased to see it talked about.

Awesome!

Finally! A look a bisexuality that isn't all about not being "gay enough" or "straight enough." It's encouraging to read discussions about bisexuality (I struggle with the 'bi' part, but I'll give it to you per your definition) that engage the whole issue of being an out bisexual person in America. In my experience, the gay community doesn't quite trust you and the straight community thinks that you must be a sexual deviant if you profess to be bisexual.

Two cheers! I look forward to the next 8 weeks.

Thank you!

I am really looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on bisexuality. But what do you think of "pansexuality?" How does that fit in here? What caused the inception of the word and what is really the difference between "bi" and "pan?"

Pansexuality and defining bisexual

The second and less-accepted definition of bisexual that she cited in the article helped give rise to "pansexual." Those who seek to indicate a desire for people regardless of gender turned to it, both because same/other isn't quite as descriptive as all and because people chose to define bisexuality in a binarist fashion despite the history of its adoption by the community. Bi was chosen to encompass homo and hetero attractions. Same and other, in short. In fact, bisexual was the standard term for those who are attracted to anyone regardless of gender before higher visibility for minority genders was achieved.

This does not mean pansexuality isn't different from bisexuality. It is, though some will use bisexual as a catch-all for any non-monosexual attraction pattern and break it out below that when the need to be specific arises. It's just an identity facing growing pains due to a biphobic and cissexist head start. Some define bisexual as "is only attracted to cisgender men and women," which is so deeply problematic it'd be a further derail to begin to unpack it. That hateful misdefinition has led well-meaning people to use pansexual as their identity label to the point they'll argue with bisexuals that we're only allowed to fuck cisgender people or else we should say we're pan. Mind, some bisexuals are only attracted to cis people, but that's not the same as saying we all are or else we're lying about ourselves.

Well Said

Brenda - Thank you for your explanation of this distinction! It's a very important one, and one that I want to talk about throughout the series.

For the sake of simplicity, I am using bisexual as a catch-all for non-monosexual attractions. It's an imperfect approach, however, for the reasons you mention. When writing about specific public figures and fictional characters, I am going to make sure to use their preferred labels of choice (to the best of my knowledge), be it bisexual or pansexual or omnisexual or queer or something else altogether. I want to use a definition of "bisexual" that's as inclusive as possible while still respecting language and identity and experiences of people who may define "bisexuality" differently than I do.

I usually associated your

I usually associated your definition of bisexuality with pansexuality. Is there a reason you didn't choose pansexual for your sexual orientation label?

There is. But it's not a

There is. But it's not a simple answer, so I will address it later on in the series, once I work out the right way to articulate it. Thank you for asking!

Would love to see a critique

Would love to see a critique of existing bisexual interpretation of gentlemen prefer blondes. It was my first time reading about the "bisexual analysis" and I found it problematic. But I had a hard time verbalizing it. Looking forward to this series!

As an avid film watcher, I am

As an avid film watcher, I am embarrassed to admit that I've never seen "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"! I didn't realize it had bisexual content - this gives me a great excuse to finally check it out. Thanks for suggesting it!

Can't wait for this!

This will be awesome. I feel that too often in the media bisexual women are always the benefit of the men. (Sweet we can have a threesome! I can have sex with this girl who will make out with chicks! Oh make out with my girlfriend!) I find these problems all too often in real life that I hate coming out. Men suddenly expect you to be sexual with another girl for them. And to add to that, I hate when two girls make out to get the attention of guys, then later find another woman gross if she is a lesbian. And for the record, I've never had a threesome. The thought does not excite me at all.

Right on, Anonymous! I like

Right on, Anonymous! I like to refer to this phenomenon as "bisexuality as performance," and I'll definitely be writing about it later in the series, particularly in the context of pop music. Thanks for bringing it up!

Bisexuality in Glee? Help me

Bisexuality in Glee? Help me out here, because neither Brittany or Santana have addressed the idea openly. And don't get me started on the Blaine episode where they dismissed it completely.

In that same way, I don't think it counts as "visi(bi)lity" unless a character openly confirms that ze is bisexual. I think there's a difference between media exploring (or exploiting) sexuality and having a character state that they're attracted to different sexes in the same way gay characters are required to. (And I say required in the way that media is heteronormative unless proven otherwise--otherwise we wouldn't need to be talking about queer visibility in the first place.)

Brittany outright stated,

Brittany outright stated, when Santana confessed her feelings, that she had feelings for both her and for her then-boyfriend Artie, and she has dated both of them and shown love and attraction toward both. It's annoying that they haven't outright called her "bi" on the show (that the closest they got was "fluid" and "curious"), but she clearly is bisexual - and she was also listed as such on the GLAAD report of LGBT characters in the media, and the information for that comes from the show creators.

Ohhh, "Glee"

Yeah..."Glee" is an interesting text when it comes to bisexuality. I've been pleased with how they've handled Brittany, for the most part, because they do clearly position her as bisexual, and it feels like it's from an honest place. But the Blaine situation was a disaster. I'll be writing about that episode soon!

You make a good point about

You make a good point about confirming one's identity as bi (or otherwise queer), versus media simply depicting sexual exploration. The examples I'm going to talk about will fall under both categories, but when a character or public figure isn't openly identified as bisexual, I will make note of that.

Anonymous - After all the

Anonymous - After all the discussion and debate over when to label someone as bisexual vs pansexual, I find it refreshing to find a character who describes her feelings / actions but doesn't necessarily stamp the word "bisexual" on her forehead. Its obvious that Brittany has a fluid sexual orientation... and that's the concept I want the general public to ponder and hopefully accept. If we create one indelible representation for bisexual (or pansexual, or fluid, or queer), everyone will run around screaming "She's not bisexual enough" or "bisexuals wouldn't do that". Since every lesbian is different, I think its ok to accept one character's lifestyle as uniquely her own and not feel the need to nominate her THE representation of all bisexuals.

Also, while Glee may not be perfect (who of us out there is perfect anyway?) I do commend the show for presenting openly LGBT characters.

Love it!

Carrie: I'm excited for this series, as a bisexual (I usually say "queer," because of the gender dichotomy implied here) pop-culture lover. I'm a huge fan of your working definition of bi, and also refreshed by your analysis of bisexuality portrayed in gay TV/cinema. I mean, Christ, can't a bi character express their nature without it being an ethical breach (a la Tina from the L-Word, Julianne Moore from The Kids, etc.)!?

In a feminist webgroup, I recently asked friends to post names of their bisexual heroes. I got three responses from sixty users. (Let me know if you want my running list, or want to make sure I got someone good.) Actually, I'd love to see an article or user responses that can help me flesh out my list. I mostly pick people who were to some degree out about their orientation, and try to skip over people who were clearly gay and socially pressured into Boston marriages and the like. Which is a huge knot to untangle. I'd love some help!

Susie Bright!

azreynolds - That sounds like a great list. She may already be on your list, but I would say my biggest bisexual hero is Susie Bright. She writes about the topic in a really honest, beautiful way. This post is a great example of that: http://susiebright.blogs.com/susie_brights_journal_/2011/12/blind-sexual...

bi heroes

Brenda Howard, Robyn Ochs, Loraine Hutchins, Lani Ka'ahumanu, Ron Suresha, Micah Z. Kellner, Alan Cumming, Annie Sprinkle, Eve Ensler, Frida Kahlo, David Bowie, Aphra Behn, Margaret Mead, Kyrsten Sinema, and Lisa Jacobs.

DJUNA BARNES!

DJUNA BARNES!

I'm very much looking forward

I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of this series. I've mostly managed to avoid the negative consequences of coming out as bi, but I'm one of the lucky ones.

Music to my ears.

I am delighted you are giving time to the whole area of bisexuality. Since coming out 2 years ago, I have met so many people who appear disgusted that I was not one of the other. People commonly say you are greedy, but I do not see it that way. My response is simple.....I love all people, regardless of their gender.

Thank you all!

I am overwhelmed and thrilled by this response so far. Thank you all for reading and participating! I look forward to the dialogue we will have over the next two months.

Yay!

Definitely looking forward to this. I'm often extremely cautious about expressing the true nature of my sexuality (I identify as queer and/or pansexual, but I will occasionally use "bisexual" for the sake of ease) because of misconceptions and prejudices that I feel are often fueled by the media. It's frustrating to have to defend a statement made by me about my own identity, so I'm looking forward to reading your series and learning of others' experiences. Eagerly awaiting...

I am really looking forward

I am really looking forward to this blog, firstly because I completely agree with your definition that bisexuality is attraction to more than one gender, and secondly because bisexuality in the media is one of my big interests. So much so that I've (rather madly) decided to facilitate a session on it at this year's BiCon (National Bisexual Conference). I will be reading this avidly!

My main question with the portrayal of bis in fiction, Why are there so few male bisexuals? I wonder whether this is more about The Awesome Power of the Almighty Penis, and the fact that once you've had one, you can never go back. This appears to apply to all genders in fiction though. And there is a real binary in film and tv, you are either gay or straight, male or female. I look forward to reading your take on all this!

I'm very excited for this

I'm very excited for this series, and happy to see a topic near and dear to my heart getting some serious attention! I've been studying bisexual television representations for a decade, and have noticed some disturbing patterns in how bisexuality is visually coded for audiences. There are a lot of reasons why bisexual males appear less frequently than bisexual women, but simply looking at sex ignores the other ways these characters are positioned as "other" in the narratives they occupy.

I have never formally came

I have never formally came out as bi-sexual. I am definitely influenced by the representations and attitudes towards bi-sexuality and I don't want to identify as bi because of the stigma. I am really looking forward to the discussions.
Cheers

Bisexuality

Deconstruction and pattern recognition are two of our most favorite activities, so we anxiously look forward to a series of articles identifying and defining our sexuality. We also accept the Robin Ochs description of bisexuality, and to minimize countless hours of arguments over sexual definitions and labels, promote bisexuality as the umbrella under which all other labels reside. Our view is that actions speak far louder that words or fantasies, so as long as anyone has sex with the same or any other gender during their lifetime, they should be considered bisexual. An examination of bisexuality in the media is long over due. Given that images validate how we see ourselves, it is crucial that we pay particular attention to them.

Hi ! I'm french but I will

Hi !
I'm french but I will try to read the entire serie.
Thank you ! And good luck because there is a lot to say ! ^^

People of Color

Really looking forward to this being inclusive of people of color and trans folks.

Already see a lot of space where we were left out in this first installment but I will keep reading and keep hoping!

Hi mikilikemouse - I am

Hi mikilikemouse - I am definitely going to make a conscious effort to include people of color and trans folks. I tried to do so in this first post as well, but thank you for pointing out where I fell short. Are there specific people and characters you'd like to see explored?

I loved this post so much, I

I loved this post so much, I thought I'd do a vlog commentary on the series...here's the first one:
http://youtu.be/tbhYl31EFAs
Looking forward to more!

I like Orch's definition.

I like Orch's definition. Adding the "not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree" suddenly makes bisexual a word I can use to describe myself. And not that labelling is all that important, but being constantly left out of labels can make one feel kind of lonely...

Excellent, I look forward SO

Excellent, I look forward SO much to following this. As a bi woman, Ive heard every ignorant and stupid comment in the book and tire of them all. What I feel is straightforward for me, apparently it's not for others. I rectify as much ignorance as I can in conversation but goddamnit, it gets old fast. Most common one: thinking Bi's cant be monogamous... ugh. FFS.