Notes from the “BiView: Bisexual Representation in Media Panel” at NewFest2017
October 21st I attended the panel discussion on Bisexuality in the Media, the first of its kind at a NewFest/Outfest film festival. Moderated by bisexual activist and journalist Eliel Cruz, the panel was filled out by writer/singer Denarii Grace, filmmaker David J. Cork, GLAAD Digital Director Taylor Behnke and GLAAD Associate Director of Campaigns, Alexandra Bolles. I managed to take that snapshot above of 4/5 of the panel as they posed for the official NewFest photographer in front of the festival’s rainbow lit scrim. They jokingly called me a paparazzi. What follows are some of the highlights of the panel discussion, based on my notes:
During the opening remarks Denarii Grace described bisexual as being both a personal and political label, seeing queer as a political label. “When I first came out I thought of a world of men and women. Now I understand that my attraction is a lot more fluid, more nuanced.” Alexandra Bolles also embraced “queer” as a political label, adding “I really like the word bisexual, because for a long time I ran away from it and now I am really excited to own it.” David J. Cork likes the alliteration in black and bi, saying “Bisexual means to me both a sexual and emotional attraction to men and women.” Taylor Behnke on embracing the word bisexual: “It took me a while to accept that label because I grew into that through experiences with people over time.”
Eliel Cruz raised the question if there is even a need for labels: “I find that people who are monosexuals push for a world where labels aren’t necessary.” Which had David reminiscing about another festival where “everybody identified as queer or fluid or pansexual or ominisexual…” but apparently not bisexual (I can relate). Denarii then started discussion on the label/hashtag “biplus” as a term many in the community use to identity themselves, and which established itself as the most favored idiom on the panel, a term that can incorporate fluid gender identity in oneself as well as in those one is attracted to. As Denarii related, “I am concerned about splintering, because of the label wars. But labels are important. All labels, feminine, disabled, fat, cisgender… Many speak to how we identify to others and how we see ourselves and our bodies, and help us find our community.”
Regarding the necessity of labels, Alexandra said “short answer: yes. Long answer: sometimes. The needs of the bi community can’t be met if we aren’t counted.” Taylor added “I accept the decision not to use any label – but they are helpful. It’s a pretty common experience within the biplus community that it takes a while for people to figure themselves out.”
Eliel directed focus on some bi specific issues. Bisexuals have even higher rates of suicide than gays and lesbians. Bi women have higher rates of domestic violence/abuse/harassment. Bi people experience higher rates of depression, often because of biphobia from straights and gays. 70% of gays are out to their loved ones, but only 22% of bisexuals are. Bisexuals make up 50% of the LGBTQ community but are the most invisible.
The panel then focused on bisexual representation in media and why it matters. Alexandra: “It matters for how we see ourselves and also how others see us.” David: “Bisexual characters are often introduced to be a problem. They are considered messy.” Alexandra and Taylor discussed the Studio Responsibility Index, with which GLAAD maps the quantity, quality and diversity of LGBT people in films released by Hollywood major motion picture studios, quoting figures from the 2017 edition (I presume): Of 125 films, only 23 had LGBT characters. Half of these had less than 1 minute screen time. 83% were gay men, 35% were lesbian, 13% were bisexuals (down from the previous year). Most depictions of bisexuals were poor and reinforced negative stereotypes.
Meanwhile on TV in 2016/2017: on broadcast television, of 895 series regular characters, 43 were LGBT, 4.8%. More LGBT regular and recurring characters, 142, could be found on cable TV. 30% of regular or recurring LGBT characters were bisexuals, up 10% from last year. Few bi men are represented. Most biplus characters are represented negatively, as untrustworthy, immoral. Many are killed off violently. The media is reinforcing images that keep bisexuals isolated and disdained.
Next the panel discussed what is good representation and is it out there? Denarii said the best is what lifts up the most marginalized of us: “Even when there is bi representation I don’t see myself: black, disabled, fat. A great majority of trans folk are bisexual and that is not shown either.” Denarii pointed to the character of 13 on the medical drama “House” as one good example of bi representation. There were moments when she would challenge suppositions about bisexuality; on the negative side, there is criticism that the character was hyper-sexualized.
Alexandra added: “It’s a privilege to be portrayed with complexity. Most bis are portrayed as one note villains.” Other TV bi standouts include Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy”; plus the shows “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, “Shadowhunters”, “Transparent” and “The Bold Type”, which Alexandra lauded as an “utopia of women in the workplace”.
David pointed out that most of the positive images of bisexuals have been of women. On “Insecure” and “How to Get Away with Murder” black male characters who revealed a previous same sex experience were shunned by the women they were dating and subsequently written off the show.
Taylor quipped “I don’t watch much TV. I find people like me on YouTube telling their complex stories.” Denarii added “It is up to us to create that work. No one is going to care as much about us than us.”
Eliel asked the panel how can we do better? Taylor said: “Let bi characters say that they are bisexual”. Alexandra talked about the GLAAD media training institute which provides activist, spokesperson, and media engagement training. There’s also the Bisexual Resource Center (BRC). Denarii pointed out that viewers have more power today to make their voices heard, in part through social media engagement, which also helps people find each other and support each other. “Support and share” David added, and “Use those hashtags, like #bisexual and #Biisbeautiful”.
An audience member lamented: “LGBT is thrown around all the time, but where is the B?”, adding that very few creators of media content identify as bisexual. Eliel responded: “I know a lot of bisexual celebrities. They’ll be on shows where gay and lesbian characters and stories are treated well, but the bisexuality of the character and themselves is not.”
Is it possible to make Bi jokes? Eliel: “Yes. It is possible to make witty, non-derogatory bi jokes, like on “Bob’s Burgers.” Denarii: “A lot of writing in Hollywood is lazy. Rehashing what already has been done. And what has been done is harmful.”
How can bisexuality and polyamory communities support each other without reinforcing stereotypes? Eliel quipped: “Go see “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women“, about the bisexual polyamorous creators of Wonder Woman (I did, and boy, do I agree, see it!). Alexandra added “It is tempting to portray underrepresented individuals as 100% perfect. That shouldn’t be necessary. Go for being sex positive. We need more bi/poly stories created by bi/poly people.”
Speaking of Wonder Woman, there is a change.org petition to make Wonder Woman’s bisexuality more explicit in the movie sequel. “And I think Warner Brothers is listening”, Alexandra quipped.