Are Television Portrayals of Bisexuality Helpful or Harmful?

by | July 15, 2010 at 10:43 AM | Special Features, TV News

Archie Panjabi, 'The Good Wife' (CBS)

Archie Panjabi, 'The Good Wife' (CBS)

It sure is trendy for female celebrities to be bisexual now.

Anna Paquin announced she is a bisexual – though the only relationship she has ever gone public is with her ‘True Blood‘ leading man, Stephen Moyer. Singer Vanessa Carlton recently announced she was bi, prompting much conversation about how everyone always got Carlton and Michelle Branch mixed up back in the day. ‘The Biggest Loser’sJillian Michaels alluded to being bisexual in Ladies’ Home Journal of all places – though most gossip alleges that she has been in a longterm lesbian relationship.

Even Disney teen queen Miley Cyrus, who has never had a thought that Britney Spears didn’t have a decade ago, recently feigned a bisexual kiss.

Scripted television, however, is behind the curve.  There are plenty of bi-curious characters – previously straight women who have a brief romance with another woman, then resume relationships with men without ever dating a gal again (think Angela on ‘Bones’ or 13 on ‘House’).  But there are few actual bisexual characters.  Nicole Kristal, co-author of The Bisexual’s Guide to the Universe, disapproves of this trend. “I think it does a lot of damage to the bisexual community when that happens in the media,” she says, “because it really perpetuates the belief that it’s just a passing phase and it always is about experimentation.”

Openly bisexual comedian/actress Margaret Cho, who stars on ‘Drop Dead Diva,’ disagrees.  “I think it is cool that we have definitely expanded our idea of what queer is for TV,” she says. “It’s a good thing overall if you have different kinds of lifestyles and different people.”

As Kristal points out, making a character a bisexual who is never shown in same-sex relationships is a way of appearing to embrace sexual diversity without actually committing to it – perhaps because making a character gay can both offend some audience members and limit on-screen romantic storylines.

Bisexual storylines tend to follow a pattern: a straight female character suddenly finds herself attracted to a woman.  A few kisses, often strategically timed to ratings sweeps, happen.  Most of the time, the romance quickly runs its course.  Straight male characters, meanwhile, never develop attractions to other men, but a woman’s sexuality is written as malleable.  In most cases a character’s bisexuality delivers a short-term arc that has no lasting impact on her life. It is portrayed as a “phase,” like going goth, for teenage characters including ‘90210‘s Adrianna (Jessica Lowndes), who dated a girl for several episodes, came out to the whole school, then broke up with her and started dating a male pop star.

Other teenage girls, like ‘Glee’s Santana (Naya Rivera) and Brittany (Heather Morris), pretend to be bisexual to get attention from guys.  Sudden bisexuality is also presented as an option for women who are having no luck with men (see ‘Desperate Housewives‘ Katherine, played by Dana Delany).

Occasionally, as in the case of ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘s Callie, the relationship lasts and the character decides she is in fact a lesbian. But Kristol takes issue with that, too. “The only other way the storyline usually goes is if it’s something like Willow on ‘Buffy,’ where she becomes gay. It’s rare to see a respectable character on television who is consistently bisexual.”

Television’s temporary bi-curious characters are perhaps partially responsible for the numerous celebrities whose brief forays into bisexuality seem designed to titillate their fans.  Again, Cho and Kristal disagree on the impact of their behavior. Cho thinks it’s “great” to send out the message that sexual experimentation is acceptable, though she would like to see on screen more “longtime partners and people who are actually gay, not just experimenting.”  Kristal, on the other hand, finds is detrimental to the bisexual rights movement. “That disgusts me the most: the whole bi-curious, Katy Perry ‘I Kissed a Girl’ thing. A lot of that is just to get more fans and more attention.”

There is one prominent bisexual character on television. ‘The Good Wife‘s Kalinda has proved interesting enough that Archie Punjabi received an unexpected (though deserved) Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the private investigator.

Everything about Kalinda is ambiguous and mysterious. And the revelation in the season finale that she was sexually involved with both a man and a woman, and that there were strategic aspects to both relationships, made perfect sense, though CBS hedged its bets by only showing her kissing the guy.

“I don’t know why that didn’t merit actual footage, but I thought for CBS that was pretty ballsy, given that it is an older demographic for that show,” says Kristal. “In the pilot it’s written as a character description for Kalinda that she’s nonchalantly bisexual… so I’m hoping that the showrunners stick to that, and she remains bisexual. That could really be groundbreaking if they go in that direction.”