Prior to the budding trend of characters like Deadpool, Rick Sanchez, and now Lando Calrissian being dubbed publicly by their creators as pansexual, I can recall only one instance of ever hearing the word spoken within the bounds of mainstream pop culture. It was in a 2011 episode of Community, and was hurled with the insinuation of an epithet by guest star John Goodman at series regular Jim Rash’s Dean Craig Pelton, a character whose sexual and gender fluidity were treated by the show as what you might call amicable perversions. Though it’d be a half measure to name this depiction regrettable, I remember thinking then that even the mere mention of pansexuality felt decidedly modern.
That likewise seems to be the attitude encircling the above lot’s branding with the orientation, here and now at the crest of this new wave. These seven years later, the term is getting unprecedented mileage by way of Marvel Studios, Rick and Morty, and—the motherlode—Star Wars, with feisty embrace at each turn by those doling it out. Solo co-writer Jonathan Kasdan seized the opportunity to call his Lando pansexual when the topic was broached during an interview with The Huffington Post last week, and Donald Glover, who plays the character in the film, followed suit with an energized endorsement of this label—both presumably in the interest of propagating a more inclusive Star Wars. But even this latter-day adoption of an identity that has long been confined to oblivion beyond the parameters of normativity leaves plenty to be desired in the way of forward motion.
For starters, what we see take shape onscreen in these properties isn’t exactly what you’d call a generous representation of pansexuality. In Deadpool 2, Wade Wilson’s supposed sexual orientation (which has been discussed by creator Rob Liefeld and the movies’ star Ryan Reynolds) is relegated to a few wry gags about his fondness for Colossus’ physique. This is presuming that this is not just a willingness to feign as such to screw with his beleaguered frenemy. Either way, it’s all played entirely for laughs. In the case of Rick and Morty’s titular fun-loving scientist, pansexuality (confirmed by co-creator Justin Roiland at 2015’s San Diego Comic-Con) translates to little more the occasional planet-wide orgy; his sexual fluidity may not be a punchline, as it is with Deadpool, but it’s nevertheless an intergalactic leap from anything viewers are expected to digest as sincere. Finally, we have Lando, whose designation as pansexual is owed entirely to his more-than-friends relationship with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character: a droid.
Consistent among this eclectic lot is a disappointing indication of how seriously pop culture is willing to take pansexuality. Despite the shared proclamation to welcome a long-obscured sexual preference with open arms, the showcased titles instead default to the employment of stereotypes that have been saddled not only to pansexuals, but to any and all parties identifying beyond the confines of the sexual binary. In Wade, Rick, and Lando, we see frivolity, promiscuity, and total emancipation from inhibition, or even judgment. In other words, when these characters call themselves pansexual, what they’re really saying is that they “like to party.” And when they are allowed some showing of genuine heart, it comes with one caveat: keep it straight.
Deadpool’s love for Vanessa, a cis woman played by Morena Baccarin, is apparent from the moment they first cross paths. In the very same episode that Rick throws caution to the wind for the aforementioned maximum-scale group sexcapade, we see him fall head over heels for an old flame named Unity—an alien, but one who is unmistakably coded as female—voiced by Christina Hendricks. And while Lando’s mechanical paramour may land a few facial features shy of C-3PO on Star Wars‘ sliding scale of robotic anthropomorphism, Waller-Bridge’s vocal performance is enough for us to understand L3-37 as a “Lady,” as Calrissian so affectionately calls her. The odd metallic ass-grab or cavalier flirtation notwithstanding, these and these alone are the kinds of characters our would-be pansexuals are allowed to love.
As for who they’re allowed to be, the margins aren’t much wider. Wade Wilson, Rick Sanchez, and Lando Calrissian don’t simply embody traditional masculinity, they downright luxuriate in it. Every cavalier crack aimed at undercutting an ambiance of austerity, every assumption of authority in the face of seemingly unknowable conflict, every ascription of priority to the showcase of just how cool, tough, and utterly in-control they are without fail functions to remind us that these guys are all man. Man enough not only to get away without being impaired by the suggestion of queerness, but to downright apologize for it!
Frankly, even the suggestion of queerness is more than we ever tend to get. On the contrary, we see measure after measure taken to undermine the allocation of the characters in question to the periphery of heteronormativity. Be it a conscious choice or not, the drive to avert the queer connotation ensnares these characters the moment they are called pansexual, a term whose longtime estrangement from the mainstream has in fact allowed it to be coopted by the very same, without fear of drumming up anything that might seem “too LGBTQ.” When a creator chooses to publicly identify their character as pansexual, they are in turn choosing not to identify it as bisexual—a distinct orientation, yes, but one whose most relevant distinction here is the association it carries.
Ascertaining the tactile difference between the two can occasionally prove challenging, given both our ever-changing understanding of gender, and a history of controversy surrounding the pair’s ideological division. (Some parties have claimed that bisexuality inherently rejects gender fluidity, and some have claimed that pansexuality was constructed from the ground up as a vehicle toward bi-erasure—please allow me to make this clear: this article claims neither.) The greatest hurdle, though, in developing a universal definition spawns from how personal sexual identity is. That pansexuality and bisexuality could well eventuate as functionally identical, just as two instances of bisexuality might manifest as markedly different, is thanks to how involved a given party’s sexual identity is with their relationship with their own gender, that of others, and with the multifaceted concept of gender altogether.
On the opposite side of the same coin, pansexuality and bisexuality alike endure an affiliation with stereotypes of loose morals and lacking sense, and suffer no deficit of assaults on their validity. But the reason we’re only seeing only one of these two terms permitted the company of some of the most valuable (and profitable) figures in contemporary pop culture is because there’s no hope of severing the tethers between bisexuality and its gay, lesbian, and transgender brethren. As the casting of Deadpool, Rick Sanchez, and Lando Calrissian as pansexual shows us, these orientations are separated formidably by how queer we’re expected to think they are. In being sold as pan, the likes of this trio are made out to be free-spirited, unencumbered, and even a bit wild. But queer? Queer would be a point too far, and classification as bi would be a one-way ticket to that point.
There’s no doubt in my mind that in invoking pansexuality in accordance with their respective characters, Kasdan, Glover, and the rest are striving toward something decidedly noble. But queer-phobia runs so deep in America’s comprehension of sexuality and gender that you can wind up propagating it without even knowing. You can misappropriate a term like pansexuality to the point of emancipating it from its founding establishment in queerdom—worse yet, from its legitimacy altogether—or alienate another, like bisexuality, ever further from the embrace of mainstream culture. Yes, it may be tricky, but if you want to espouse inclusivity, starting with the team behind these creative decisions could go a long way in making sure you don’t end up looking back in seven years on something that, in retrospect, feels as regrettable as John Goodman calling Jim Rash a “pansexual imp.”
Images: Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, Adult Swim
M. Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find them on Twitter @micarbeiter.