On September 23rd, the bisexual community and its allies celebrated Bi Visibility Day, which means resources on bisexual awareness are being spread throughout the month of September. October is LGBT History Month in honor of National Coming Out Day on October 11th, so now is as good a time as ever to assess the state of LGBT+ representation on television. On the outside, one would think that LGBT representation is on the rise overall, with the news of a reboot of The L Word, and the Will & Grace revival. But if we take a closer look, are these fan favorite shows being brought back to fill a void that current TV series are leaving behind as they shy away from blatant sexuality labels?
According to this year's GLAAD report, 4.3% of scripted, primetime broadcasted shows in 2016 featured LGBT characters. Surprisingly, this means overall representation is up, and that percentage is the highest we've ever seen. The unfortunate part of this representation rise enters when we examine that the rise in bisexual character representation has resulted in a drop in lesbian characters. Bisexual representation has risen 10% in the last year, now composing 30% of all LGBT representation on TV. In contrast, the number of lesbian characters have dropped 16% since last year, now composing just 17% of all LGBT characters.
So what do all of these stats and percentage points mean for the community itself? Numbers are important, but as in most cases, quality over quantity matters much more. Bi erasure is a real and dangerous issue, but the rise of bi representation in television as indicated by numbers does nothing to increase overall representation if it comes at the expense of another group.
As the millennial generation enters adulthood and begins to become more vocal about their sexuality and its spectrum, often rejecting labels that attempt to pinpoint exactly where they fall, there's a demand by those of us who lie somewhere in between gay and straight to see ourselves portrayed on screen. And while I wish we had evolved into as society where labels have become irrelevant and unnecessary, but that hasn't happened yet, so instead of flirting with fluidity, our favorite shows need to work to make their queer characters, well, unquestionably queer.
Why would a television series bother to include a queer character if the plan isn't to make a proud statement of inclusion? As much as it might seem on the surface that this kind of representation is a forward-thinking evolution to dissolving labels, this strategy actually has the opposite effect. Some folks call it the "bi the way" trope, but I've dubbed this type of faux representation as the "cool for the summer" character, after that catchy anthem by Demi Lovato that encourages closeted experimentation instead of actually coming out of the closet.
By including a character who is gay-ish, or bisexual only by casual implication is a trailblazing step forward for inclusion only if it's in addition to and not in place of an established LGBT character. Otherwise, TV starts to tread water dangerously close to a "don't ask, don't tell" mentality, which is regressive, to say the least, particularly if the end goal is to draw in both LGBT and mainstream audiences without running the risk of isolating either one.
Several of TV's most groundbreaking bisexual and lesbian characters have gone off the air, replaced by subtly queer characters who either don't acknowledge their sexuality at all, or insist their attraction is a "one and done" sort of affection. Callie Torres from Grey's Anatomy and Kalinda Sharma from The Good Wife were both clearly and unapologetically bisexual. The L Word boasted a full cast of outspoken lesbian and bisexual women, the latter of which explored their sexuality on screen as part of their character arcs.
These complex, confident characters are now gone, instead replaced with men and women who can't be bothered to claim their place on the spectrum, but rather chalking up their lust or love to a one-time infatuation, a unique and anomalous relationship, or just flat-out experimentation. As progressive and feminist as Comedy Central's Broad City is, Ilana's gayness is minimized to little more than an obsession with her best friend and a sexual relationship with a woman who looks exactly like herself, facilitating the stereotype that lesbians are simply narcissistic women who are vain and self-obsessed. While Ilana is the kind of character we do need more of on screen and not just in #BroadCity, it cannot be at the expense of one that is either openly queer or creating the foundation for a coming out story that young LGBT people can watch on screen.
#PrettyLittleLiars broke ground in its first season, with a member of the core cast who catalogued coming out while still in high school on a network that caters to an audience of the same demographic. However, in the show's effort to pander-cram all of television's lack of inclusion into one series, PLL falters with its handling of Alison DeLaurentis, the established untrustworthy bad girl, who happens to finally give in to the feelings she had used to manipulate her lesbian best friend for over a decade. The showrunners rushed to give shippers what they wanted by creating a toxic love story between a lesbian and a mean girl who leverages her love for power.
Men aren't exempt from the sketchy line that's being so often walked between edgy inclusion and the perpetuation of negative bisexual stereotypes. In #Netflix's House of Cards, it's never quite made clear whether bisexuality is part of who Frank Underwood is, or just another element of his elaborately twisted game to claw his way to the top and stay there.
Although this issue is running rampant throughout pretty much every network, TV hasn't failed us completely, but the shows that are getting it right need some more love from viewers to stay afloat. Alex Danvers' coming out journey has been the most nuanced and human aspect of #Supergirl through its first two seasons, but after already having to switch networks, the future of this gem of a show is constantly in limbo.
Similarly, SyFy's cult hit Wynonna Earp boasts a core character who begins the first season of the show in a stale relationship with the town's most popular bachelor only to realize she has feelings for Purgatory's powerhouse cop, Officer Nicole Haught. While Waverly Earp initially struggles with sorting through her feelings, she quickly realizes that the rules of love are that there are no rules, and we get to watch this emotional revolution every single week on #WynonnaEarp, because it's so incredibly important to see.
While there is no right or wrong way to be queer on TV, the LGBT community deserves to see their representation grow as the community itself does, not remain stagnant or shrink itself as the spectrum continues to broaden. Don't bury your gays. Uncover them, raise them up, and celebrate every color of the rainbow, because more shades are identified every single day.