Where Are All the Bisexual Men on Television?

TV's long-form narrative offers opportunities to watch sexuality unfold over time, but bisexual storylines continue to be made palatable through a handful of tropes.

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“I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown,” Carrie Bradshaw famously said in the offensive, misinformed 1998 episode of Sex and the City in which she dates a bisexual man. These words are still painfully seared into my brain. How could a sex columnist, a character written predominantly by gay men, have such a limited view of queer identity? Nearly ten years later, a 2016 episode of HBO dramedy Insecure sees Molly (Yvonne Orji) finding out that the man she’s seeing, Jared, nonchalantly had a sexual encounter with another man. After exposing her biphobia to her friends, another character declares Jared to be gay. Ultimately, Molly and Carrie both decide, despite the chemistry and their attraction, that they could not get past their own compulsory monosexuality to continue dating a bisexual man. Why does television, a medium primed for long-form character development and storytelling, continuously fail at representing bisexual men?  

Twenty-five years after that infamous Sex and the City scene, bisexuality (for the purposes of this piece, I am using bisexuality as a term that encompasses all people with the capacity to be attracted to more than one gender, including those who identify as bisexual, pansexual, fluid, queer, and more) on television has made significant strides—from young-adult programming like Euphoria, Riverdale, and Gossip Girl, to adult dramas like Game of Thrones, The Magicians, and obviously, The Bisexual. Bisexuality is no longer relegated to a very-special episode, and is slowly leaving the realm of bad, misinformed jokes. According to GLAAD’s 2021-2022 Where We Are on TV report, queer representation on television is at an all-time high. After two consecutive years of decreases, bisexual representation increased by one percent over last year: nine non-binary characters, 124 women, and sadly, only 50 men. Fifty may seem like a solid number at the outset, but consider the quality of these representations. Aside from a few stand-out examples, like Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) on Netflix’s much-loved Heartstopper, many are relegated to supporting and recurring characters, at best, and stuck in tropes, at worst. 

Maria San Filippo is an associate professor at Emerson College whose research focuses on screen media’s intersections with gender and sexuality. In 2013, she published The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, a pathbreaking monograph on the state of bisexual representation in both mediums. “Bisexuality was only beginning to be central and recurring, rather than peripheral and episodically one-off or short-lived,” she said over email. “Bisexuality’s representational legibility has been expanded; it’s less easily deniable as ‘just a phase’ when bisexuality becomes an ongoing character trait.”

Broadly speaking, on-screen storytelling has struggled to construct bisexuality in ways that reach beyond the word landing at the butt of jokes or framed through the lens of disgust and abjection. Nowhere does it fail bisexuals more than television, a site of endless discursive possibilities. Television’s long-form narrative offers unique opportunities to watch sexuality unfold over time, but rather than exploring and showcasing every permutation of bisexuality, bi men on television are far and few between. 

“Bi+ male representation has always been the biggest challenge,” San Filippo said. “Bisexuality threatens heteropatriarchy and phallic authority, and so must be hidden or, if acknowledged, desexualized and disparaged through mockery or else hypersexualized as in porn (and even then bisexuality is rebranded as ‘gay for pay’).” She said it’s not unlike the uncommon sight of male frontal nudity on screen, which she explores in her 2021 book, Provocauteurs and Provocations. “Dan Levy’s character David on Schitt’s Creek is one high-profile example of recurring, more nuanced male bi+ representation,” she said. “We need more.”

The phallic authority, as San Filippo calls it, is not as threatened when it comes to the representation of bisexual women characters, who were more than double as numerous in the 2021-2022 television season. Nate Shu, a bisexual comedian based in Boston who spoke with me over Zoom, suggests that feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s work on patriarchal ideologies in film still applies here. Mulvey’s seminal 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” uses a psychoanalytic lens to look at the way women have been depicted in film primarily for the pleasure of the male viewer. She coined this theory the male gaze.

“Lesbian and bisexual characters are more attainable when they’re female because there’s something for male viewers to hold on to,” he said. “A bisexual woman is still an attainable woman to a straight man, whereas a bisexual man is both a threat and an anomaly.” 

These conventions are sewn into the fabric of on-screen storytelling, a part of the canon of cinema that queer storytellers are working hard to reform. But despite this hard work, bisexual stories are still too-often made palatable to viewers through a handful of storytelling tropes: the coming out story, reasserting the status quo of a relationship or identity, or hinting at a character’s dishonesty or shiftiness (it pains me to bring it up, but Frank Underwood on House of Cards is a great example here).

The CW’s 2015 musical-dramedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showcased one of the more fleshed-out bisexual men on television, Darryl Whitefeather, played by Peter Gardner. His unapologetic musical sequence on how he’s “Gettin’ Bi” was an audacious and refreshing moment for a middle-aged character embracing his sexuality—despite his entire storyline being framed around coming out. We tend to see these coming out narratives again and again, to the point where it begins to feel like viewer manipulation. The coming out scene will only lead to the catharsis of Heartbreaker-level tears if it feels earned through a character’s arc of self-suppression and pain. However, the gay blueprint has already been established, and thus the coming out story is relatable and palatable, rather than depicting a character already living their truth.

Shu, who identifies as bisexual and biracial for the sake of alliteration in his comedy (as opposed to pansexual, a term to which he more closely relates), asked me poignant questions: “What is queer representation? Having a character make an off-hand comment and it’s never acknowledged—that is a queer character, but it’s not a queer story.” His ideal bisexual representation allows characters to be authentic people living outside of constructed narratives that are more viewer-friendly like the coming out story. He could only name one example of an Asian bisexual character on television that he felt somewhat seen through—Magnus Bane, played by Harry Shum Jr. on the Freeform supernatural drama Shadowhunters. “It’s tough to get out of the boxes of what culture, film, and TV have defined for decades,” Shu said. 

Marvel has been a site of critique around its inability to flesh out queer characters in an authentic way, awkwardly suggesting that all superheroes are heterosexual. The 2021 Disney+ series Loki made headlines for a 20-second scene where the titular character confirms his bisexuality after admitting he has been with princesses and princes in his past. This kind of casual bisexuality has become more commonplace in the streaming era, to the point of forgettability: Bill Pargrave on Killing Eve, playing Eve’s MI5 boss until he was eventually stabbed by murderess Villanelle, also identified as bisexual in a passing conversation. Other examples include Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) on Halt and Catch Fire and the titular character (Tom Ellis) on Lucifer. Does the off-hand knowledge of a character’s sexual fluidity, without an in-depth exploration of his sexuality, qualify as queer representation? Perhaps a better question would be, does it make bisexual viewers feel seen and understood, and add to monosexual viewers’ understanding and empathy of bisexuality? 

At the end of October 2022, Kit Connor came out as bisexual in a bitter tweet after months of being hounded and online bullied by Netflix Heartstopper fans, some of whom accused Connor of queerbaiting for playing a bisexual character. The fall-out made me wonder why any actor, let alone a bisexual actor who may still be processing or figuring out his sexuality, would want to play a bisexual character in the social media age. “I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye,” his tweet read.

Not to center myself in the discourse, but I can’t help but wonder how a more thorough cultural understanding of bisexuality would impact my own dating life as a gay man, what the dating pool might look like if there was a more rigorous acceptance and visibility of bisexuality and fewer “discreet” men refusing to send you photos of their faces on dating apps with fear of being outed in their real life. The latest 2021 Census data coming out of the United Kingdom suggests there are currently nearly as many bisexual-identifying individuals as gay and lesbian survey respondents combined. These numbers feel hopeful, to me. Previous generations grew up dissatisfied by the range of representation on television, leading to iconic shows like Pose that shifted the course of television at the intersections of queerness and race. I can only imagine what the landscape will look like in 10, 20 years as the bisexual-identifying Gen Zs—the queerest generation yet—make their way into creative fields. We’ll have to watch and find out.

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