Over Thanksgiving break I did what most college students home for the holidays do: avoid family squabbles, drink and eat a tad too much and binge watch the television I missed out on in college. My long-weekend bender included making my family start “Grace & Frankie,” rewatching old “Scandal” episodes as my sister watched for the first time, binging the entire first season of “Jessica Jones” and finally watching the most recent episode of “Empire.” On “Empire,” the cliff-hanger before the fall finale depicted Jamal Lyon (a gay R&B singer) laying a smooch on Alicia Keys (sploosh). Jamal’s exploration had me thinking about my own sexuality and its representation on mainstream television: Where are all the bisexuals?
Television has made enormous strides toward depicting gay and lesbian characters in programming. Between David and Keith on “Six Feet Under,” Connor and Oliver on “How To Get Away With Murder,” the ensemble of “The L Word” and many more, gay characters have found themselves increasingly morphed into in-depth principal characters and no longer the recurring neighbor. Nonetheless, one letter in LGBTQ hasn’t found itself as fortunate, which is to be expected in the slowly adapting TV world. I mean, how in the hell is Viola Davis the first African-American woman to win the Emmy for leading actress in a drama series? As she said herself, “You simply can’t win an Emmy for roles that aren’t there.” I sat and watched her speech with tears in my eyes, as did millions of others for the same reason: progress.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the representation of minorities on television is perfect, nor that of gay characters. Davis portrays the increasingly complex defense attorney on “How To Get Away With Murder” who recently kissed a woman during primetime, one season after her husband’s murder. Is Annalise Keating bisexual? We don’t know. The plight of bisexuals on television isn’t due to a lack of characters who enjoy sex with men and women — it’s a problem of semantics. “Bisexual”: It’s a word flagrantly missing from the contents of my DVR and Netflix queue.
A prime example, which has been brought up before, is Piper Chapman on “Orange Is The New Black.” A show that has been a trailblazer for gender, racial and trans exploration and depiction somehow skated over its main character’s sexuality. Not once is the husband-having, Laura Prepon-banging protagonist described as “bisexual.” Clearly, I’m not here to decide Chapman’s sexuality — that’s up to her and her alone — but a storyline that centers on a woman’s enjoyment of relations with her husband and girlfriend is a clear segue to exploring a sexuality that faces much scrutiny, even inside the LGBTQ community. Why is such a progressive show shying away from bisexuality?
As most students do with research, I started at Wikipedia. And it’s clear from the list of media portrayals of bisexuality that we have a problem. Maura Isles from the TNT crime-drama “Rizzoli & Isles” included with a description stating, “she has never been with a Frenchwoman, implying she’s been with other women.” Is this what bisexuality has been reduced to? Isles is 100 percent free to do whatever she damn well likes with whomever. However, does this simple absence of information declare her a bisexual?
Bisexuality, from my experience, has been most criticized for lack of structure within the term. Does Jamal kissing a woman once after a season of being gay make him bisexual? Does Annalise’s kiss define her sexuality? Does Maura’s declaration that she has never been with a French woman prove she plays for both teams? Not at all. It proves that now, more than ever, sexual exploration is prominent in the media landscape, and for that exact reason, it’s shocking to see the dismissal of one-fifth of LGBTQ.
Sexual exploration deserves a place on television. Sexuality is undoubtedly fluid, and anyone may enjoy what they’d like as long as it’s between consenting adults. But bisexuality yearns for a more definitive role in today’s culture — certainly more so than being an underlying concept behind characters’ exploration. I don’t want a gay man who kisses one woman. Or a woman with a husband who has had relations with one woman. I want bisexual — a character who exemplifies what the word means. It’s not someone who just loves sleeping with everyone. It’s not someone who’s confused. It’s someone who actively chooses the label, instead of having it thrust upon them by writers’ subtleties.
And it’s not an either-or situation. I sat with tears as Viola Davis accepted her Emmy. A smile was plastered across my face when Jamal Lyon came out, and I adore Piper’s storyline. The representation and success of these characters and their respective shows exemplify the public’s readiness for honest, representative television. I want to be represented.