In the season premiere of “American Horror Story: Hotel” Elizabeth’s (Lady Gaga) bisexuality is revealed when she and Donovan (Matt Bomer) seduce a heterosexual couple. The steamy foursome quickly turns dark and gory; after the encounter, Elizabeth and Donovan slit the throats of their sexual partners, drinking their blood. Sleeping with both men and women to gain power, Elizabeth is depicted as the villain of the Hotel Cortez. She was duplicitous, selfish and evil. She also was bisexual. This is not a coincidence.
On television, the trope of the evil bisexual isn’t new. Last year, GLAAD’s annual report on the state of minorities revealed that bisexuals are often one-dimensional characters, typecast as villains. The report said bisexual characters are “depicted as untrustworthy, prone to infidelity, and/or lacking a sense of morality.” The 2016 edition of GLAAD’s report said this was “one trope specifically that GLAAD continued to see over and over again.”
Many bisexual TV characters lack a moral compass. They exploit their own sexuality as a means to get ahead. They’re also unabashedly shameless in their actions, never having an ounce of remorse. It is as if, for these fictional bisexual characters, sexual fluidity equals moral fluidity. In this regard, sexuality is not seen as an identity, but rather, as a personality trait.
This was true for other bisexual characters, including Felicity from Shonda Rhimes’s newest drama, “The Catch.” Felicity, a bisexual woman of color, was secretive and untruthful about sleeping with her female partner, Margot, and with Margot’s brother. When Margot discovered the truth, she confronted Felicity, shouting, “You slept with my brother!” Felicity, however, wasn’t shaken. She coolly responded, “I wasn’t aware we were exclusive,” apparently unable to see any reason Margot might be upset.
And of course, this was also true for President Frank Underwood, from “House of Cards.” Interestingly, Frank’s bisexuality doesn’t further the plot; it is not a defining aspect of Frank’s identity. The showrunner, Beau Willimon, rejected labeling Frank as bisexual, instead saying, “He’s a man with a large appetite, he’s a man who does not allow himself to be placed in any sort of milieu or with one definition.” Frank’s bisexuality, therefore, is just one part of his overall lack of a moral code. He’s a man who has no problem murdering, bribing, betraying — and sleeping with anyone — to obtain power. It was as if his voracious thirst for power somehow related to his sexual fluidity.
There’s a dearth of bisexual representation in mainstream media. As of 2016, only 30 percent (83 of the 278) of recurring LGBT characters on scripted broadcast, cable and streaming programming are bisexual. Even though this is up 2 percentage points from last year, this proportion still underrepresents the bisexual community. Data from a 2013 Pew Research Center report reveal that bisexuals compose the majority of the LGBT community, at 40 percent.
When there are relatively few depictions of bisexuals, the representation and integrity of each bisexual character holds more weight. There are real consequences to depicting bisexuality as moral fluidity. It perpetuates negative stereotypes about bisexuals. It perpetuates the misconception that all bisexuals are cheaters, liars and are incapable of being monogamous.
This characterization reverberates well beyond TV: Depicting bisexuals as untrustworthy and unethical increases the stigma they already experience. Often, bisexuality is viewed as a pit stop on the way to being “full-blown gay,” especially for men. As a result, bisexuals are more likely to remain closeted than gays and lesbians, and bi youths are less likely than lesbian and gay youths to feel there’s a supportive adult with whom they can talk.
Despite the inaccurate and immoral depictions of bisexuals this past year, there was one show that depicted bisexuality realistically and positively. Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), from CW’s musical comedy “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” came out in an informative song, “Getting Bi.”
In the song, Gardner’s character pushed back against the notions that bisexuals are actually closeted gay individuals, who are confused, indecisive and promiscuous. He sang: “Being bi does not imply you’re a player or a slut.” Not only was his bisexuality critical to his identity and growth as a character, it also had nothing to do with his morality. He was like any other good man, who also happened to be bisexual.
More show creators need to follow this example. Portray bisexuals as normal people — people you see in the grocery store — not just power-hungry, unethical, cheating liars. Sexual fluidity and moral fluidity are two entirely different things.