Since 1999, the 23rd of September has been marked as an international day to highlight the struggle of the bisexual community to gain visibility both outside and inside LGBTQI spaces, to raise awareness to the stigma and the erasure of bi-identities and experiences, as well as highlight the pervasive biphobia that many people in our communities face on an everyday basis. We at the International LGBTQI Youth and Student Organisation (IGLYO) aim to, on this particular day, talk about the (in)visibility of openly bisexual role models in the media, the lack of openly and respectfully portrayed bi-characters in films and on TV, and to discuss the direct effect this can have on young bi-people.
In an image-driven world, the impact both media and role models have on young people is non-negotiable. For the general public, media might be the only way to be exposed to a variety of causes, like the lived experiences of the LGBTQI community. But for LGBTQI youth, the media might be their only way to relate to someone who shares similar feelings and experiences to their own. This is of vital importance. Research has shown that positive role models can inﬂuence young people’s personality characteristics and values, as well as contribute to individuals’ development of their sense of self and their self-esteem – experiences proven to remain salient into young adulthood and possibly beyond (Gomillion and Giuliano, 2011).
Still, young people in the LGBTQ community struggle to find themselves represented in the media. In many of the countries represented by IGLYO, LGBTQI characters are often portrayed as caricatures enhanced by well known social stereotypes and prejudices that harm our right to develop our personality as individuals in an unbiased way.
While it might be true that the overall visibility of LGBTQI characters in films and other media has increased over the last years, bisexual characters are still not represented equally. The lack of openly and respectfully portrayed bi-characters is accompanied by the lack of openly bisexual people to appear in social media, on television, and on any kind of platform that people can be influenced by. Numbers don’t lie either, as according to GLAAD’s Where we are on TV – 2013 Report, out of the 66 regular and/or recurring LGBT characters on the US cable television shows, only 4 were identifying openly as “bisexual males”, while bisexual women are estimated to make up 15% of LGBT characters on cable television.
This comes as no surprise, considering the mainstream media often lack an interest in accurately and realistically depicting people who are not in accordance to what is considered a norm. An example of that is how female bisexual characters are oversexualised, a fact that is worsened considering that female (bi)sexuality more often than not is used to entertain a male-specific audience, all while male bisexuality is erased. Also, people whose experience of gender identity doesn’t fall into gender binary (the notion that there are just two genders: men and women), and who are at the same time bisexual, are facing a double social stigma, as both their sexuality and gender identity are challenging the binary normative perceptions of gender and sexuality that are predominant in Western culture.
This issue becomes even more obvious when looking for openly bisexual people of colour, openly bisexual people who are also trans, openly bisexual people who are also intersex, openly bisexual people living with (dis)abilities etc. Those intersections are many times not considered desirable for the mainstream audience targeted by the media, and so they just get no air-time, and in that way, the mainstream media condemn a large portion of the LGBTQI community to a status of invisibility. It also makes it even harder for bisexual people of different minority backgrounds to come out, because they don’t have appropriate role models to look up to.
It is high time that bisexuality gets some proper visibility on all types of media.
Media representation is a powerful tool that shapes people’s perceptions of right and wrong, of what is valid and what is not, what is real and what is not. Heteronormativity and biphobia are omnipresent in the media, which reinforces the idea of bisexuality as a non-existent sexuality. Stereotypes that follow them, such as the misconception that bisexuality is just a passing phase between heterosexuality and homosexuality, that it is just an experiment, a ‘passing hiding closet’, are harming the bisexual people, and the general population as well. They offer people an unrealistic depiction of people’s sexuality and lives. That is not helpful in our efforts to combat bullying and violence that LGBTQI people face, in schools, communities, families, institutions
- Sarah C. Gomillion MS & Traci A. Giuliano PhD (2011): The Influence of Media Role Models on Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity, Journal of Homosexuality, 58:3, 330-354
- Hannah J. Johnson (2016): Bisexuality, Mental Health, and Media Representation, Journal of Bisexuality, DOI: 10.1080/15299716.2016.1168335
- Cruz, Eliel. “Bisexuality in the Media: Where are the Bisexuals on TV?” Bi.org. Accessed September 18, 2017. https://bisexual.org/bisexuality-in-the-media-where-are-the-bisexuals-on-tv/.