Graphic by Hannah Boston
Media, and America’s incessant consumption of it, accompanies every facet of daily life and has had a tremendous influence on society, especially in the past five years. From the advertisements screaming at us from every available screen to the enormous sway that social media has on our perceptions of others, the average person is constantly bombarded by images and messages created by those who control corporate media. One especially influential medium is that of television, as it is a mode of media that Americans invite into their homes on the daily without fully realizing its intimate effects on their perceptions of others.
As it is often a homogenous group of people (read: rich, old, white, straight, cis men) who controls what shows and characters make it to air, depictions of marginalized groups are often told through the lens of the majority rather than those of underrepresented individuals.
Depictions of marginalized groups are often told through the lens of the majority rather than those of underrepresented individuals.
This issue is a point of contention for the LGBTQ+ community, whose struggle for liberation has been encouraged by increasingly positive depictions on television yet inhibited by continued inaccuracies and stereotypes. The bisexual subsect of the community, in particular, grapples with inauthentic representations, which contribute to a general misunderstanding of bisexuality as well as problematic presentations of an intricate identity for bisexual people, some of whom look to television for relatability and acceptance. These unfavorable depictions are detrimental to the mental health of the bisexual community and can contribute to higher rates of mental illnesses in comparison to the general population (Journal of Bisexuality Volume 16, 2016- Issue 3, “Bisexuality, Mental Health, and Media Representation”). If television is meant to represent the lives of real people, and bisexual people continue to see depictions that are not grounded in reality, how do they cognitively view themselves within the fabric of human society?
If television is meant to represent the lives of real people, and bisexual people continue to see depictions that are not grounded in reality, how do they cognitively view themselves within the fabric of human society?
The question of representation is often perceived as an emotional issue—supposedly, bisexual people want to see themselves represented so that they can make themselves feel better. This assumption, while oversimplified and a blasé interpretation of queer pain, is not necessarily wrong, in that the representations of bisexual persons can dramatically alter how they perceive themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Since mental health is an already pressing issue in the LGBTQ+ community, as non-straight teens are four times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, the media has an ever-present opportunity to ameliorate or further injure this situation. Bisexual persons are more likely to have mental health issues than both their heterosexual and homosexual counterparts, including anxiety, depression, and alcohol misuse.
In television representations, bisexual people are often shown as sexual deviants who use their sexualities to manipulate others or as people who are unable to make commitments to monogamous relationships as a direct result of their sexualities. A principal example of this is Piper Chapman on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Piper’s pre-prison life involved an engagement to a man who she was not fully committed to and a boring existence that she could not escape from. When she is imprisoned, she reconnects with her previous lover, a woman who she was involved with the first season. Piper is portrayed as not being able to commit to either partner and often manipulates them both for personal gain. While monogamy should not be a standard that we hold anyone to, regardless of sexual orientation, it is often bisexual characters who are portrayed as incapable of having one partner at a time. This feeds into the perception that bisexual people are sexually perverse and do not have the same capacity for love and affection for others that heterosexual characters are often shown to have.
While monogamy should not be a standard that we hold anyone to, regardless of sexual orientation, it is often bisexual characters who are portrayed as incapable of having one partner at a time.
This perpetuation of stereotypes can have a direct result on general perceptions of bisexual people’s abilities to maintain healthy relationships. In a study conducted by intimate toy website Adam and Eve, 45% of respondents reported that they had no intention of ever dating a bisexual person. This dismissal of any possible future relationships with a bisexual person on the sole basis of their sexuality sends a harmful message to bisexual people: there is an inherent lack of morality associated with your sexuality, and non-bisexual people do not want to be involved with that deviance. The aforementioned harmful tropes on television do not only have the power to skew the non-bisexual population’s mindset; they can alter bisexual persons’ perceptions of their own decency. These outward perceptions can be damaging to bisexuals, leading to struggles with self-worth and image as well as insecurity when entering intimate and/or romantic relationships.
These outward perceptions can be damaging to bisexuals, leading to struggles with self-worth and image as well as insecurity when entering intimate and/or romantic relationships.
Furthermore, it paints a disturbing self-portrait for bisexual persons, who are led to believe that because the world depicts them as deviants, they must be.
The future, however, presents an opportunity for television to alter this trajectory. 2016 saw the highest percentage of LGBTQ+ series regulars than ever before, 30% of whom were bisexual characters. More and more bisexual characters are being written outside of tired stereotypes, creating a community of characters on television that empower and engage audiences in thoughtful discussion of bisexual issues. Darryl Whitefeather on the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend came out as bisexual in 2016 and even performed a song (called “Getting Bi”) dispelling bisexual stereotypes and misconceptions. Rosa Diaz’s storyline on Brooklyn Nine-Nine showed the difficulties in coming out to your parents as bisexual while focusing the narrative on her feelings. These small strides are only the beginning of where bisexual representation needs to go. The health and wellness of the community depend on it.
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