One of the small tragedies of my teenage life was my unfortunate addiction to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. I have a number of excuses for this. For one, I was reading it in translation, and unlike MZB herself, her German translators could actually string together a grammatically correct sentence. Most importantly, though, I found the books addictive because some of the characters were “people like me”, where in this particular context I mean LGBT people.
Growing up in the 1990s in a small town in the Austrian mountains and working out that I was bisexual was an… interesting experience. For a start, Austria’s a bit Catholic. Some of the key social issues at the time were whether people who divorced and remarried would be allowed to receive Communion in church (file under “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), and who the President would take to the Opernball now that he was divorced (file under “Hello magazine”). This was very much not a world in which people like me existed, so I turned to badly written science fiction as my last resort.
Things are better in 2013 in the UK, but not hugely better. The BBC’s own research identifies significant opportunities for improving the portrayal of LGBT people in the media. While things are steadily improving, we’re still essentially in single story territory. More often than not, we still talk about the gay character, rather than the character who has a full life and just happens to be gay. More often than not, the story is about coming out rather than anything else – and while showcasing a range of coming out stories is still hugely important, so is getting beyond that point and showcasing diverse and authentic characters for whom sexual orientation is only one facet of their life. And when it comes to representation of bisexuality in media and fiction, things look sufficiently dire that No Bisexuals is actually a TV Trope.
The bisexuals we do see in media and fiction tend to conform to the stereotypes. The fickle and indecisive bisexual who struggles to leave their opposite-sex partner for the same-sex love of their life and the “just a phase” bisexual are particular favourites. What is perhaps worst is that there are very few characters in media and fiction to actually openly identify as bi, which serves to further reinforce the stereotype that it’s action that matters rather than identity.
[Parts of this are taken from my review of Artifice, a webcomic you should totally check out.]
So what I learned from the discussion about this on @TwkLGBTQ is that Captain Jack Harkness (Doctor Who/Torchwood) and Willow (Buffy) are the Marmite of representations of bisexuality in fiction.
With Willow, the main issue is the portrayal of “straight, then gay” which leaves a lot of bisexuals feeling erased and invisible. Joss Whedon clearly missed a trick there. Though there were also a lot of people who loved Willow, and who could identify with her process of self-discovery.
Jack, too, split the vote. People loved how proudly and nonchalantly he carried his bi(omni?)sexuality. Equally, some felt that he was the embodiment of certain bisexual stereotypes (slutty, attracted to everything), and they felt judged by the “standard” that set.
I also managed to make a couple of people cry with the conversation, as a disproportionate number of bisexual characters seem to have horrible things happen to them. Ianto Jones (Jack Harkness’s also bisexual lover for some of Torchwood) dies horribly in Children of Earth. And no one really survives being loved by Commander Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5 – Talia ends up having her personality erased and Marcus is stuck in cryo with fatal injuries until the end of time.
We talked about the different portrayals of bisexual characters. There are a few out there who explicitly self-identify as bisexual, but the majority of fictional bi characters “act bi” (i.e. have relationships with people of different genders) without necessarily openly identifying as such. Some people preferred the latter, as that left more room for interpretation (not that those of us involved in the fanfiction community need any room at all to interpret things!). Personally, I would like to see more characters identify as bisexual, and one thing I want to see less of is characters going from straight to gay and vice versa without even an acknowledgment that bisexuality exists.
Having said that, the subject of queerbaiting also came up, particularly with reference to Dean Winchester in Supernatural. You know, where are character is obviously gay or bi and there’s masses of unresolved sexual tension for seasons and seasons on end? I must admit I’m not a huge fan of that. But of course, that too is what fanfiction is for.
Of course we found a lot of the portrayals of bisexuality in fiction to be utterly trope-tastic. Here are some of the relevant TV Tropes:
Everyone is Bi
But Not Too Bi
Make of those what you will.
Something else we seemed to agree on was that genre fiction (including sci-fi and erotic fiction) and other non-mainstream media such as webcomics do a much better job of handling sexual orientation as well as gender identity and presentation. Erotica author @aleksandrvoinov briefly joined us to talk about the portrayals of bisexuality in his work.
AV: Bi characters are the most natural for me to write.
Mili: I loved what you did with Gold Digger, particularly with Henri being supportive of Nikolai’s sexuality.
AV: I figured he’s seen it all and is confident enough in being gay/himself that he doesn’t feel threatened by loving a bi guy. Though my favourite couple/throuple (?) is Stefano/Silvio/Donata – genderfluid bi menage. And hot as hell. #DarkSoul
Mili: That’s the other thing I like – you show a range of different bi characters.
AV: Well, we are all people. 🙂 Sexuality is not WHO they are, though I love writing sex and am sex-positive. Most of all, I want to get away from usual bi cliches: kill off the other partner so they can be with same/diff sex partner… I also loathe the “Evil Bi” – people so screwed up by conflicting desires they destroy other people. Thirdly, I hate them coming out on one side of the fence and emotionally dis-avow previous other-sex relationships. I try to write charactes who are largely at peace and mature in how they deal with desire and conflict… after all, I have to spend weeks and months in their heads and want to be able to like/relate to them.
Here’s a probably non-exhaustive list of the bisexual characters in fiction that we came up with:
Captain Jack Harkness (Doctor Who/Torchwood)
Reece (Adaptation by Malinda Lo)
Mutant Mystique, esp. as written by Brian K. Vaughan (X-Men/Marvel)
Bo (Lost Girl)
Jen Lindley (Dawson’s Creek)
Ianto Jones (Torchwood)
Gaeta (Battlestar Galactica)
Xena and possibly Gabrielle (Xena, Warrior Princess)
Quite a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s characters, especially in the Darkover series
Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint series was mentioned. I honestly can’t remember if either of the main characters in the book I read was bi (they were a same-sex couple).
The bisexual vampire played by Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger
Andrew in Desperate Housewives (self-identifies as bi)
Katheryne in Desperate Housewives
Nikolai Krasnorada (Gold Digger by Aleksandr Voinov)
Stefano (Dark Soul series by Aleksandr Voinov)
Kushiel’s Dart series
Commander Susan Ivanova (Babylon 5)
Ammar ibn Khairan (The Lions of Al Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay)
Dora (Questionable Content)
DAR by Erica Moen
Ramona (Scott Pilgrim)
Kat (Gunnerkrigg Court)
Winifred Burkle (Angel)
Girls with Slingshots
Mal (Firefly; “leans towards womenfolk”)
Possibly Freya (Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross)
Possibly Anwar (Rule 34 by Charles Stross)
Possibly Robin (Glasshouse by Charles Stross)
Happy reading/watching/exploring! Let me know what you think of any/all of these.