If you’ve been within five metres of someone with a Netflix account, you’ve probably heard of Orange is the New Black. You’ve probably heard it very highly praised, and rightly so. In addition to being, you know, good television, the show tells us the stories of the kinds of characters which are often silenced (if they appear at all) in mainstream culture. The vast majority of the cast are women. A significant proportion are women of colour, or queer, or both, and Laverne Cox’s character is incontrovertible proof that portrayals of trans characters will be a lot more engaging and accurate if, you know, actual trans people play them.
However, even in a show so lauded (justifiably) for its representation of marginalised identities, there are still some getting shortchanged.The show’s main character, Piper Chapman, has had romantic and sexual relationships with men and women. Much of the attendant discussion of Chapman’s sexuality within the show is framed as a decision between heterosexuality and homosexuality, despite there being in existence not one but a number of terms to describe people who are attracted to more than one gender.
The word ‘bi’ is used once in the whole of the show’s two seasons, and then not with any certainty. Pansexuality (or omnisexuality) doesn’t even get a look in. This is made especially bizarre by the fact that Piper Kerman, on whose experiences the show is based, openly identifies as bisexual, a sexual identity not apparently shared by any of the women in the show to have had relationships with the same and different genders.
Why does bisexuality have such a bad rep that even in a show with what is on the whole remarkably good representation, it remains a dirty word? It probably doesn’t help that as a society we’re committed to erasing the identities of bisexuals who live and walk among us. Lady Gaga is often spoken of as if she were heterosexual. Madonna’s sexual and romantic interactions with women are seen as sensationalising or else pandering to a male audience. Both have publically identified as bisexual. When Tom Daley announced in December of 2013 that he was in a loving relationship with another man saying, “I still fancy girls, but at the moment I’ve never been happier,” the headlines screamed, “Tom Daley comes out as gay!” or, not quite as inaccurately, but still somewhat misleadingly, “Tom Daley in gay relationship”.
Culture has the power to show more advanced attitudes and nuanced depictions than in the media more generally, and to break boundaries. A genre with, in theory, great opportunity to do this, would be science fiction – the future might be a fairer place after all. Sci-fi has form in the field of depicting progressive attitudes – the original series of Star Trek had a remarkably diverse cast for the 60s, as well as featuring the first ever interracial kiss on American television.
However, the sci-fi writers of today seem less committed to trying to represent human existence at a more advanced point than society as it is at the moment. Steven Moffat of BBC’s Doctor Who, when asked why his shows don’t feature more bisexual characters, responded, “We don’t acknowledge you on television ‘cos you’re having FAR TOO MUCH FUN. You probably don’t even watch ‘cos you’re so BUSY!”
Later, Moffat did declare the character River Song to be bi, but this was never even hinted at in the show, where she’s preoccupied exclusively with the Doctor. As far as representation goes, this is a cop-out. Most people won’t know about this throwaway remark, and, as it’s not on the show, most people won’t care. There seems to be a pervasive attitude that representation of bisexual or pansexual characters doesn’t really matter in the same way as representing monosexual people does.
In response to a plotline in which one of Glee’s characters wondered if he might be bisexual before concluding he was gay all along, the show’s creator Ryan Murphy declared, “The kids need to know he’s one of them.” Bisexual kids apparently just aren’t on the show’s radar. There doesn’t seem to be a sense among creators of the media we consume that seeing bisexuality or pansexuality represented in an overt way is at all important.
When shows have characters who have sex or relationships with more than one gender, they’ll either switch abruptly from being called straight to gay, or vice versa (for example, Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Chapman in Orange is the New Black), or else they’ll say something along the lines of, “I don’t like labels,” or not give a straight – ahem – answer (see Thirteen in House, Hathaway in Lewis, or, yet again, Chapman in Orange is the New Black). Obviously there’s nothing wrong with people in real life not wanting to label their sexuality if they don’t feel comfortable doing so, but it would have been nice as a teenager to have known these labels existed. Labels allow non-monosexuals to be recognised by people who might not otherwise know we exist, but also to be recognised by each other and other members of the queer community.
Why are writers so hesitant to label characters as bisexual and pansexual? We’re here, we’re queer, and we just want to see people like ourselves on TV godammit.