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How bisexuality on TV evolved from a favorite punchline to a vital storyline

Sexuality is a spectrum. Now, finally, TV seems to know it.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz), Jane the Virgin’s Petra (Yael Grobglas), Madam Secretary’s Kat (Sara Ramirez), and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Darryl (Pete Gardner) are challenging TV’s traditional view of bisexuality.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

I was told so many lies about what being bisexual means that it took me 27 years to come out as bisexual myself. Friends shrugged that bisexual people just couldn’t make up their minds. Family members insisted that being gay or straight was one thing, but anything in between just didn’t make sense. And in a crushing blow, my beloved escape, television, insisted over and over that someone who might like men and women was a confused joke at best, and a slutty sinner at worst.

For decades, TV had no idea what to do with anyone whose sexuality fell outside a gay-straight dichotomy. As Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw put it in 2000, many thought bisexuality was just “a layover on the way to Gaytown.” As 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon said through an eyeroll in 2009, “bisexuality ... is just something they invented in the ’90s to sell hair products.” Or more simply, as the supposed queer utopia of The L Word dismissed it in 2006, bisexuality “is gross.”

The derision and relative lack of representation is even more jarring when you remember that there are more people who identify as bisexual-plus — a spectrum that includes bisexuality, pansexuality, queerness, and everything in between — than those who identify as lesbian or gay combined.

One of the first — and, for a while, only — bisexual characters to truly break through on television was Sara Ramirez’s Callie Torres, who realized she wasn’t straight on Grey’s Anatomy in 2008. According to Ramirez, she approached Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes after hearing that the writers were considering developing a queer storyline for one of the characters and made a pitch for it to be Callie.

“I realized I was in the unique position to be able to develop a character that made me feel seen and accepted in areas I typically found myself apologizing for my existence in,” Ramirez wrote recently in an email, “with room to explore a wide range of universal emotions about it.”

Callie became the longest-running queer series regular in TV history — and an unprecedented lifeline for many who had never seen a story like hers given such room to grow.

“I felt validated,” says Grey’s Anatomy fan Caroline Mincks. “I felt like there might be hope that I could be able to say something like ‘I’m bisexual ... like Callie,’ and have people nod with understanding instead of squinting with confusion.”

That relief and recognition is exactly why this kind of representation — the kind Ramirez herself didn’t have growing up — is so crucial. (It’s also noteworthy that Callie became such a powerful figure because Ramirez poured her own experience into the role — a method she’s now using again to play Kat on Madam Secretary, who also came out as bisexual/queer earlier this year.)

And as Ramirez took pains to point out in our interview, bisexual-plus “rates of suicidality and intimate partner violence are the highest of all LGBTQI folks. We are cisgender, transgender, and nonbinary. A large portion of us are people of color. It’s important for all of our LGBTQI youth to know they are seen, accepted, and respected.”

Not being able to see some reflection of yourself in the world makes it that much easier to question yourself and your place in it. “As a woman of color, and as a Latina, I have felt that [exclusion] my whole life,” says Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor Stephanie Beatriz, who came out as bisexual in 2016. “I would watch television and think, ‘I wish my favorite show knew I existed.’”

Now, for millions of fans, that wish may have finally come true.

From David Rose (Schitt’s Creek) to Sara Lance (Legends of Tomorrow), Darryl Whitefeather (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) to Grace Choi (Black Lightning), Petra Solano (Jane the Virgin) to Nova Bordelon (Queen Sugar), more and more TV characters are being more and more open about their attractions to people of multiple genders. Some share that fact with a casual shrug; others celebrate it with a (figurative) ticker-tape parade. When Beatriz’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine character Rosa Diaz came out as bisexual last year, she got to work through the ripple effects in two thoughtful, compassionate episodes.

As author Maria San Filippo — whose 2013 book The B Word traces bisexual-plus representation across onscreen mediums — put it to me in an email, one of the biggest and most encouraging shifts in recent years has been that TV is centering more queer stories rather than using them as entertaining sidebars. “Bisexual characters are now central and recurring rather than peripheral or one-off characters brought in for ‘very special episodes’ during sweeps week,” she wrote. Instead of being treated as superfluous asides, bisexual characters have increasingly become part of the fabric of their respective shows.

Things still aren’t perfect. TV still depicts some bisexual women as fast and loose, and they are more likely to end up dead than is statistically reasonable. As for bisexual men ... well, they still barely exist onscreen.

But even in just the past couple of years, TV has made huge strides toward correcting the lack of meaningful bisexual, pansexual, and otherwise queer representation that so discouraged Beatriz, Ramirez, and me when we tried to find some sliver of ourselves onscreen.

Here are three ways TV has stepped up its game when it comes to sexuality that’s neither gay nor straight — which, hopefully, might represent a true change for bisexual-plus representation going forward.

More shows are finding casual ways to reveal that their characters might not be gay or straight — and, more importantly, sticking to it

Petra (Yael Groblas) and J.R. (Rosario Dawson) stumbled into the sexy sidebar of my bisexual dreams.
The CW

Back in February, two CW shows made me raise a quizzical “are they going there?” eyebrow with two parallel character arcs.

On Jane the Virgin, the seemingly unflappable Petra (Yael Grobglas) found herself flustered in the confident presence of Jane “J.R.” Ramos (Rosario Dawson), her smooth-as-hell new lawyer. Over on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the seemingly unflappable Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) found herself flustered in the warm presence of Beth (Emma Willmann), a potential new client who pleasantly surprised her by laughing at her jokes.

As I wrote then, I’m used to seeing shows tease a flirtation between two characters of the same sex only to have them veer right back into the familiar embrace of heterosexuality. But both Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend managed to surprise the hell out of me by not just hinting at a mutual attraction between these characters but following through to give both Petra and Valencia the most meaningful relationships of their lives. And while neither character decided to put a label on the newfound nuance in their sexualities, they didn’t insist that being in a relationship with a woman for the first time now meant they were suddenly gay either.

When I asked showrunners Jennie Snyder Urman (Jane the Virgin) and Aline Brosh McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) why they had decided on these storylines, both gave roughly the same answer: It just made sense for the characters.

“I was thinking about how [Petra] could be surprised and swept off her feet and realize things about herself that she didn’t know,” Urman said. Since Petra has “always used sex as a commodity in relationships,” her realization that she might not just admire J.R. but be drawn to her romantically opened up her storyline in a way it never had before.

The same held true for Valencia. “We started to think about what it would look like for her to fall in love with somebody,” said Brosh McKenna, “and someone said, ‘It could be a woman.’ It felt organic.”

While Crazy Ex-Girlfriend devoted plenty of time and a personalized song when Darryl came out as bisexual earlier (more on him later), Brosh McKenna emphasized that them not doing the same for Valencia didn’t mean they took her sexuality less seriously. In fact, she said, it just meant they were considering what she as a character would do. “Valencia was looking to meet someone who respects her intelligence, her humor, and career ambitions,” Brosh McKenna said. That person “just so happened to be Beth.”

Urman also pointed out Petra as a character who makes a point of not dwelling on her feelings, which led them to err toward her almost immediately accepting her attraction to J.R. It’s the same justification, in fact, that The Good Place creator Mike Schur used to explain why the show has never explicitly had its salty protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell) examine her increasingly transparent lust for Tahani (Jameela Jamil) either.

To quote Eleanor (Kristen Bell), she “might legit have the hots” for Tahani (Jameela Jamil).
Colleen Hayes/NBC

But that’s not to say the Jane the Virgin writers didn’t consider the broader implications of telling Petra’s story of how she considered herself to be straight, until she didn’t. “I’ve been hearing a lot more stories about later-in-life discoveries [people are making] about themselves,” said Urman. “You know, you grow up a certain way and you go along with, ‘Well, I’m attracted to this man so I must be straight’ … but people are complicated. This felt like a chance for us to tell that story.”

Petra and Valencia came to these conclusions about being attracted to women without negating their previously established attractions to men casually, but that kind of approach to a sexual awakening story is still relatively rare. Growing up, seeing someone on my TV consider the idea that they might not be strictly heterosexual usually ended one of two ways: They would “experiment” with someone of the same sex only to conclude they were straight, or they would come out as gay. Letting them exist somewhere in between was rarely, if ever, presented as a viable option.

“Our simultaneous fascination with and anxiety about individuals and desires that defy simple categorization [stems from] what I call ‘compulsory monosexuality,’ or the social pressure to be either straight or gay,” said The B Word author San Filippo. What’s more, she added, “another factor challenging bisexual representation is that unless a character explicitly identifies as bisexual, we tend to assume someone is straight or gay based on their current partner — something real-life bisexuals also contend with.”

So on TV, characters who veered out of one sexuality lane tend to either stay in a single new lane, or veer right back to where they came from. (The very useful TV Tropes database calls this phenomenon “But Not Too Bi.”)

Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow, who nursed real attractions to men until she fell in love with a woman in season four and promptly identified as “gay now” for the rest of the series. Or The OC’s Marissa, who had a brief relationship with a woman during sweeps week and then never acknowledged being attracted to women ever again. A particularly frustrating example is The L Word’s Alice, who identified as bisexual at the beginning of the series but quickly reneged and began to outright scoff at the idea that she or anyone could identify as bisexual.

Sexuality is a broad and nuanced spectrum. Someone falling for a person who’s outside their own perceived attractions and not wanting to overhaul the entire concept of their sexuality is perfectly legitimate. The problem with media telling that particular story over and over again, however, is that it suggests every bi, pan, or queer sexuality story is just a temporary layover on the way to a more palatable, monosexual destination.

That’s why telling stories like Petra’s and Valencia’s — ones in which someone realizes they’re attracted to someone of the same sex and accepts it without angst — is important. But by the same token, telling stories in which someone recognizes their sexuality, voices it explicitly, and has to deal with the kinds of consequences bisexual-plus people face in real life matters just as much, if not more.

More shows are making a point of being explicit about their characters’ nuanced sexualities

Rosa wasn’t expecting to come out to Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), but here we are.

The first time Brooklyn-Nine Nine’s Rosa Diaz said aloud that she’s bisexual, I thought I must’ve misheard. I’d so rarely heard that word uttered on television before, let alone on a network sitcom. But there it was, spoken without an ounce of disdain or shame, by one of my favorite characters on TV.

“I remember seeing the initial draft of the script, and that word was in there, and I got very overwhelmed and emotional,” says Beatriz. “I pointed to the page and I said, ‘This word is important. We have to keep this word in. We can’t just dance around what Rosa is saying and who Rosa is.’”

Rosa’s coming out was immediately a groundbreaking moment for bi representation thanks to a combination of its visibility, the consideration that went into the moment, and the obvious input from an actor who could speak to the experience herself. Given the pernicious stereotypes associated with bisexuality, seeing a character as self-possessed as Rosa embrace the label was a crucial moment for queer representation. When I put out a call for bisexual TV fans to tell me which moments struck them most, Rosa’s coming out was a constant reference point.

“Like many people half my age, the development of Rosa Diaz really hit a chord for me,” Brooklyn Nine-Nine fan Callie told me in an email. “I have to believe that, if characters like Rosa had been visible on TV when I was younger, it might not have taken until I was in my 30s to realize that I wasn’t alone, that it was something that happened and was perfectly normal and acceptable.”

In an even more surprising development, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine didn’t leave Rosa’s coming-out moment there. Instead, its 100th episode focuses on Rosa’s specific struggles after telling her parents she’s bisexual. Confused, her parents try to brush her off by reasoning that she’ll probably end up with a man, anyway. But Rosa stands her ground, insisting that it doesn’t matter who she ends up with; she’s bisexual, and that will always be true no matter who she’s with.

This moment directly defies that idea of compulsory monosexuality, making it clear that Rosa likes who she likes and that’s not going to change. It’s huge for anyone who has tried to explain their “neither gay nor straight” sexuality to a skeptic — including Beatriz herself.

“I’m engaged to be married to a man, and one of the main things I hear on social media again and again is, ‘Wait, I thought you were bi,’” Beatriz says. “To me, that’s laughable but also really frustrating. It doesn’t matter who I’m with. My sexuality remains the same.”

And when her parents balk, bruising Rosa’s seemingly adamantine heart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine leaves room for a hopeful coda in which the precinct rallies around her. “Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place,” says Captain Holt, Rosa’s openly gay boss who struggled for decades to be accepted within the NYPD. “So thank you.”

It’s a uniquely lovely moment, but in an encouraging sign of just how far bi representation has come, Rosa isn’t the only out bisexual on television who explicitly identifies as such. In fact, Ramirez’s current Madam Secretary character Kat also came out to a co-worker as queer/bisexual this season.

Ramirez, who says she was directly involved in the development of this arc, says she’s thrilled to play a queer, “masculine of center” woman who directly defies TV’s typical vision of what a queer woman should look and act like. The resulting scene dismantles the usual preconceived notions about what Kat’s “authentic self” means with deliberate care.

And over on Freeform’s Grown-ish, the collegiate spinoff of the ABC family sitcom Black-ish, a Breakfast Club-esque group of teens telling millennial stories includes smirky bisexual Nomi. She’s not out to her parents, but she has dated both men and women on the show, encountering some of the more specific problems that someone who dates people of multiple genders faces every day.

According to creator Kenya Barris, Nomi’s experiences purposely reflect those of bisexual writers in the room and of the younger generation that Grown-ish is trying to emulate. “We wanted someone who could speak to the world and politics of sexuality and gender because it’s a very big part of your life in college and the world that we’re in today,” Barris told me, “and it’s still not talked about enough.”

Grown-ish’s attention to Nomi’s bisexuality also yielded a storyline that gets told even more rarely than her own when she dated a bisexual man — a character so rarely seen onscreen that his very presence became an event in and of itself.

Bisexual men are getting some more notice onscreen — but TV still has a long way to go in granting them equal consideration

Nomi’s bisexual but couldn’t handle it when Dave (Barrett Carnahan) told her he is too. Hmmm.

Halfway through the first season of Grown-ish, Nomi stops dating a lesbian woman who sneers at her bisexuality (“I don’t want to be some girl’s experiment”) and starts seeing a guy who’s chill with it. But when he reveals that he’s also bisexual, Nomi’s friends balk and insist he must be gay — and so, to her own surprise, does Nomi. Try though she might, she can’t get past it. When she finally tells him that she “can’t help feeling like it’s different for guys and girls,” he (correctly) calls bullshit on the double standard, and they break up.

This arc mirrors a couple of others I was similarly surprised to see on TV in the past year or so. The first season of Insecure featured determined romantic Molly recoiling from a guy she really likes when he tells her that he’s hooked up with guys before, and the fourth season of Jane the Virgin had Jane pressing pause on her enthusiasm for the new guy she’s dating when he reveals that he’s bisexual. (Jane got past her reservations; Molly, not so much.)

According to Barris, the Grown-ish storyline came out of a conversation in the writers’ room in which a female writer who identifies as bisexual expressed the same reservations as Nomi — reservations that Barris admits to sharing. “As a straight guy myself, I have a real hard time understanding” bisexual men, he said when we talked. “It’s so outside what I know.”

While I was surprised to hear Barris reveal his hesitance to accept male bisexuality, I appreciated his candor, because he’s far from alone. As San Filippo points out in The B Word, Hollywood is far more likely to indulge straight “bromantic” relationships than a flirtation between men if they don’t both identify as gay. While queer women have long been used as titillating tools for straight men’s enjoyment onscreen, queer men have long been viewed as a threat to the heterosexual order of things.

To his credit, Barris allowed as much, explaining that his inability to grant bisexual men the same open-mindedness he might give bisexual women is at least in part due to how “society allows me to see the Kinseyan [spectrum] of women. That same representation is not shown for men.”

On this point, he’s correct. Bisexual men are still so rare on television that when I put out a call for opinions on bi representation, my inbox was flooded with frustrated bi men grasping at straws for decent examples.

“Bi men are considered a ‘myth’ and TV has done little to combat that thought,” TV fan Danny Siegel wrote in an email. “[Most times] I’ve seen a bi man on TV, they’re only seducing another man as part of some sneaky plot for information or power or blackmail.” That “sneaky seducer” trope tends to get attached to characters who don’t consider what it might mean for their sexuality at all. (See: Mr. Robot’s Tyrell Wellick, Penny Dreadful’s Dorian Gray, at least half the cast of Oz.)

But there have been some examples of male characters who more thoughtfully express their bisexual-plus sexualities, or at least don’t deny them. There was Torchwood’s swashbuckling Jack Harkness, Game of Thrones’ late Oberyn Martell, and Halt and Catch Fire’s damaged Joe MacMillan. Currently, Legends of Tomorrow is finally letting an onscreen Constantine explore his bisexuality, and Shadowhunters’ Magnus Bane has a storied history of relationships with both men and women. In its first season, the Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek let its ineffable star David come out as pansexual by describing his sexual orientation as liking “the wine, not the label.”

But for the most part, bisexual men are still rarely depicted on TV as anything more than insatiable cheats — that is, if they’re depicted at all. (In its report on the 2017-’18 TV season, the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD counted 17 regular or recurring bisexual-plus male characters versus 75 female ones.)

That’s why someone like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Darryl is such a surprising breath of fresh air. When Darryl’s realization that he had feelings for a man after being married to a woman for decades didn’t result in him realizing he was gay, it was startling; when Darryl decided to announce his bisexuality with a literal song and dance, it was breathtaking.

Not only does “Getting Bi” let Darryl celebrate his attraction to multiple genders, but it pointedly combats all the negative stereotypes around bisexuality that make coming out so hard. As he bursts out with effusive joy:

I’m gettin’ bi, and it’s something I’d like to demystify

It’s not a phase, I’m not confused

Not indecisive, I don’t have the “gotta choose” blues

I don’t care if you wear high heels or a tie

You might just catch my eye — because I’m definitely bi.

“The clichés about bisexual men are that they’re bad guys … or it’s terribly, terribly sad,” said Brosh McKenna. “One of the things that makes the Darryl storyline so delightful is that there’s a joy and a celebration to him discovering his identity.”

Granted, not everyone can sing their truth to the rafters with the help of a Huey Lewis and the News-style backup band. But Darryl doing so opens the door for others to do the same, both onscreen and off.

There is still a long way to go for bi representation on TV. But the path forward is brighter than it’s ever been.

It’s both amazing and a little mind-boggling that after decades of relative drought, TV is now awash in queer characters who are happy to live in the gray area between gay and straight.

It could be thanks to the fact that more and more people — including celebrities like “free-ass motherfucker” Janelle Monáe — are chipping away at the stigma by openly identifying as bisexual-plus. It could be that TV loves to replicate its own success stories. Or, more cynically, it could be that these kinds of queer storylines, as San Filippo puts it, open the door for “sexual provocation as a publicity strategy.”

Likely it’s some combination of all of the above. But it’s still incredibly encouraging that TV is becoming so much richer with stories about people working through the nuances of their sexuality without inducing the “gotta choose blues.” In fact, since I first started working on this essay, practically every week has featured another TV character realizing that, hey, they might not be straight or gay after all.

I’ve never been so happy to be so overwhelmed. The more representation we get, the more room there is for the nuance, growth, and humanity that bisexual-plus characters — and the real people they speak to — deserved all along.