Free YourselfThe Rise of Bisexual TV Characters

Lately, there’s a type of character I’ve been loving on TV: fun, brash, messy, femme-leaning tomboys with a taste for adventure. Most important, they’re women who don’t hide their sexual and romantic attraction to other women. Take Broad City’s Ilana Wexler (Ilana Glazer), for instance: Her attraction to her best friend Abbi Abrams (Abbi Jacobson), which involves near-worship of her “ass of an angel,” is one of the show’s long-running gags. You’re The Worst’s Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) hooks up with women almost as often as she hooks up with men. And more than once, The Good Place’s Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) has acknowledged her attraction to the beautiful but irritatingly self-absorbed Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil). Seeing these awesome women on screen makes me more confident and comfortable in owning my bisexual identity, but it also reminds me of the many stereotypes we still face from outside and within.

In a world where heterosexuality continues to be the norm, it is easier for women who have even a slight preference for men (I call them “straight-passing” bisexuals, and count myself among them) to follow the path of least resistance and stick with men in their sex and dating life. Having this option can seem like a privilege. But it also means that coming to terms with our bisexuality involves a complicated dance of acknowledgement and acceptance, made more complex because we know that we could live a functional, mostly honest life without ever acknowledging the full range of our identity. Still, as anyone who’s tried to suppress their truth can attest, denial rarely has positive results.

As a woman who was married to a man at 22, I’ve been happy with my partner and our life, but recently I’ve begun embracing my bisexuality. For me and my husband, this truth was simply another step in our journey together. I never even thought to “come out” until recently when, inspired by an article a young cousin of mine who wrote about being a bisexual woman in the Orthodox Jewish world, I reposted her article on Facebook with a comment about connecting with her story. Suddenly I was inundated with questions and concerns from friends and family about my relationship with my husband as well as my relationships with the women in my life. I quickly realized that these questions aligned with how the world sees straight-passing bi women, and that in many ways, it was how people had always seen me. That’s when I noticed that while I connected positively with these straight-passing bisexual characters, I also saw in them parts of myself  that have been misinterpreted or exploited by a world that never fully understood me.

Ilana Glazer as Ilana Wexler and Abbi Jacobson as Abbi Abrams on Broad City

From left to right: Ilana Glazer as Ilana Wexler and Abbi Jacobson as Abbi Abrams on Broad City (Photo credit: Comedy Central)

Misconception: Bisexual Women Are Sexually Ravenous

Because we are attracted to people across the gender spectrum, there’s an assumption that bisexual people are in a constant state of arousal—or, as they say, DTF. Of course, this is as absurd as the continuing myth that gay people pose a sexual threat in same-sex work places such as a sports team or the military. Libido is distinct from sexual attraction. Ilana’s constant search for a threesome is her own kink, not a mandate of her bisexuality. But her heightened sexual interest can seem to cleave to her pansexual nature, as in a scene where she sits on a bench in Central Park with her parents and catcalls men, women, and finally and accidentally, her gay brother. (Also, catcalling is bad, Ilana!) This type of overt and aggressive display of sexuality can reinforce the misperception that the broader the range of people you are comfortable having sex with, the more you think about sex overall, which is not always the case.

I spent my teen years being branded as oversexed because I openly acknowledged the attractiveness of men and women (at the time I thought I was just being broad-minded, not bisexual). Men often interpreted my interest in women as proof of an insatiable hunger, rather than as a hint that they might not be the only gender on my mind. They tried to turn my sexual openness to their own advantage, arguing, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that a woman who talked the way I did about sex lives in a constant state of implied consent. They used it against me to exploit my body and gave me an overall feeling that I had to make good on my shown sexual interest. I became convinced that I owed men sex because I was openly sexual, and a woman’s sexuality is first and foremost for men.

Misconception: Women’s Bisexuality is a Performance For or Reaction To Men

While Gretchen in You’re the Worst often makes bad decisions around sex, the sex she has with women is almost always connected directly to the men in her life. For instance, she attempts to hook up with a hot bartender because Jimmy also slept with her. When she tries to ingratiate herself with her boyfriend’s ex-wife, she ends up drunkenly sleeping with her instead. And while people can have unhealthy motives for sexual encounters, assuming that women who like other women only engage in sex with them for unhealthy reasons perpetuates the myth of the primacy of heterosexuality.

Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop and Jameela Jamil as Tahani Al-Jamil on The Good Place

From left to right: Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop and Jameela Jamil as Tahani Al-Jamil on The Good Place (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

I remember being at a high-school party where a male friend asked me and his ex-girlfriend to kiss front of him. I felt deeply uncomfortable knowing that our intimacy was some vicarious pleasure for him, but I wanted to seem “game” at a party, so I kissed her. It was a nice kiss, but I wasn’t really able to think about the pleasure of the encounter, so focused was I on the literal male gaze trained upon our lips. Back then I was still fully straight-passing, even to myself, and I wonder what realizations I could’ve had if my sexual interactions with women didn’t have a performance for men baked into them. Perhaps it would have taught me that women’s sexual pleasure is distinctive from our relationships with men and separate from their approval or recognition.

Misconception: Bisexual Women Are Duplicitous

Eleanor Shellstrop is unapologetically sexually confident. She’s open about her attraction to Tahani—and those flannels. But, Eleanor is also in the Bad Place because she’s led a life of carelessness, heartlessness, and duplicity. She lied to her friends, her coworkers, her boyfriends. She lied almost instinctively, as a seeming act of self-preservation. And while this is a realistic (and negative) trait for a character to have (she’s working on it), it’s also one of the primary and damaging traits wrongly attributed to bisexual people. We must be lying, the argument goes, when we are with one gender because somewhere deep down, we’d rather be with another. And if we’ve generally been with men, we’re often accused of being dishonest about our interest in the women we are with as well.

This argument, once again, cleaves two things that are independent: sexual orientation and sexual interest. It also assumes that our desire for people across the gender spectrum will make it impossible for us to engage honestly and fully in committed relationships. After I came out online, people who’d considered me to be a loyal and trustworthy partner to my husband began harboring doubts about whether my sexual interest in other genders might lead (or might have already led) to infidelity. On the flip side, there were those who wondered if embracing my bisexuality was a kind of fantasy enactment or virtue signaling. Of course, I don’t owe anyone proof that I actually, genuinely like being with women sexually, or that I am loyal to my husband, but being questioned in this regard can make the process of coming to terms with one’s identity much harder.

The answer to mitigating these misconceptions is to live our truths with authenticity, and build  nonjudgmental relationships with people from across the sexual orientation and gender spectrum. Doing so will help to break down the stereotypes that take root when we fail to see people’s individual humanity. Media can help with this process, as always, with greater and more diverse bisexual representation (just one reason I was so excited to see Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) recently come out as bisexual on Brooklyn Nine-Nine). After all, people are complex and so are their identities. The more bisexual characters we see, the less likely we are to draw conclusions about an entire group of people based on a few examples, and the more we’ll be able to appreciate the full range of human experience, in art and life.

by Rachel Klein
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Rachel Klein is a writer, teacher, and performer living in Boston, MA. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Catapult, McSweeney’s, Reductress, and Teen Vogue. You can follow her on twitter @racheleklein.

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