Visi(bi)lity: Post-Bi? What Skins Can Teach Us About Labels

Carrie Nelson
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Carrie is a writer and documentary filmmaker living in NYC.

Throughout this series, we’ve talked a lot about labels. Identifying as gay or straight can be complicated enough; for those of us somewhere in the middle, it gets even trickier. Discussions over “bi” versus “queer” versus “pansexual” versus “fluid” get very complicated, very quickly. It makes me wonder: why are we so hung up on labels? Do we even need labels anymore? Spectra, one of my colleagues from Gender Across Borders, addressed this recently on her personal blog:

As with many other solidarity labels—women of color, black, feminist etc.—I support using common labels to reveal ourselves to others who have shared experiences and perspectives; but my primary identity isn’t pivoted around any of these and I wouldn’t take it too well if someone were to tell me that I have problems, or need to be “educated” because I choose to identify (or not identify) the way I do.

A group of nine teenagers lay on top of each other in a messy pile. They wear brightly colored clothes, except for one blonde boy toward the bottom right, who is shirtless. They are in front of a rippled silver backdrop.I like Spectra’s philosophy. I have particular labels that I use in reference to my own identity, and I like being able to use language to express otherwise intangible facets of my identity. There’s nothing wrong with that. I also like using labels in the way that Spectra describes—as a way of finding other people who may have similar life experiences or beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. The problems start when labels limit self-expression, rather than foster it. And, unfortunately, labels have become far more limiting than expressive. Especially among young people today, traditional labels are no longer cutting it. There are certainly examples reflecting this reality all over the media, but where I’ve noticed it most is in the UK version of Skins.

I started watching Skins recently, and I am blown away by the show’s liberal approach to sexuality. It’s a show in which teenagers have lots of sex, and while it’s not always as sex-positive as I had hoped (one episode I watched, involving a girl engaging in casual sex to get over a break-up, featured a disturbing amount of slut-shaming dialogue), it does have a very flexible and progressive outlook on sexuality and, at least since Franky’s been on the show, gender. Non-monosexuality is fairly commonplace in the Skins universe, and it is rarely labeled as anything at all, let alone “bisexual.” In seasons one and two, a young man named Tony predominantly dates and sleeps with women, but he also enjoys experimenting with men; at one point, a manifestation of his subconscious refers to him as “a little fucked up jumble of misdirected, immature polysexuality” (though he never directly claims the label “polysexual” himself). Season two also features Cassie, a girl primarily involved with men, experimenting with women and, in her words, “discover[ing] the power of the pussy.” She does not, however, claim any specific label to express her sexuality. And then there’s Franky, introduced in season five, who is genderqueer and explains that her sexuality is “into people.” I have some issues with Skins, but I really like these characters and the fact that the show approaches sexuality from this perspective. Because, the fact is, the identities expressed by characters like Tony, Cassie, and Franky are probably much better reflections of teen sexuality today than conventional straight and gay characters are.

An adolescent girl with cropped curly hair looks downward. She is wearing a white tank top, and the shot is very tight on her face and upper torso. To the right of the frame is a wall with black decorative wallpaper. The camera is at an angle, so the white ceiling is also visible.So does Skins’ approach indicate that we’re moving past a need for labels—or, at least, traditional labels like straight, gay, and bisexual? Well…not necessarily. At the start of this series, a commenter asked me why I choose to call myself “bisexual” rather than “pansexual.” The reason isn’t because I’m only attracted to two genders, because I’m not. It’s also not because I think “bisexual” is a perfect label, because I don’t. For a while, I preferred to use “queer,” but I started to phase that out and transition to using “bisexual” when I realized that the concept of “queer” can be confusing for a lot of folks. Initially, I liked “queer” specifically for its vagueness, but when I became more invested in finding a word that would convey a consistent meaning when people heard it, the label became more challenging. So I went with “bisexual,” since as of now, it is the most commonly understood expression of non-monosexuality (to the degree that non-monosexuality is commonly understood, of course). And while this may not be important to everyone, it is important to me to use language that easily places myself in the context of a broader movement. Politically, I believe it’s critical to represent non-monosexuality in the LGBT movement. Because we exist, and there are lots of us. Among the self-identified LGB population, more than 50% identify as bisexual. And that’s before factoring in non-monosexual folks who don’t identify as bisexual. Looking at the names and priorities of most LGBT organizations, you wouldn’t realize that bi people make up such a huge percentage of the community. Until that’s recognized, I find it important to speak out about non-monosexuality, using the language of bisexuality.

All that said, it’s very easy to get caught up in labels. Labels shouldn’t be the ultimate point. When they communicate a concept well, they can be useful, but we shouldn’t rely on them so heavily that we miss the indescribable subtleties and nuances of sexuality. We also shouldn’t rely on them to the point of prescriptivism, which silences labels and identities that others may choose. The identities articulated on Skins indicate the direction I believe society is heading in—a place where people are less concerned with what they call themselves and more concerned with who they love and what they enjoy. And that’s the most important thing, anyway.

So are we post-bi? No. I don’t think we’re post-anything, honestly. Earlier this week, I heard someone use the term “post-feminist,” and it made my skin crawl. As long as oppression exists, we aren’t post-anything. And biphobia is alive and well, so, no, we aren’t post-bi. But maybe someday we will be. I’m okay with that. I’m not married to this label. And Skins shows us that none of us ever have to be.

Related: Franky Likes People: Skins UK Episode 507 is a Pansexual Ending to a Very Queer Week of TV

Previously: A Tale of Two Alexes: Bi Coming-of-Age Narratives, Bisexuality as Rebellion: Sexualizing Women’s Friendships

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5 Comments Have Been Posted


Interesting post. I identify as straight, but I certainly find that prescription too rigid for the majority of the population (including myself). I was just wondering if you had seen this week's episode of Whitney-- I actually don't watch that show, but someone told me to watch last night's. Long story short, one of the main characters "comes out" as bisexual during last night's episode, and there was a pretty nuanced discussion about gender/sexuality and "labeling." A lot of talk about "people loving people" rather than "people loving guys or girls." Either way, it was nice to see a bisexual male acknowledged and discussed in a relevant, tolerant fashion on a mainstream sitcom. Seeing as you're interested in representations of bisexuality in the media, you should give it a look.


I dunno... Think too much examination of labels panders to those who oppress. Our collective and singular 'skin' should repel the questions. Much stronger moving on and through... and being... human...?!

For those who care about dialogue, such labels don't exists. The rest can just follow the lead... Fuck labels! Let's get on with loving and living. And yeah... I believe it is that simple.

I think I decided to identify

I think I decided to identify as "bi" because, bizarrely, I saw it as the label which meant to be without a label. I knew I liked guys, but identifying as straight somehow felt too narrow--and I knew I wasn't gay either. The middle and high schools I went to were not exactly great environments to be experimenting with sexuality. I didn't even know that terms like "pansexual" and "genderqueer" existed; my awareness of people who didn't identify along clear gender party lines was virtually nil.
And now...? I still feel like "bisexual" works for me--I don't broadcast it everywhere, but if people ask that's what I'll tell them.

It's interesting that you've

It's interesting that you've mentioned Franky here: have you seen the last season yet? I found Franky's evolution incredibly disappointing. Most of her storyline barely passes the Bechdel test and she even complains to Mini that the bed
'smells like vagina', which is of course followed by another character coming in and saying the bed smells disgusting. She could have said it smelled like B.O. or just gross in general but no, the worst possible thing to smell like is vagina. See you in the Summer's Eve aisle Franky.

I have to say, it's one of my

I have to say, it's one of my pet peeves when non-mono people describe themselves as being attracted to "people," not genders/genitals/whatever. It's not like mono-sexuals are attracted to every person of their preferred gender! I (think I) get what they're trying to say, but that phrasing is pretty condescending and judgmental. To me, it seems to be saying we'd all be bi/poly if we'd just stop being hung up on gender, and that's just not true.

As for the last part of your post, amen! The idea of being post-anything just seems so naive to me.

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