Bisexual representation in film and television ebbs and flows, often leaning into tired tropes and rampant biphobia. However, there have been some great moments, even from the early days of cinema. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich pushed boundaries with their bi energy onscreen in Old Hollywood. And, there’s Michael York as Brian Roberts in Cabaret.
In more recent times, Mischa Barton and Olivia Wilde’s bi arcs in The O.C. respected their relationship beyond titillation or writing it off as “just a phase.” There are still less-than-perfect portrayals like Nola Darling in Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It or the erasure of Tessa Thompson’s confirmed bi character Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok. However, we’re finally hitting an era where bisexual and pansexual characters feel as authentic and complex (and sometimes messy) as their real-life counterparts.
Television’s (Rare) Hits with Bisexual Characters
Television in particular has had a lot more misses than hits (see the rampant biphobia in Sex and the City). But in the last few years, there has been a rise in better bi representation. I began to see a major change with shows like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.
And no, I don’t just mean the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. I adored the rich arc of Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Will’s colleague and Hannibal’s one-time student, as she oscillates between relationships with both of them. Bloom eventually finds her romantic match in Margot Verger (Katharine Isabelle). Hannibal time and time again showed its deep respect for fans, and this deliberate choice by Fuller was felt deeply by bisexual Fannibals.
Sony Pictures Television
The CW had been one of the worst offenders of the “ bury your gays” trope. But they course corrected with a myriad of shows featuring bisexual characters. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend eventually had no less than three bisexual characters by its conclusion. However, what made it truly special was the rare inclusion of an older bisexual man.
Actor Pete Gardner portrays Darryl Whitefeather, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom)’s boss, with such warmth and care. As the show begins, Darryl is a sad middle-aged divorcé trying to keep it together and parent his teenage daughter. He eventually comes into his own, falling in love with White Josh (David Hull) and declaring himself “both sexual.”
Honestly, I am still not over his musical number “Gettin’ Bi,” which lyrically unpacks so many myths about bisexuality. The catchy tune is a cheesy ’80s style pop anthem, complete with a hot saxophone solo. You can’t get much more bi than that.
Around that same time, Jane The Virgin confronted biphobia with an arc featuring Tyler Posey, who himself had often been accused of gay-baiting. (He has since come out as sexually fluid.) In its final seasons, the show’s one-time antagonist Petra Solano (Yael Grobglas), who spent much of the first few seasons trying to break up Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and Rafael (Justin Baldoni) before impregnating herself with his frozen sperm, softens as she falls deeply in love with her lawyer J.R. (Rosario Dawson).
Showrunners knew fans shipped Petra and Jane from the beginning. So they leaned into it by naming Petra’s eventual love interest Jane Ramos as a wink. Petra and J.R.’s relationship is complicated and messy, but their chemistry is undeniable. As the attraction grows, Grobglas plays Petra’s confusion, obsession, and eventual passion for J.R. with such precision that it never feels unearned.
David Rose, Pansexuality, and the Bi Umbrella
This brings me to David Rose (Dan Levy) from Schitt’s Creek. I’ve considered myself pansexual since I first heard the phrase about 10 years ago. While there is still debate with regards to the nuances between the phrases, I personally feel as though I fit under the bisexual umbrella. If any character fits under that umbrella too, it’s David Rose, the first openly pansexual character on television.
In the show’s early episodes, the residents of Schitt’s Creek assume David is gay. He starts a flirty relationship with hotel manager Stevie Budd (Emily Hampshire); however, it becomes clear that his sexuality is quite fluid. Using wine as a metaphor to describe his tastes, David eloquently expressed that fluidity as only he could, to the delight of many pansexual fans of the show (myself included). While the show concludes with his character marrying the amazing Patrick (Noah Reid), that does not negate David’s bisexuality.
Bisexuality on the Big Screen
What about film, you say? Well, there are winks here and there, but far fewer clear examples of bisexuality on the big screen. There’s the clear bisexual energy of Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock in Ocean’s 8. And, Charlize Theron’s insisted that her character be bisexual in Atomic Blonde. But, in my opinion, only three characters from the last few years truly get it.
One of my favorite films, Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, explores the messiness of modern bisexual dating. It also adds a layer of specificity as the daughter of Persian immigrants. Told in a non-linear fashion, we follow Shirin (Akhavan) as she meets, falls in love with, and subsequently breaks up with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Dubbed a “ bisexual Annie Hall,” Akhavan uses this backdrop to address the particulars of being a queer first-generation American and the unique pressures of coming out in those circumstances.
Appropriate Behavior also addresses biphobia within the lesbian community, a subject Akhavan explored further in her limited series The Bisexual. Ultimately, this is a story about heartbreak that is as universal as any other. Most of us have had our hearts broken, and Shirin’s journey towards healing feels authentic and raw.
One of the most refreshing takes on bisexuality is Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight. Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes at three different ages) comes of age in Liberty City, Miami at the height of the crack epidemic, while falling in love with his friend Kevin.
We also see Kevin at three ages. First, as a spunky youth (Jaden Piner) who helps Chiron (Hibbert) come out of his shell. Then as a smooth teenager (Jharrel Jerome) with whom Chiron (Sanders) has his first sexual experience and later his first sting of deep betrayal. When we last meet Kevin, he’s now a wistfully romantic cook (André Holland), whose late-night phone call awakens long-repressed feelings for Chiron (Rhodes).
While the word bisexual is not uttered (as it often is not, unfortunately), it’s clear that Kevin felt real affection for his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. In the same diner scene, we see that Kevin feels as deeply for Chiron as anyone he’s been with. Moonlight was not just a step forward in nuanced gay representation, but bisexual representation as well.
Lastly, chaos reigns in Emma Seligman’s debut feature film Shiva Baby, in which we follow college senior and sugar baby Danielle (Rachel Sennott). She runs into her ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy while attending a shiva with her parents. Seligman specifically set out to tell a bisexual story and said she felt encouraged and excited by all the young bisexual women who told her what the film meant to them.
Like Shirin in Appropriate Behavior, Danielle is navigating the waters of a family who would prefer to think she’s just really good friends with her ex, Maya (Molly Gordon), or that it was a high school experimental phase. But as the film progresses towards its climactic ending, we see how much Danielle and Maya mean to each other. A gesture as simple as holding hands feels bolder than an earlier makeout sesh. In the end, Danielle is navigating a messy situation with two lovers and working through internalized biphobia in hopes of becoming a better version of herself.
As we see more bisexual and pansexual characters from creators who share that same identity, there will hopefully be stronger representation in TV and film. GLAAD reports a decline in bisexual characters in the last year in film. Despite that, I trust this new generation of filmmakers to eschew outdated tropes about bisexuality and acknowledge it onscreen. We’ll all be better for it.