Where Are All the Bi Guys on TV?
John Constantine, the beloved demon-slaying antihero of comic books, made his network TV debut last night in the new NBC series Constantine. While fan boys and girls parse the faithfulness the adaptation, the jury is definitely out in one big arena: his sexuality.
Constantine is generally accepted to be one of few bisexual characters in the comic book canon, though the references to his sexuality are subtle. But at the Television Critics Association's press tour this summer, Constantine’s executive producer Daniel Cerone minimized the importance of his orientation, citing no concrete plans to address it on the series.
To be fair, Constantine’s bisexuality isn’t explicitly referenced in the source material at its start. And the show’s producer, David S. Goyer, hasn’t ruled out addressing it. “We never said he wasn’t [bisexual]. It’s just not what we’re leading with,” Goyer told reporters this summer. He added, “When [Constantine] was first introduced, sexuality was not the big thing they were featuring. They didn’t even get into that, regardless of who he slept with, for a year or two.”
Still, for many bisexual activists, it felt like just one more instance of bi erasure in the media. The announcement inspired the hashtag #BiBlazer, combining the word bisexual and Consantine’s moniker of Hellblazer, and an online petition demanding recognition of Constantine’s identity.
Having a lead character—particularly a male—self-identify as bisexual would be a bold step for any big film studio or television network when bi characters seldom get screen time. The GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index reported that, of the films released by major studios in 2013, 16.7 percent featured characters that identified as LGBT. Of those, only 17.7 percent included bisexual characters.
Of course, when you do see a bi character, nine times out of 10 she’s female. Women’s sexuality has long been viewed as titillating to heterosexual viewers; in a few instances, bi female characters have even had decent storylines. (See Orange Is the New Black, Glee, Grey’s Anatomy and House.) Scripted shows with male bisexual characters, however, struggle to gain footing or even a pilot. Sean Hayes was reportedly working on a TV project in 2008 called Bi-Coastal about a man married to a woman in California while also having a boyfriend in New York. It appears to have gone nowhere.
The odd bi guy storyline is often framed as a dream sequence, as in the last season of True Blood, or, more frequently, as a big joke. (Sex and the City fans will recall Carrie Bradshaw labeling her bi date’s professed sexuality as “a layover on the way to Gaytown.”) Sometimes a male character’s bisexuality is scrubbed from a series altogether. Before the U.K. show Torchwood was brought stateside on BBC America, the main character was openly bi. Something funny happened when he crossed the Atlantic: In the U.S. series he was gay.
It’s gotten to the point where some of the only places bi men can see themselves on screen are in shows like The Real World, Catfish, or the occasional documentary, such as Bi the Way, which aired on Logo several years ago. It’s saying something when reality shows appear more evolved than fiction.
What’s behind this under-representation? Denise Penn, a clinical social worker on the boards of the American Institute of Bisexuality and Lambda Literary, says it can be traced to a fear of bi men that’s a holdover from the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
“It was so easy to scapegoat bisexual men, that they’re the ones on the down low, bringing the virus back to their wives and girlfriends,” Penn says. “Even today there’s a stereotype that bisexual men can’t possibly be monogamous and that they’re opportunistic.” Promiscuous and calculating certainly apply to Francis Underwood, the Machiavellian lead character on Netflix’s House of Cards, one of few male bisexuals in current series.
Another hurdle is that some (ostensibly straight) viewers still have a problem with guy-on-guy sexuality. This week, Shonda Rhimes put a Twitter user on blast after she complained that the gay scenes in Rhimes’ shows were “too much.” Rhimes responded with “There are no GAY scenes. There are scenes with people in them,” among other choice quips.
Rhimes being an enlightened exception, traditionally network TV loves to reduce multilayered humans to stereotypes. For gays and lesbians, that historically meant being typecast as flamboyant or butch. Bisexuals, however, seem to have flummoxed writers with their lack of clear-cut coded behaviors. Not all bisexuals act on attractions to both genders, nor do they claim bisexuality as integral to their identity. In a 2013 Pew Research Survey, about half of gay men and lesbians said sexual orientation is extremely or very important to their overall identity; only two in 10 bisexual men and women said the same. It’s also common for bisexuals to publicly “pass” as straight or gay, because there’s often a social cost to coming out as bi.
If the entertainment world wanted to take a meaningful look at bisexuality, the focus would be on “identity and other aspects besides having sex with and man and a woman,” says Penn. Just like for most people on earth, sexuality would be a thing in their lives, but not the only thing. But that would mean investing enough screen time to really get in the character’s head, which presents a financial gamble to networks.
“I’m the first to recognize how much of a risk there is when producing films and TV is so costly,” says Kyle Schickner, a filmmaker who is bisexual. Through his production company, FenceSitter Films, he created the Web series Rose By Any Other Name, which is about a lesbian who falls in love with a man. “I would love to see a character in a show that’s out and in a monogamous relationship with a boy or girl. But because we’re so underrepresented, any representation ends up being a good one. It’s the invisibility that hurts the most.”
Recognition has always been a challenge for the bi community, especially when numbers of self-reported bisexuals are small. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law reports that between 0.6 percent and 1.6 percent of the U.S. population identifies as bisexual. But only 28 percent of people who identify as bisexual are open about it to the most important people in their lives, according to the Pew survey. Many eschew labels altogether or simply adopt the looser, all-encompassing term “queer.”
Regardless of semantics, on-screen representation remains important to those in the bisexual community who want to see their experiences on screen. “There are plenty of kids who still struggle with this from an emotional standpoint because there’s no community for them,” says Schickner. Having a show do for bi kids today what Will & Grace and Ellen did in the ’90s could help establish a larger support network.
“Greater representation creates a feeling of acceptance and encourages people to come out, and people need to do that to be whole,” Penn adds. It’s also a chance to demystify bisexuality for mainstream population, much in the same way that the work of transgender advocates such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and series like Orange Is the New Black and Transparent have done.
If writers—gay, straight or bi—are smart, they won’t sleep on stories that feature bisexuals. The very issues that make it potentially tough to find audiences can be a great source of drama. “As a producer, I think addressing monogamy in bisexual relationships is a great storyline to explore in an honest, open way,” says Schickner. Who knows—giving audiences a little credit along with a great narrative may even lead to widespread fandom.
Schnicker’s series, for example, was originally developed for Logo, but he says it didn’t air there because the network was worried it would offend its lesbian audience. “We then released it on YouTube—its biggest audience was lesbians,” he says. “They supported the show even more than the bisexual community.”