Welcome to Noticed, Vox’s cultural trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What it is: A beloved and immortal plot line common to most good TV shows (do not fact-check this) is a love triangle between the heroine, her love interest, and her rival. After suitable amounts of romantic angst and pining, the love triangle traditionally comes to some sort of climax or resolution.
Over the past few years, we’ve started to see a new plot develop from this point. Abruptly, after very little foreshadowing, the heroine’s rival comes out as bisexual. She starts dating women, loses all interest in the heroine’s love interest, and quite possibly chops off her hair into a fetching long bob.
It’s as though the show thinks it can neutralize this character as a romantic rival for the heroine by simply and suddenly pivoting her sexual orientation. Call it the Bisexual Safety Switch.
Where it is: The Bisexual Safety Switch first came to your humble correspondent’s attention in 2018, when both Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend flipped the switch on their heroines’ primary rivals (Petra and Valencia respectively) within months of one another. More recently, the trend has made its way into the teen show realm, showing up on both Sex Ed (Ola) and the latest season of Never Have I Ever (Aneesa). Riverdale also had a version of the trend, flirting briefly with the idea that Toni might rival Betty for Jughead’s affections before reassigning her as Cheryl’s love interest.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere: For as long as TV has rejoiced in depicting beautiful people getting their hearts broken in various romantic polygons, it’s faced the problem of what to do with the losers of those polygons.
Close-formed fiction like film and novels has it easy; it can simply end where the love triangle ends and not worry about tying up any loose strings afterward. But serialized television goes on for a long time, and even the most baroque love scaffoldings tend to come to some sort of resolution after a season or two of drama. Often, the actors playing defeated romantic rivals have contracts. The characters are embedded in the story structure. They can’t simply disappear.
In the good old days of the ’80s and ’90s, there was a simple solution. The show would reveal that the heroine’s defeated romantic rival was a bitch, slut, or other misogynistic slur, and she would be safely neutralized as a possible match for the heroine’s virtuous love interest. From there, the rival could pivot. She could become a villain.
In the quasi-progressive era in which Hollywood now finds itself, it’s no longer considered acceptable to pit girls against one another quite so openly as the nighttime soaps of yore used to. Shows that aspire to feminism are no longer supposed to commit “girl-on-girl crimes” (a state of affairs that Never Have I Ever, for one, has greeted with open dismay).
Yet the idea of leaving a defeated romantic rival out roaming the streets, where she might somehow trick the love interest into falling for her again — no, no, unthinkable. These shows seem to shudder away from the mere possibility.
The Bisexual Safety Switch appears to present itself to these shows as a progressive-feeling solution to the problem. The rival no longer has to be a bitch or a slut or a villain. She can have layers. She and the heroine can form a nicely fraught friendship. And she can offer the show bisexual representation in the process. So where’s the problem?
There are in fact a few problems with the Bisexual Safety Switch.
To begin with, the Switch relies upon the subliminal notion that coming out as bisexual makes the character no longer a potential romantic rival to the heterosexual heroine. If we were taking the Switch strictly literally, it couldn’t work as intended. Bisexual women, after all, can still date men. But that the Switch has been used so often suggests that deep down, we believe that the post-Switch rival has been moved to a different plane, been somehow sullied, made less-than. We may no longer explicitly have to turn our rivals into villains, but the Switch wouldn’t be effective if it didn’t on some level feel as though it disqualified the rival from competition.
Secondly, the Bisexual Safety Switch appears to only ever be pulled on women. Both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin featured bisexual male characters (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it must be said, much more successfully than Jane the Virgin), but only female characters come out as bi as part of the resolution of a love triangle. The frequency of the trend seems to suggest a storytelling landscape where we consider women’s sexuality to be mutable, up for debate, in a way that men’s sexuality is not.
Finally, and most damningly, the apparent necessity of the Bisexual Safety Switch betrays a profoundly regressive idea. It suggests a worldview in which once two women have been romantically interested in the same man, they must always be linked in rivalry until one of them is disqualified, by villainy, plot device, or sexuality.
There is no world in which all the characters simply agree that the love triangle has been resolved and move on with their lives otherwise unchanged. The rival must be made unthreatening. She must be disarmed. She must be neutralized.
There are no alternatives; the rivalry is total and all-consuming. Once a man has entered the relationship dynamic between two women, there is simply no coming back from it without taking drastic measures. That’s how important male romantic approval is and should be to women and the way they relate to one another — at least, that’s how important it is according to the storytelling logic that brings you the Bisexual Safety Switch.