It’s long been repeated and analyzed at Comic-Con panels, blogs, and, well, venues like Nerdist.com, that openly gay characters in sci-fi and fantasy entertainment are perhaps a bit too few and far between. Deep in the trenches of the nerd establishment – a pop culture trophy room that claims to celebrate imagination, diversity and possibility – there are rarely queer stories or films/comics/TV shows that directly reflect the queer experience. I come here today to analyze, elucidate, and basically whine about under-representation. I come to ask — where all the bisexual men are in sci-fi?
Now before you get angry and begin listing the myriad underground comics and sci-fi novels that feature queer male (and female) characters (which I actually encourage in the comments section below; I’d love to hear about them), I should perhaps specify that there are startling few gay and bi male role models in most mainstream comics, TV shows, and feature films. To elaborate: of the hundreds upon hundreds of superhero characters in the world, I can list maybe four or five gay ones. Batwoman. Northstar. And these aren’t really well-known superstar characters like Spider-Man or Captain America. There are a few bi ladies mixed into superhero comics (Moondragon maybe?), and exactly zero bi men.
When it comes to sci-fi and genre TV shows, there are several gay characters, and I’m sure Joss Whedon’s myriad fans have instantly thought of those that have appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I would perhaps argue, however, that such supporting gay characters are less about trying to directly relate to the queer experience, and more about rounding out a rainbow-coalition ensemble. There is but one positive, heroic bisexual male in all of mainstream sci-fi, and that would be Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and its spinoff Torchwood. Played by a gay actor, Capt. Harkness is a forthrightly sexual fellow that often sleeps with both men and women, and kisses men on screen. But beyond him, can you name me one bisexual male hero from any sci-fi movies?
There is a weird irony at work in sci-fi, and when it comes to sexuality, it’s a bit distressing. When we look at sci-fi as a whole genre, and try to come up with a vague, overall sense of what it is, it tends to gel into something along the lines of Star Trek: wild, futuristic stories that use aliens and fantasy technology to explore human questions, often coding modern social debates within futuristic fantasy scenarios. Racism on Earth has been eliminated in Star Trek, but we can still explore the absurdity and extremities of racism when we paint someone half white and half black.
However, within that framework of the fantastical and the unexpected, there is a weird undercurrent of the known and the expected. We can’t riff and comment on the outliers and the marginalized members in our own present-day society unless we have a kind of conservative “baseline reading” underneath the sci-fi exploration. Consider how few gay and bisexual characters are on any of the Star Trek shows. Nothing in the 1960s for sure. Nothing in NextGen either, oddly. There was one episode of Deep Space Nine that posited that the character Jadzia Dax (played by Terry Farrell) was bisexual, but her attraction to women was only ever mentioned in that one episode. She would go on to marry a man. The other bisexual character was the “evil” version of Major Kira in the evil Mirror Universe. Bisexuals in fiction are, more often than not, devious villains, killers, and hypersexual hedonists. Bisexual men especially. Think of any bi men and women in any movies, books, or TV shows. They’re usually the bad guys or the monsters, right?
The most notable bisexual man in all of sci-fi is likely Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the central figure in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The alien transvestite played by Tim Curry creates a male playmate, seduces both Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, and seems to love every second of it. And while most audiences look up to Frankie as a symbol of sexual freedom and wild abandon, we should perhaps immediately recall that he functions as the film’s villain. He’s also a murderer, a mad scientist, a drug addict (if you look closely, he has needle tracks on his arms), and a cannibal. His sexuality is open and free, and I suppose we can laud Rocky Horror for its gay visibility, but I would hardly call Dr. Frank-N-Furter an aspirational or heroic character.
In Skyfall, James Bond was teased by that film’s bisexual male villain, who rubbed his thighs and implied that he wanted to seduce 007. James Bond replied with a flip crack that he had slept with men before. The line functions as a throwaway joke, showing that Bond was perhaps willing to call the bi man’s bluff. But did any of us consider that Bond may actually be bisexual, or was he merely trying to stave off the man’s advances? Now that we have Skyfall, we can ask: Is James Bond bi?
We live in an age where gay people can marry, and a revolution has occurred in the advancement of gay rights. I think our sci-fi and fantasy entertainment – all of nerd culture, really – needs to be better about reflecting that. Having supporting gay characters is all well and good, and there have been plenty of Gay Best Friends and Gay Supporting Characters peppered throughout, but what we really need is more gay and bi heroes. More men featured in central roles who will fight villains to save their boyfriends just as strongly as they will save their girlfriends.
Jack Harkness is a start. Let’s have some more.