(image: Fandom Wikia)
In an era where LGBT people are finally becoming more accepted, it is more common than ever than ever to see queer characters appear in popular movies and TV shows. However, just because we see these queer characters on screen does not guarantee that their identity has been represented accurately . Real world stigmatization surrounding certain identities- such as biphobia and transphobia- , along with straight creators’ subconscious bias, carries over into fiction.
A recent example is the character of Jesper Fahey, from the hit series Shadow and Bone which came out this summer. In Six of Crows- one of the books that Shadow and Bone was based on- Jesper’s bisexuality is made apparent when Jesper conversationally remarks to another character that he is “not just [into] girls” , and at different points he is shown to have relationships with both men and women. By comparison, in the show Jesper has a brief fling with a stable boy and without context from the book, many show watchers were led to believe Jesper was just gay.
The discrepancy in the interpretation of Jesper’s sexuality in the books vs the show illustrates the challenge with representing a bisexual character onscreen; show them in a same sex relationship, people assume they’re gay, and show them in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, people assume they’re just straight.
The solution isn’t a simple matter of labeling, for having a character label their sexuality doesn’t automatically equal good representation, nor, in real life, do labels fit comfortably for everyone. However, it’s telling that so many studios are willing to entertain the idea of bi characters, but reluctant to allow them to verbally identify that bisexuality.
Bisexuality- particularly in the sci fi/ fantasy, genre- continues to be regarded as some sort of dirty word inherently associated with promiscuity,. In Doctor Who, a show which features multiple characters who have love interests/ flirtations with various genders (Jack Harkness, River Song and Clara Oswald, the Doctor) these characters rarely if ever actually describe themselves as “bi”. Klaus from the Umbrella Academy- despite his actor saying he is Pan (https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/ustv/a26296278/netflix-umbrella-academy-robert-sheehan-gay-character/)
– is never allowed to describe himself, onscreen, as such. In Marvel studios’ Loki, the titular anti-hero Loki- and one of Disney’s latest “first gay characters”- mentions having relationships with males and females, but once again, even for this throwaway, easily editable line, Loki never says the word “bi”, and I can’t help but feel like that was a conscious decision by someone working at Disney who deemed that the word “bi” wasn’t appropriate for their family friendly model.
The fact that these characters never outright label themselves might not be a problem if there was adequate follow through, and they were shown in meaningful relationships with people of different genders. But all of the characters I mentioned above are written, to some degree, as bi stereotypes; as either (or both) overly flirty, or aliens who approach sexuality with an “otherworldly” perspective and are therefore are open minded enough to have sex with “anything” as it were. These bisexual characters- and in turn, their bisexuality- are never fully humanized, and often they are only ever allowed to be in one kind of relationship over the course of the series.
The reality is, the medium of live action TV and movies has a long way to go before it can be well suited for representation- but perhaps it can learn a thing or two from other media. In video games like Life is Strange, Dragon Age, or Cyberpunk to name a few, the element of choice gives players more freedom to pursue narrative paths that feel authentic to them. In books, a character’s internal thoughts can also reveal information about a character’s sexuality. These types of media have proven that it is possible to integrate bisexuality into a story in ways that feel natural.
It is no longer enough for studios to give us the bare minimum. It is no longer enough for a character to implicitly state they’re bi, or for characters to merely allude to having love interests of different genders. Fully humanizing bi people in media, I think, will start with creators interrogating themselves about what, exactly, it is about bisexuality that they feel is less palatable for a mainstream audience.