Bisexual characters on TV and the power of saying the word

Bisexual representation on TV has made leaps and bounds, but what does it mean when it’s still rare to hear the word bisexual said onscreen?

In the pantheon of queer lady television, Grey’s Anatomy looms large. It may not have been the first series to include an LGBTQ+ identifying character, but the quantity and variety of those characters and the length of time they’ve existed on the show place it on a short list. When the series was first allowing Dr. Callie Torres to explore her sexuality in its fourth season, it stumbled upon a scene which resonated with countless gay women. Known as the “leaves on trees monologue,” the scene follows Callie’s girlfriend, Dr. Erica Hahn, as she compares experiences with Callie — and her realization that she is, in fact, gay — with the day she first got glasses and discovered the the fuzzy green blobs she’d seen her whole life were leaves. Like glasses, being with a woman made the world make sense.

Women realizing their own sexuality was liberating; it opened up the world in ways they hadn’t imagined before, and Callie and this moment on television was the first time they ever saw their experience depicted on screen

The scene resonated with countless women who had a similar experience. Realizing their own sexuality was liberating, it opened up the world in ways they hadn’t imagined before, and this character and this moment on television was the first time they ever saw their experience depicted on screen. It’s a powerful moment, certainly, but it wasn’t until much later in the episode that I could say I had a similar experience, when Callie, freaked out and confused by Erica’s speech, sleeps with Mark Sloan and in her distress explains that she “expected it to be different” with him. She expected her sexuality to be simple, to fall toward one side or the other, to be either gay or straight. But it wasn’t simple, because Callie is bisexual.

More than half of the LGBTQ+ community identifies as bisexual+, according to The Williams Institute. Despite that number, in a GLAAD report of the the 2019-2020 season, only about a quarter of the LGBTQ+ characters across broadcast, cable, and streaming series fell into a bisexual+ identity. According to that same report, even when characters are depicted as bisexual+, they aren’t always depicted in a positive way, often playing an antagonistic or outright villainous role in the story. Frequently, characters who might be bisexual are actually depicted much like Erica Hahn on Grey’s Anatomy, going from exclusively dating men to exclusively dating women. For characters like Alex Danvers on Supergirl or Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, dating a woman is a profound experience and coming out, while still frightening and intimidating, is a moment of truthfulness and a validation of their sense of self. 

That is not always the case for those of us who identify as bisexual+, the subset of the LGBTQ+ population who are least likely to come out publicly. We struggle with stigmas ranging from the damaging (that bisexual+ people are inherently untrustworthy) to the invisible (literally, that bisexuality isn’t a legitimate identity) and those stigmas often bear out in the media we consume.

Bisexual Grey's Anatomy Callie Torres
BisexImage Credit: ABC (screengrab)

When there is a dearth of bisexual+ representation in media, even positive stories about late blooming lesbians like Alex or Willow can contribute to insecurities felt by bisexual+ folks. If we never see ourselves reflected back, see a validation of our attraction to people of all genders rather than just a transition from one to another, it is harder to make sense of those feelings. That’s why characters like Callie, and shows like Grey’s Anatomy that go out of their way to depict those characters as consistently dating and flirting across the spectrum of gender identity, are so important to viewers like myself. It took 26 years for me to see my own identity — and the confusion it caused — depicted on screen, to find a story I could relate to and which would help me express that identity to others. That’s despite having consumed plenty of media with LGBTQ+ characters and knowing no small number of gay and lesbian people throughout my life. 

Thankfully, despite the fact that only 25% of LGBTQ+ characters are currently identified or depicted as bisexual+, that number still represents a much larger quantity (if not percentage) of bisexual+ characters compared to most previous seasons. Ten years ago, GLAAD’s report listed only eight bisexual+ characters. This year’s lists 128. In 2010, we may have had Callie Torres but we could only imagine having characters like Kat Sandoval (Madam Secretary), Maya Bishop (Station 19), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away With Murder), Dex Parios (Stumptown), Waverly Earp (Wynnona Earp), and literally dozes of others. 

Bisexual Waverly Earp
Image credit: SYFY (screengrab)

Bisexuality (and other identities that trouble the gender binary) has become a legitimate option for characters in media in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean we’ve broken through to some great pinnacle of representation. In addition to the disparity between the number of bisexual+ characters and the actual percentage of LGBTQ+ people who identify as something other than strictly gay/lesbian, media depictions still struggle with both fully accepting those identities and depicting them without falling into negative stereotypes.

Of the 128 characters listed in GLAAD’s TV report this year, many of them have never actually use the words bisexual, pansexual, queer, fluid, or other descriptors, despite those characters dating across the gender spectrum. That’s true for even widely celebrated and positive representations. While, yes, many people in real life do prefer to avoid specific labels, using them in media depictions of bisexual+ characters helps to normalize those identities. In so doing, bisexual+ characters are presented as both real and legitimate, and audiences who identify as something other than bisexual+ can make a positive association with those labels.

It may seem like a small thing to use a label like bisexual, something trivial that shouldn’t be belabored, but for underrepresented fans who cling to any semblance of reflection in their media, it can be cathartic.

But there is always hope. Even when creators and shows don’t initially label their queer characters’ sexuality, it doesn’t have to stay that way. SYFY’s Wynnona Earp, a series lauded for its treatment of both its LGBTQ+ characters and fans, didn’t use the word bisexual to describe Waverly until the most recent season. That’s despite spending a large amount of Waverly’s arc in the first season with her stuck between her high school boyfriend, and the woman she would later fall in love with. Even my personal hero, Callie Torres, whose coming out journey meant so much to me, wasn’t officially labeled as bisexual until the show’s seventh season, despite the fact that she had been with both men and women at several points over the previous two years. To their credit, Grey’s Anatomy went a step further in their eventual confirmation of Callie’s identity, using it as a moment in which her girlfriend legitimizes, accepts, and comes to terms with her own insecurities surrounding that identity.

It may seem like a small thing to use a label like bisexual, something trivial that shouldn’t be belabored, but for underrepresented fans who cling to any semblance of reflection in their media, it can be cathartic. It means one more character, one more story, that is theirs.

The explosion of LGBTQ+ characters in film and television over the last decade has provided hundreds of opportunities to tell a wide variety of stories representing experiences and identities across the spectrum of gender and sexual identity. It is thrilling to think that young people today likely won’t need to wait until they’re in their mid-twenties to discover a character who looks and feels and loves like they do. But we are still just scratching the surface and there are so many more stories to tell just beneath. I can’t wait to see them.

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