Representation of Bisexuality:
An Analysis of Bisexual-Identifying Characters in Film
Strategic Communications and Media Analytics, Elon University
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements in an undergraduate senior capstone course in communications
Bisexuality is often not viewed as a valid sexuality, which is extremely harmful to those who identify as bisexual. This research examines how bisexuals are represented in contemporary film, analyzing how bisexuals are portrayed and if the bisexual identity was clear within the films. Using qualitative content analysis, the study analyzed ten movies from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) that were identified as the top bisexual films. Findings from the research show themes of bisexual erasure, the unfaithful lover, oversexualization of bisexual women, and negative sentiments toward bisexual men. Additionally, this research finds an overall lack of representation and a significant amount of negativity toward bisexuals in the films viewed. These findings have implications for the bisexual community in their perceptions of the harmful misrepresentation in the film industry, and the potential of eventual erasure of their bisexual identity.
Keywords: bisexual, film, representation, erasure, stereotypes
In 2020, Disney confirmed its first bisexual lead character – Luz from the “The Owl House” – nearly a century after The Walt Disney Company was founded (Morales, 2020). Over the years, Disney has faced significant criticism for its lack of representation of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) community (Smith, 2022). The majority of characters that Disney has included that identify as LGBTQIA+ are supporting characters aiding the story of the main character. Some examples include Lefou in the 2017 adaptation of Beauty and The Beast, and the first lesbian couple in Finding Dory in 2016 (Rude, 2022). The only direct evidence of these characters being queer is Lefou dancing briefly with a man and the lesbian couple. These moments were considered groundbreaking, although there are only a few seconds for the audience to even become aware that the characters are queer. Unfortunately, Disney films are not the only ones where LGBTQIA+ characters are minor characters.
In addition to making queer characters minor characters, many films are guilty of “straightwashing” queer characters. The term straightwashing refers to the assimilation of someone who identifies within the LGBTQIA+ community to fit into the cultural norms of a heterosexual individual (Smith, 2018). Straightwashing can also be referred to as erasing queer identity. In cinema, this is most commonly seen in the casting process when directors cast heterosexuals in queer-identifying roles, not giving queer actors an opportunity. Often, the bisexual community is most affected by erasure and straightwashing. In 2020, only 10% of the films that major studios released contained bisexual characters, a decrease from 14% in 2019 (GLAAD, 2021). This compares to the 60% of gay men and 50% of lesbian characters present in these films of 2020 (GLAAD, 2021). Is there a reason for this vast difference in representation? Why are there so few bisexuals in film and television? This research aims to examine the representation of bisexuality in film, but first, a review of existing literature will help put it into context.
II. Literature Review
The literature review focuses on the history of bisexuality in film, bisexual erasure, the sexualization of bisexual women, and stereotypes of bisexual men in film.
The History of Bisexuality in Film
The first appearance of bisexual characters in film began in 1914 with the films Florida Enchantment and Zapatas Bande (Williams, 2002). These were two early silent films, where the filmmakers had the freedom to represent the sexual orientation of the characters without the censorship of speech. However, this would soon change with The Hays Code of 1934 in Hollywood.
The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a series of guidelines created by Will H. Hays, a former Postmaster General (Williams, 2002). This series of guidelines banned the representation of homosexuality, including bisexuality, within films in the United States (Tran, 2019). In the 1930s and 1940s, many sexual, social, and political themes could not be spoken about because of the code (Black, 1989). In 1968, the Hays Code was eradicated, and filmmakers began to represent different sexual orientations in film again (Tran, 2019). In 1982, the film Making Love was released, which was the first Hollywood film that openly had a bisexual male character, without making him a villain (Williams, 2002). In this film, the bisexual lead male leaves his wife to be with another man.
There were other films in the 1960s and 1980s containing bisexual characters. In the 1968 film The Fox, Ellen, a bisexual female character, chooses to be with a man instead of her female love, who is then killed by the man in the end (Williams, 2002). In the 1982 film Personal Best, the lead character has her bisexual awakening with a woman but then settles down with a man instead (Williams, 2002). In the 1994 film Chasing Amy, Alyssa, who was identifying as a lesbian, falls in love with a man, has a relationship with him and then returns to identifying as a lesbian (Williams, 2002). In all these films, there is one thing in common: the erasure of the bisexual identity.
Bisexual erasure is “the tendency to question or deny the existence of bisexuality” (Morgenroth et al., 2022, p. 250). The bisexual community has “historically suffered from a lack of representation and inclusion in both mainstream and sexual minority narratives, leading to bisexual identity being marginalized and denied in both sexual majority and minority contexts” (Garr-Schultz et al., p. 528). Bisexual erasure can occur in a multitude of ways. As mentioned previously, straightwashing is a form of bisexual erasure and occurs frequently within the entertainment industry. Straightwashing, erasing queer identity within people, is done to “protect the alleged sensibilities of viewers (and the bank accounts of Hollywood executives)” (Dymond & Murguía, 2022, p. xiii). Hollywood executives often do not want to face the potential controversy that including LGBTQIA+ characters could potentially create. Therefore, erasing queer identities – and in this case, bisexual identities – create a space of exclusion and discrimination. Similarly, heterosexual individuals sometimes view bisexuals as seeking attention or not being able to make a choice (Erickson-Scroth & Mitchell, 2009). This is very invalidating and harmful to bisexuals. While there can often be a preference for dating a male or female, it does not amount to not being able to make a choice or seeking attention. It just means that bisexuals are more open to dating or talking to one gender over another, but this preference often changes. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community can also participate in bisexual erasure. Because bisexual individuals do not fit into the homosexual binary, lesbian women and gay men will sometimes discriminate against bisexuals (Mills, 2006).
Coming out is not an easy thing to do and individuals are often faced with negative reactions from important people in their lives. Because of the difficulties or perceptions of coming out, many individuals choose to conceal their sexual identity. “Concealment of sexual identity has been shown to take a toll on cognitive resources, inhibit the expression of identity, and interfere with the maintenance and formation of close relationships” (Ryan et al., 2015). Therefore, the concealment of sexual identity, in fear of coming out, can lead individuals to have their own bisexual erasure. There are thoughts of wondering why they cannot choose or why they want to identify as bisexual. In many cases, bisexual erasure can lead to destructive or negative relationships with others.
In a 1997 survey of heterosexual undergraduate students, 50% of respondents found female bisexuality unacceptable, with 61% of respondents finding male bisexuality unacceptable (Davids & Lundquist, 2018). These negative attitudes toward bisexual individuals can affect how they enter and continue relationships in their lives. The majority of heterosexual participants in the study were scared to enter a relationship with a bisexual because of the risk of instability and intimacy (Davids & Lundquist, 2018). This is due to the perceived stereotype that bisexuals will often cheat because they do not know what they want. The perceived stereotype occurs most often in bisexual women. Bisexual women, who are in relationships with males, are more likely to experience higher levels of internalized homophobia and experience mental illness (Davids & Lundquist, 2018). Additionally, bisexual women are more likely to be oversexualized, especially in film (Cocarla, 2016).
Sexualization of Bisexual Women
An issue within mass media that has increasingly drawn attention is the oversexualization of women. The harm of sexualization comes from when women are portrayed as objects or are viewed as pleasure for other people (Herndon, 2020). The harm of sexualization can often be found in film with bisexual characters. Bisexual women experience forms of sexual objectification due to hypersexualized bisexuality in culture and the media (Randazzo et al., 2015). This hypersexuality is due to bisexuals being attracted to both females and males, as well as the stereotypical “sexual energy” of women in the media. The stereotype “positions bisexual women as simultaneously fetishized by media and ostracized by potential support systems” (Randazzo et al., 2015, p. 102). Additionally, the belief that women are sex objects can create negative views of self and more objectified self-evaluations (Randazzo et al., 2015).
These negative views lead to higher levels of body image problems, especially for bisexual women. Body image problems are related to their “unique experiences of feeling invisible in a landscape of gender binaries and dominant models of sexual orientation that exclude their experiences” (Randazzo et al., 2015, p. 102). The lack of representation of bisexual characters in film does not allow for bodies of different shapes and sizes to be portrayed accurately. Bisexual women place more value on a more muscular and physically fit physique because bisexual characters are typically thin or have a more masculine figure (Smith et al., 2017). The value they place on this body type is due to feelings of invisibility and inauthenticity, leading to body dissatisfaction (Smith et al., 2017). These feelings of invisibility and inauthenticity do not only occur in bisexual women but in bisexual men too.
Stereotypes of Bisexual Men
The absence of bisexual men in mainstream media is striking and detrimental to the male-identifying bisexual community. There were no leading male bisexual characters in any United States dramas before the 1950s (Bryant, 2000). When there were lead male bisexual characters, it was never explicitly stated, but inferred by the viewers. Bisexual male stereotypes present themselves in a multitude of ways in film. Two frequent themes are bisexual husbands hiding their sexuality from their wives and being abusive toward their wives (Bryant, 2000). There is a concealment of identity, as seen with bisexual erasure. Feelings of guilt and shame are associated with these frequent themes in film. Feelings of anger and guilt are associated with the stereotype of bisexual men being abusive towards their wives. Another frequent theme is bisexual men not being able to handle same-sex attraction (Bryant, 2000). This usually presents in the characters being “confused” or not being able to “get a grip” on what they want.
Another media stereotype is the bisexual man wanting “anything that moves” (Bryant, 2000). These stereotypes of hyper-sexualization of men and constant arousal lead to negative perceptions of bisexual men, which can lead to poor self-image and struggles with mental health (Johnson, 2016). More than a third of bisexual men have considered or attempted to take their own lives due to mental health problems. The increased suicide rate and a higher chance of mental health issues are often due to the stereotypes of the “biphobic, monosexist” society in the United States (Johnson, 2016). The absence of male bisexual identity on screen tends to cultivate feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
Based on the literature review, the author developed the following research questions:
Research Question 1: What are the primary characterizations of bisexuals portrayed in film?
Research Question 2: Are there overt presentations of the bisexual identity of the character in the film?
This study will use qualitative content analysis for a selection of movies that include bisexual characters. To complete this analysis, lists from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) were reviewed. The IMDb allows users to make specific categories for films. For this analysis, “Bisexual Films List” was searched. The list “Bisexual Films” by the user BisexualMedia was selected. The films were sorted by IMDb rating to see the films that were highest ranked by the audience. The following parameter was set by the author: The film must be released between 2012 and 2022.
Because the view of bisexuality has changed so drastically over the years, it was important to have a more recent mindset shown in the films. IMDb listed the following ten films within that parameter: The Handmaiden, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Thor: Ragnarok, Bohemian Rhapsody, Call Me by Your Name, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, The Favourite, Free Fall, Lady Bird, and Moonlight. There will be different components analyzed within these films. These include but are not limited to positive or negative behavior towards the bisexual character, whether the character ever reveals their identity, and how other characters treat the bisexual character.
The ten films show a mixture of both negative and positive attitudes in different aspects of the bisexual characters’ lives. The bisexual characters experience different reactions from other characters regarding their open or hidden form of identity. The films, though vastly different, presented similar themes. In this analysis section, the author will discuss prevalent themes and that emerged from the ten films. The four themes that will be elaborated upon are: bisexual erasure, the unfaithful lover, the oversexualization of bisexual women, and the negative sentiment of bisexual men.
Bisexual erasure is “the tendency to question or deny the existence of bisexuality” (Morgenroth et al., 2022, p. 250). The most prominent element of bisexual erasure was that the term bisexual was not used in eight out of the ten films. The only films in which the term “bisexual” was used were Bohemian Rhapsody and The Grand Budapest Hotel, only being used once in each film. Regarding the other films, it was left to the audience to decide if the character was or was not bisexual. The lack of representation is apparent when characters make offhand remarks or might look at another same-sex character with loving eyes, but their sexuality is never elaborated on or explored in the piece of cinema. The film Lady Bird had the most evident amount of bisexual erasure.
Lady Bird is a coming-of-age drama made in 2017, directed by Greta Gerwig, about Lady Bird’s experiences growing up in Sacramento and her troubling relationship with her mom. The film received 122 awards and was nominated 229 times between 2017 and 2018 (“Lady Bird – IMDb,” n.d.). In the film, Lady Bird has a loving relationship with a character named Danny, until she finds him kissing a male in the bathroom stall. When Danny confronts her about what she had seen, Lady Bird puts words to his identity, saying to him: “You’re gay,” assuming that was his identity. However, the option of identifying Danny as bisexual was never explored. Lady Bird calling him gay erases the previous romance and attraction viewers saw in their relationship, when he pulls her in closer to dance, initiates kissing her, and tells her he loves her. The film sets up their relationship and attraction to each other so much, that it feels disappointing to not see Danny explore his identity potentially as a bisexual man.
Like Lady Bird, Thor: Ragnarök produced similar results of bisexual erasure. Thor: Ragnarök is a 2017 Marvel film, directed by Taika Waititi, about the imprisonment of Thor and a contest he finds himself in with another Avenger, The Hulk, to save Hela from destroying his home. Many refer to this movie as the bisexual superhero movie because of the character Valkyrie. In the Marvel comics, Valkyrie is bisexual and has a relationship with another female, Annabelle Riggs (Willingham, 2019). Queer fans were ecstatic to see some representation, as Marvel has lacked in their inclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals (Kiley, 2022). However, this excitement soon went away when Marvel cut the scene confirming her queerness in the film. The scene was cut “because it distracted from the scene’s vital exposition” (Kiley, 2022).
While fans were left frustrated, the actress who plays Valkyrie, Tessa Thompson, tried to alleviate their feelings of frustration. She said: “I hope that she’s a character that fans continue to connect to, that we have a lot of time to explore her, in all of her humanity. But whether or not she finds love in this movie doesn’t mean she’s not still a fabulous queer character that is open to finding love when it makes sense” (Ulatowski, 2022). While fans still wanted to connect to the character, it is notable that there are often romantic arcs or interactions between heterosexual characters in Marvel movies. While this is an extreme case of bisexual erasure by literally erasing a bisexual scene, it is still hurtful to the fans who were excited to see themselves on a screen. There was an improvement from Marvel in Thor: Love and Thunder, which came out in July 2022, where the character Korg mentions that the girlfriend of Valkyrie died in battle (Ulatowski, 2022). Marvel committed to continue to work on the inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in its films, with a promise from Victoria Alonso, the executive vice-president of production, that Marvel Studios “seeks to introduce new superheroes in an expanding assortment of genders, ethnicities, ages, and sexual orientations” (Huver, 2019).
The findings of these films align with what was discovered within previous research. In the films where it was unclear whether the character was bisexual, straightwashing was taking place. The nonexistent overt presentations of the bisexual identity cause the audience to wonder what the sexuality of the character is, but because there is no clear indication, some may assume the character is straight.
In Lady Bird, although Danny is identified as gay, Lady Bird still acts as if he is attention seeking or not being able to make a choice, like how a lot of heterosexual individuals view bisexuals. This creates a very invalidating and harmful experience. Unfortunately, because Lady Bird and Danny end the film being friends, this shows viewers that it is okay to put words to someone’s identity and invalidate them. Clear, valid, and inclusionary films need to be made where bisexual characters can feel like their sexuality exists and that other people know and respect that.
The Unfaithful Lover
Another prominent theme was the unfaithful lover. Also known as the betrayer, the unfaithful lover has been a stereotype for bisexuals in film since the 1960s (Williams, 2002). Six of the 10 films in the study contained themes of the unfaithful lover. The two films that stood out the most for the unfaithful lover trope were Free Fall and Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
Free Fall is a 2013 drama, directed by Stephan Lacant, about the struggles of discovering sexuality. Marc enters the German police academy as a soon-to-be-father. Kay, a male gay police officer assisting the trainees, begins to make moves on Marc. The start of their relationship is very quick in the movie, with them having sexual relations 30 minutes into the film. Marc begins missing important things for his wife Bettina, such as painting the nursery or going to pregnancy yoga because he was with Kay. Marc begins lying to his wife and himself about his hidden relationship with Kay. This film falls under all the stereotypes of the unfaithful lover. The myth that bisexuals reject monogamy and committed relationships leads to the view that bisexuals’ romantic relationships are poor in quality – “lower in love, satisfaction, and intimacy, and higher in conflict than the relationships of heterosexuals” (Spalding & Peplau, 2006, p. 613). The myth presents itself in many scenes of the film. One scene that shows the lower intimacy factor of the myth is when Marc returns home after kissing Kay for the first time. Bettina initiates sex with Marc, which he typically favored, but in this scene, he told Bettina the excuse that it felt weird to have sex because of the baby. Throughout the rest of the film, he and his wife did not have any form of intimacy, implying that because Marc was bisexual, his relationship with his wife was of poorer quality.
Similar stereotypes are seen in the film Blue Is the Warmest Colour. A 2013 drama directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, the film is about Adèle’s life changing when she meets Emma, who allows her to realize who she is and how to love. Emma was love at first sight for Adèle. After a while, they begin to form a romantic relationship. The film then does a time jump where the characters are seen five years later, living in a home together and fully committed. A hectic party at their house leads Adèle to feel jealous of Emma and all her friends, leading her to kiss her male coworker, continue to see him, and cheat on Emma. This storyline falls into the myth that bisexuals get bored quickly in relationships. The stereotype of being bored in relationships leads many heterosexuals to believe that bisexuals lack commitment and are untrustworthy (Spalding & Peplau, 2006). This stereotype is seen again later in the film when Adèle and Emma reunite after a messy breakup. At this point in the film, Emma is in a committed relationship with a woman named Lise. In their reunion, Emma cheats on Lise with Adèle. Again, this falls into the stereotype that bisexuals are cheaters or lead others to cheat on their significant others.
As these films presented, stereotypes often cause individuals to believe that their bisexual partners will cheat because they do not know what they want. These stereotypes might lead to higher chances of mental illness, internalized homophobia, and a fear of relationships. These films are harmful because it suggests to viewers that this is how bisexuals behave in relationships, while most often it is the complete opposite.
Oversexualization of Bisexual Women
Bisexual women tend to have a higher potential of being oversexualized in film. The ten films selected often portrayed this oversexualization. The most prominent films that oversexualized women were The Handmaiden and The Favourite.
The Handmaiden is a 2016 drama, directed by Park Chan-wook, about a Korean con man plotting to marry a Japanese woman to get her inheritance with the help of a pickpocket. The pickpocket, Sook-Hee, acts as a maid for the Japanese woman, Lady Hideko. The Korean con man, Count Fujiwara, gives Sook-Hee clear instructions on how to steal from Hideko and guilt her into marrying him. The first sign of oversexualization in the film is when the Japanese woman, Hideko, is forced to read a sexual story to random men from Japan by her Uncle Kouzuki. From a young age, her uncle teaches her how to read through the teaching of the sexual story. She not only has to read it but must act it out as well, becoming completely nude by the end of the story. While the story is being read, the men are seen making comments about her and her body. This was a tradition for her family, leading to high suicide rates for the women in her family. Her mother and aunt both committed suicide after their final performance of the telling of the story and Hideko attempted to kill herself before Sook-Hee saved her. In the remainder of the film, the purely sexual intimate relationship between Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko is the primary focus. The lack of emotional connection between the two characters brings attention to the oversexualization of the women in the film.
The Favourite also had elements of oversexualization. A 2018 drama directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film is about the competitive nature to win the favor of Queen Anne between Lady Sarah and the new servant Abigail in 18th century England. When Abigail was in the library, she saw Lady Sarah and Queen Anne having sex, which she was confused about since Lady Sarah was married to a male soldier. Again, this falls under the harmful stereotype that bisexual women are unable to commit and are unfaithful to their partners. Abigail soon learned that to win the favor of Queen Anne, she must perform sexual acts that abide to the desires of the Queen. The competition became purely sexual between Lady Sarah and Abigail, even though they both have male significant others at the palace. In some scenes, the Queen is seen forcing the two to perform sexual acts, so they will win her favor and continue to have their job at the palace. The oversexualization in this film is extremely problematic, especially as it shows two bisexual women fighting through sex. While Lady Sarah and Abigail can be seen as bisexual, there could be confusion about their identities because of the reason for their relationship with Queen Anne.
The overall fetishization of bisexual women as sex objects in both films can create a lot of unnerving thoughts for viewers. It can cause negative feelings of self, objectified self-evaluations, and higher levels of body image issues (Randazzo et al., 2015). It can make bisexual women watching feel like they must be overly sexual and always satisfy the men and women in their lives. Additionally, because of the lack of representation of bisexual characters, there is no room for bodies of different shapes and sizes to be portrayed accurately (Smith et al., 2017). Within these two films, the characters all had a thinner physique. It is discouraging not to see bisexual women of all different body types being presented on screen, especially as that is something that women are typically insecure about for themselves and want representation for.
The Negative Sentiment of Bisexual Male Characters
Negative portrayals can be seen with bisexual men too. Bisexual men in film typically hide their identities and have feelings of guilt and shame. One of the more progressive films on the list – Bohemian Rhapsody – was also the prominent example of negative sentiment of bisexual male characters.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a 2018 biographical musical drama, directed by Bryan Singer, about the life of Freddy Mercury and how he became one of the most famous singers in the world. While the overall femininity of Freddy Mercury was celebrated in the film, negative sentiment towards him started to arise when people were wondering how he identified. The first sign of negative sentiment seen towards him in the film is when he comes out to his fiancé Mary. Similar to Lady Bird with Danny, her response was calling him gay. Additionally, Mary tells him that his life is going to be very difficult. The second sign of negative sentiment seen towards him was when people started making assumptions about Freddy and his manager, Paul. Freddy’s bandmates in Queen seemed concerned about him, especially because he started to look exactly like Paul with his short hair and mustache. His bandmates would make fun of Freddy and give him dirty looks during band practice when he started to hang out with Paul more.
Another sign of negative sentiment seen towards Freddy was by the press. Journalists often asked him how he identifies and why he was photographed with both men and women frequently. He was often called the F-slur or a freak by people in the media. In the film, he was frustrated and upset that journalists would not ask about Queen or ask other bandmates questions. A lot of the negative sentiment Freddy faced as a bisexual man led him to have alcohol and drug problems. These feelings Freddy Mercury experienced are not uncommon for bisexual men. The stereotype that bisexual men are hypersexual can lead to poor self-image and struggles with mental health (Johnson, 2016).
While each are vastly different, these ten films are connected to each other through the four themes of bisexual erasure, the unfaithful lover, the oversexualization of bisexual women and the negative sentiment of bisexual men.
The range of themes presented in this diverse list of films garners many questions about the representation of the bisexual community. Themes of bisexual erasure, the unfaithful lover, oversexualization of bisexual women and negative sentiment toward bisexual men were present in the majority of the films. The term “bisexual” was surprisingly only mentioned in two out of the ten films, and only once in each. The lack of discussion and overall existence of bisexuality in these films lead to some problematic and concerning stereotypes of the portrayal of bisexuals in cinema.
It is important to note some limitations in this research. The list of the ten films was created through IMDb by the account BisexualMedia, which has influence on the sample, depending on the bias of the account. It also did not mention how this account identifies, so it could be a heterosexual-identifying individual rating the top bisexual films, as one example. It is possible that films not included in the sample have a more positive representation of bisexuality.
Representation on television is also an area worthy of study. As examples, in the two series Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Heartstopper, lead characters come out as bisexual without any stereotypes presenting themselves in the shows. The series both saw the life-changing implications that these two coming-out stories had on not only closeted or recently out youth at home, but also on adults who did not have a safe space as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community growing up.
If the author were to continue this research, the author would analyze more films with a wider parameter. The author would also survey or interview bisexual-identifying people on films they thought had good representation of the bisexual community. The insight from bisexual-identifying people could allow for more films to be researched that have a more positive portrayal of bisexuals. With more representation, people who identify as LGBTQIA+ can see themselves on the screen, which perhaps can lead to more acceptance in the United States.
Thank you to my faculty mentor, Professor Laura Lacy, for her guidance throughout the entire research process. This paper would have not been possible without her constant support and knowledge.
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