The L Word and “But Not Too Bi”: Flipping The Script Is Not Much Better

It’s been ten years since The L Word premiered, and we’ve got lots to talk about. Welcome to The L Word week!


Bisexuality, and the way it is presented in both queer and “straight” media, is always a complicated issue. The degree to which we are welcomed in the LGBTQ community, how that varies between different sections of it, how that should vary… that is a question that can be debated endlessly. What is harder to dispute is that, as far as media representation goes, bisexual “stereotypes” tend to fall into a few distinct patterns.

TV Tropes, the user-created wiki cataloguing different character, plot and other “patterns” in fiction, has a few different examples of common “bisexuality tropes.” From the violent or insane “Depraved Bisexual” to “Anything That Moves,” the character whose lack of preference with gender extends to a lack of preference in anything, it is obvious what is wrong with a lot of these “tropes.” Suggesting that a non-heterosexual orientation leads to mental instability, or that bisexual people cannot be monogamous or choosy, is playing into well-known and harmful stereotypes. Yet the problems with others are somewhat less obvious; this is the case with “But Not Too Bi.”

The site defines the “But Not Too Bi” trope as the following: “A character is nominally bisexual but is almost exclusively involved with one sex during the run of the narrative.” It goes on to list some of the common ways in which this plays out:

1. Time: Alice used to date or sleep with both sexes, but there is no indication that she does so now.
2. Actions on screen: Bob sleeps with both sexes, but the only relationships he forms are with women…
3. Tone/emotion: These two usually go together. If Alice considers her experiences with women to be wacky hijinks and her experiences with men to be love stories, they are usually treated as such by the music, the other characters and the rest of the set.

The first two, of course, are not “problematic” on their own; there are real-life people who identify as bisexual while later coming to realize that they are exclusively gay or straight, or even just bi people who end up in long-term monogamous relationships with someone of a particular gender. Likewise, there are people who are sexually interested in more than one gender, but only romantically interested in one, or vice versa: “homoromantic bisexuals” and so on. Yet, the issue of a “pattern,” once again, comes up. What does it say to the viewers when so many of the bi characters we see are like this – viewers who may not be open to the nuances of romantic vs. sexual attraction? The third example gives a clue: that one kind of attraction is more significant than another, and in turn, that bi people are kidding themselves when they pretend that they can have both. As it also writes:

“[The] key is to create some form of pecking order between the sexes, presumably in order to make the character more appealing to the audience depending on what gender and sexuality they are expected to have, while at the same time having the titillation, comedic material or diversity of ‘deviant’ sexual behavior. Of course, the prevalence of the trope brings some unfortunate implications for real life bisexuals; that in the end it’s only one gender that matters to them and that their experiences with the other one are worthless.”

A good description of how the Skins writers dealt with their bi and pan characters

A good description of how the Skins writers dealt with their bi and pan characters

The way the trope most often plays out in media is where a bisexual character’s “real” relationships or “focus” is toward the opposite sex. This is where the “deviant” part comes in, and the issue of “diversity”: it can seem like writers want to have their cake and eat it, too, gain credibility for having an LGBTQ character on their screen while not alienating certain bigoted straight viewers by showing them in an actual same-sex relationship. In this sense, the “But Not Too Bi” trope hurts both gay and bi people: it furthers stereotypes about bi people “kidding themselves” and defines non-heterosexuality in general as The Other, something that is “too much” to portray fully on-screen.

For all the credit it gets for its portrayal of lesbian couple Naomi and Emily in the third and fourth seasons, Skins engaged in this in the other two generations’ casts with its bi and pansexual characters. In the first generation, Tony and Cassie had dalliances with both boys and girls, but their “real” relationships were with opposite-sex characters. How the third generation dealt with Franky was even more egregious, as after she told everyone in the fifth season that her sexual orientation was “into people” – which sounds like she’s bisexual and/or pansexual – she was never shown to have a sexual or romantic encounter with anyone other than a boy. In the end, even though these characters had interest in multiple genders, the “double standard” causes fans of the show to debate their sexual orientations, finding reasons to explain any same-sex interest as “not counting.” Similar to the issue with queerbaiting, it draws in queer viewers while still upholding the double standard that reminds us that we’re inferior.

The L Word, of course, is a different story. While “But Not Too Bi” was firmly in effect with the main  characters who could be read that way – Alice Pieszecki, Jenny Schechter and Tina Kennard – their bias was toward the same gender, rather than the opposite one. When the “double standard” is toward a disadvantaged rather than privileged group, does the problem change? Is there even a problem?

The L Word - Season 6

Alice Pieszecki starts out from the very first episode, proudly identifying herself as bisexual and rebuking her friends’ biphobia. When Dana asks her, “When are you going to make up your mind between dick and pussy?” Alice responds with, “Well, for your information, Dana, I am looking for the same qualities in a man as I am in a woman.” She dates Lisa, a “lesbian-identified man,” during the first season. However, as the seasons go on, Alice later comes to identify as a lesbian, even testifying under oath as such. In the third season, she jokes by Dana’s bedside, “You’re right. Bisexuality is gross. I see it now.” The joke was in response to Tina’s question about how she’s dressed for a date with boyfriend Henry. Tina herself plays into another bisexual stereotype – the bisexual cheater, who leaves her long-term lesbian partner for a man – but it says something that Alice is now attacking other bi women with the same kind of biphobia she despised in the first season.

Whether the dramatic and troubled Jenny would count as good bisexual representation anyway is another matter, since “crazy bisexuals” are their own minefield of a media trope. Regardless, despite her starting off the show engaged to a man, and having her interest in women referred to as “bisexual” (as in the joke in the pilot about finger lengths), Jenny later in the show comes to identify as a lesbian. She is so lesbian-identified, in fact, that she comes to exclude Tina for choosing to date a man, insisting she is “enjoying all the heterosexual privileges” when she walks around with him. It makes sense that Jenny would mostly date women after coming out as bisexual (a term she does use to define herself in the first season) and leaving her fiancé Tim, since she’s likely “making up for lost time;” Jenny probably only dated men before she came to terms with her sexuality over the course of the first season. However, even with that understanding in place, the show still manages to find a way to eventually twist Jenny’s character into one that undermines bisexuality. Her interest in men is something of the past, and something she actively disavows in her current identity. It is “lesser.”

While Tina does at least get to have ongoing, significant relationships with characters of multiple genders, she, too, continues to identify as a lesbian and eventually comes to disavow her interest in men when she gets back with Bette later in the show. Bisexuality on The L Word is a transitional state and, like the Skins examples but in reverse, bi women’s interest in men is always secondary and never lasts. They always, inevitably, move toward a lesbian identity.

It’s interesting to wonder if these examples would be a problem in isolation. Certainly, it is an issue when one of the most visible and influential queer shows on TV makes a pattern of showing bisexual characters as fake or duplicitous; it raises the question of if they would have represented bi people better by leaving us out entirely, as another highly visible and influential queer show – the US version of Queer as Folk – arguably did. Yet, would these characters be a problem if there were other, contrasting examples of bisexuality on the show? As mentioned before, Jenny’s lack of male partners after, presumably, a lifetime of only dating men makes sense, if not her animosity toward other bi women later in the show. Alice could easily be a lesbian who slowly came to her true sexual identity after believing she was bisexual; this is also realistic. And Tina’s cheating on Bette – a relationship that was on the fritz anyway – isn’t necessarily a problem absent a cultural stereotype of bi people as cheaters. People of all sexual orientations cheat, after all. Certainly, none of these situations are necessarily unrealistic. So is it merely a lack of diversity in experiences, or are they problematic on their own?

I feel the same way, Tina

I feel the same way, Tina

When one looks closer at The L Word‘s failings when it comes to bisexual representation, it isn’t just about a lack of variety. In fact, all The L Word‘s bi characters have different experiences with their attraction to people of multiple genders, but all happen to gravitate more toward women – which makes sense for a lesbian-focused show. It does have variety. The problem is that every single one is presented in a way that makes bisexuality as a whole seem like a negative thing. It undermines bisexual people and identities in general.

There are ways The L Word could have given us these storylines without making bisexuality, or bisexual women, look bad. A close friend of mine identified as bi before he later came out as gay, but still makes it clear to others that bisexuality is real, just not who he is. If Alice is truly a case of a lesbian character who was previously bi-identified – and not just a case of the writers changing their minds halfway through – they could have presented that identity crisis like my friend’s, making it clear it wasn’t her identity but still a valid identity in general. Or just not had her comment on it at all, beyond stating that it’s no longer how she identifies. That’s not great when it’s the only representation we get, but it’s fine when there are other bi women in the cast, and certainly very realistic.

Jenny could have continued to identify as bisexual or something else that suggests an interest in multiple genders, since she clearly is attracted to both men and women over the course of the show. If not, there could have been a conversation about why the “lesbian” label was more comfortable for her: feeling more in tune with the lesbian community as a whole? A reaction to biphobia? Or, at the very least, as with Alice, we did not need to see her attacking other women who are interested in people of multiple genders, actively excluding them from her queer communities.

L Word Cast

If even one of these had happened, The L Word could be counted as having some actually good bisexual representation. The biphobic attitudes of any other characters would have come off the way Dana’s had earlier in the series: that character‘s attitude, not that of the show. But because The L Word instead made a pattern of having even its actual bi characters come to embrace biphobia, that’s not what happened. It appears that the show itself wants to undermine bi women, or at least make it clear we’re not welcome in queer communities. So in that sense, part of the problem is a flipped version of “But Not Too Bi” – which, while not as heterosexist as the usual straight-biased version, is still biphobic and monosexist. It still portrays bi people as Other and as duplicitous and confused. But it goes beyond that. The show outright states that these women aren’t queer enough unless they shed their bisexual identities.

I’ve always considered Reese Holloway, the main character in Malinda Lo’s sci-fi YA novel Adaptation, to be the ideal example of how to write bi characters well: she has a male and a female love interest and the narrative doesn’t appear to privilege one over the other. Yet, characters whose attractions are that close to the 50/50 mark aren’t necessarily “more realistic,” either. Even Kinsey 3 bi people don’t necessarily have their actual dating ratios down to that exact margin. Avoiding “But Not Too Bi” isn’t good representation in and of itself, since plenty of real-life people’s experiences can appear to uphold that trope. But at least don’t actively undermine bisexuality as a legitimate identity, and as one that belongs in the LGBTQ community (what else do you think that B stands for?)

There’s a good conversation to be had about what truly great and respectful bi representation looks like. But I think we can all agree that The L Word is not that.


In order to make sure that the comments section on this article is a healthy and welcoming place for our bisexual readers, please note that any comments that question the validity of bisexuality or sexual fluidity as a sexual orientation, question Autostraddle’s decision to publish pieces discussing bisexuality, or make essentialist claims about bisexual people (ex. bisexuals are cheaters, bisexuals turn out to be gay) will be swiftly deleted.

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network and has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog. You should follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Rose has written 69 articles for us.

61 Comments

  1. Thumb up 11

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    Yes! Thank you so much for this! I’ve been watching the L Word and loving it but so disappointed at how the bisexual-identified characters are portrayed (in fact, Jenny is close to being the most annoying character of all time for many reasons). Does anyone know of a positive media representation of bisexual characters? Or bi-positive literature?

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      She’s no longer on the show, but I loved Maya on Pretty Little Liars. When the show started she had just moved away from her boyfriend, then she had a relationship with a girl (one of the main characters), and then when she was shipped off to some juvy bootcamp she had a relationship with a guy (although this was not on screen). She also openly talks about being bi, and this is totally accepted by her lesbian girlfriend.

      I also like Imagine Me & You – one of the main characters starts off with a man, and then falls for a woman. I don’t think it is ever stated how she identifies though.

      I absolutely LOVE Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood, but I know that some people find his excessive flirtation plays into bi stereotypes. If you can get beyond that, he is insanely likable. (At least in DW – I haven’t watched much Torchwood.)

      And of course there are always Rent and Brokeback Mountain!

        • Thumb up 1

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          Yes, Lost Girl.

          Kalinda in The Good Wife is also canonically bi and all kinds of awesome (although she gets a terrible, terrible story arc in season 4, but the show gets rid of it fairly quickly).

          Orphan Black has a bi woman, too. Plus, they even make her say the big bad BI-word.

          Callie on Grey´s Anatomy calls herself lesbian a few times, but she had meaningful relationships with people of multiple genders.

          There is a new show called Black Sails. I can´t say whether or not the show is any good, I haven´t watch it, yet, but they have a historical bi lady pirate on it – Anne Bonny.

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          Oh, I just remembered that Grey´s has another queer lady – Leah. I think she is unlabeled, but she was involved with a dude prior to her developing feelings for a woman. Her story line makes me feel sad for her, though.

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        If you like Jack in DW, be prepared to be fervently disappointed in the writers of Torchwood. Although his approach to sexuality doesn’t change, he becomes a hard-hearted asshole in general, so bad that I couldn’t even watch the show anymore because of what they had done to his character… :(

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          Ooo! Ooo! I’m up for some anime recommendations.

          Saria, some good media featuring bi male characters include James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and the movies Contracorriente and Y Tu Mamá También. And Brokeback Mountain, of course.

          As for bi female characters, there’s Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Passion. I’ve heard good things about Junichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand and the movie Joven y Alocada.

          And I second Orange Is the New Black and Doctor Who-era Jack Harkness, who is pitch perfect during the Ninth Doctor’s tenure. As for Torchwood, pretty much every character is bi, but the show is bad. Like, really bad. Also, if you are into anime, Revolutionary Girl Utena’s a must-watch.

          …just realized all my recs in the second paragraph have tragic endings, which incidentally dovetails with the trope of LGBT films being complete and utter sobfests. So, uh, maybe avoid those if you’re having a bad day.

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          Just a reminder guys that I wrote an article on why (almost) everyone should watch Revolutionary Girl Utena:

          http://www.autostraddle.com/revolutionary-girl-utena-transgresses-gender-and-sexuality-204505/

          I honestly haven’t seen many anime that dealt with female bisexuality well – yet. I have to say I haven’t specifically sought out a lot of yuri (because I’m a bit wary, too, of the genre since so much of it is aimed at straight men), though. But anime seems to have more bi dudes than bi ladies overall.

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          Re: anime (and manga): Attack on Titan seems to possibly be heading in a bisexual direction with Reiner Braun, although he’s a dude. It also has a really great lesbian character (Ymir) – confirmed as such by the show’s creator – whose love interest (Krista) seems to return her feelings so far. I’m curious if Krista will turn out to be lesbian or bi. And a genderqueer character (Hange Zoe). And it’s one of the most popular anime in the world right now.

          Most of the queer stuff hasn’t been revealed much in the anime series yet, which is way behind the manga (comics) that it’s based on. So I’d particularly recommend checking out the manga if that’s what you’re looking for. You can read the latest chapters legally online here (and purchase previous volumes of it) and watch the anime here.

          (Plot is basically post-apocalyptic/survival horror, and kinda bloody and gory, though not nearly as much as you’d expect from listening to the fandom.)

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        re: Jack and Torchwood
        Ianto is also an amazing example! He has significant, meaningful relationships with a female character and then a male character, but it is made explicit that this is not suddenly realizing that he is gay; the word bisexual is not actually said in the show (i think he does talk about it in a novel) but that’s more because of the characters personal identity, I think. He doesn’t really define his sexual orientation, to him, he’s just in love with Jack, and was in love with Lisa, and its the relationships that are the important part. Toshiko Sato also dates a woman in an episode, and this is not something she really has a crisis over (the crisis is that the girlfriend is a killer alien), and it’s not seen as any less real or important than her semi-relationship with Owen.

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      Piper on Orange is the new Black? She’s shown to have deep and meaningful relationships with both men and women. Sure, she never labels herself as bisexual but it’s pretty obvious that she’s attracted to both genders, emotionally as well as sexually.

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      I have to disagree respectfully with the above folks who mentioned Brokeback Mountain as an example of bi-positive representation, for several reasons. One, it is largely seen as a “gay movie” by pretty much everybody I know, and from my impression, by mainstream culture. Two, the only meaningful/legitimized relationships the main characters have is with each other, and they arguably both marry women in order to pass as straight in traditional society. (Ennis certainly doesn’t seem to be particularly attracted to or in love with his wife, although Jack initially seems pretty into Hathaway’s character to me; I always read Jack as bi and Ennis as straight.) three, and possibly less importantly if creator intent doesn’t matter to you, Jake Gyllenhaal has said he sees the film as a love story between two straight men.

      But as a counter example, I really like the bi representation in Ellen Kushner’s Sworspoint trilogy, set in a world where pretty much Everyone Is Bi. Katie in Privilege of the Sword is especially great: she is clearly attracted to men as well as women (there aren’t really any non-binary characters in the books unless you count Katie herself, which would be a stretch – her cross-dressing, which is the only supporting evidence of a non-binary identity, is enforced by her uncle and is more practical for swordplay, and she is clearly shown to prefer dresses), and she has one quasi-romantic relationship with a girl and one sexual encounter with a boy, as well as a steamy kiss with an older woman. Hetero- and homosexuality sort of exist in this world, but there aren’t really sexual identities as such, just individual preferences.

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        Yeah, I agree with you about Brokeback Mountain. I think it’s left far too much up to interpretation to count as “bi representation” – and the cultural perception of it is that it’s “gay”.

        I also always saw Ennis as gay (I think that’s what you meant?) and Jack as bi for the reasons you mentioned: they’re both clearly into each other, but Ennis doesn’t seem to have much of an eye for his wife or women in general, just seeming to do it to “pass”. Whereas Jack does actually seem into his wife.

  2. Thumb up 15

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    I really appreciate this post. Thanks for doing such a good job of writing it. I also always appreciate the little disclaimer at the bottom, which helps to make Autostraddle a more inclusive place.

    It did frustrate me while watching The L Word to see such poor representation of bisexuals. People have told me before that because it’s the “L” word, I shouldn’t feel this way, but honestly, I still do. The show still attempted to discuss bisexuality and have bisexual characters…and, in my opinion, it really failed. It started off decently in the first season, but it dropped off after that and started to frustrate me (like with the examples provided with Alice and Jenny deriding bisexuals/bisexuality).

    Anyway, I would just love to see some better portrayals and depictions of bisexual people out there. I’m tired of seeing so few and I’m tired of most of those few characters being portrayed terribly (as cheaters, as unstable, as “greedy,” as people who just need to make up their minds, etc.). Maybe this stuff wouldn’t frustrate me so much if these weren’t some of the attitudes I actually do come across IRL, but since I see it everywhere in both fiction and reality…yeah, it really gets old.

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      Yeah, “but it’s the ‘L’ Word!” is such a stupid excuse because honestly….then why didn’t they just leave bi women out? That still would’ve been shitty, but better than representing us and then using it to further offensive stereotypes.

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        Seriously! I don’t care what TV show it is, writers need to practice intentionality when they create characters. Writers should always be thinking about what it means to include (or exclude) characters with varying backgrounds, not just to add some diversity or drama spice in there (which I would totally love to sell at a flea market). You are always sending a message to viewers based on what you decide to write in, so you better know what kind of message you’re trying to send and assess whether you’re hitting the mark.

  3. Thumb up 22

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    I internalized shit like this really heavily for a long time and went through so many periods of convincing myself I was either *super* straight or *super* gay because I had so much trouble finding adequate representations of or support for my sexuality, and hadn’t yet met people who helped me say “fuck the h8rs, you do you.” For sure all of us queer ladies no matter how gay have to face a world who tells us that our sexual orientations aren’t real, but it hurts a lot coming from places that should be more of a haven than the rest of compulsorily heterosexual media.

    • Thumb up 8

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      I can relate to this a lot, and it’s at least partly why I was so confused for so long. There weren’t many representations I could relate to, and the pervasive shitty attitudes in society and everyday life toward bisexuality certainly didn’t help either. It took me a while to rid myself of that stuff I’d internalized (and even today I’m still finding myself having to make more progress in that regard), but I’m glad I was finally able to. I just hope that we’ll start getting some decent representations (of queer people in general!) someday soon.

    • Thumb up 5

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      ME TOO. I tried to ‘turn straight’ in high school and tried to ‘turn gay’ when I started uni.
      So glad that I’m now comfortable with my sexuality but disappointed that younger-me ever had to go through so much doubt and self-loathing due to not ‘fitting in’ with monosexuality.
      I’m a Kinsey 3 although I mostly date women (mainly because I know/hang out with a lot more queer women than opposite-sex-attracted men!). I’m very sick of having to ‘justify’ my bisexuality and provide reassurance that I haven’t ‘finally discovered that I’m actually gay’ to people who point out that I haven’t dated a man for a couple of years.

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      Oh my God, same. I feel like I question my sexuality every time I am attracted to a person of a different gender – for instance, I see a girl that I think is super attractive, and I’m like damn, I’m definitely gay. But then I’m in the car with my best guy friend and I suddenly feel the urge to make out with him! It makes no sense and it’s caused me so much pain.

      I think for me it’s also complicated by the fact that most of the people that have hurt me in a major way have been men, so the idea of falling in love with a guy at this point seems scary and unattractive. But as someone who very closely identifies with Jenny’s narrative, I think that it’s wrong to label her as bisexual simply because she has had significant relationships with men. After all, you can enjoy sex with men and not be attracted to them. You can love a person or even be in love with them without being attracted to them. For me, it seemed like Jenny took her time deciding what she really felt, at first identifying as bisexual because it made sense given her past relationships with men and because and it felt scary to do anything else (remember, she came from a very conservative background. Then later on when she is asked what she is, she says she doesn’t know.

      Overall, I personally believe that Jenny is one of two things: either a repressed lesbian who pursued relationships with men because she saw it as the only option, or someone whose sexuality really genuinely changed over time. I know that’s a scary concept because it interferes with the whole “born this way” narrative, but there’s no denying that it is the truth for some people, myself included. As far as Alice is concerned, I see her as a homoromantic bisexual. Tina is probably the only true bisexual representation on the show, as we see her experiencing attraction and having significant relationships with men and women over the course of the series.

  4. Thumb up 8

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    Max is another character who is sexually/romantically attracted to men and women throughout the series. What do people think about his portrayal (beyond the clusterfuck obviously that was Ilene&co’s poor attempt to write a trans* character)?

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      I was thinking the same thing. There was a conversation on the show at one point about his transition being linked to his new interest in men (as in, it’s not that he was interested in women, he was interested in the same sex) but to me that really undermined the notion that he’d actually been a man all along. That was really inarticulate, but the point is that it was murky and seemingly more deliberate refusal to really delve into that storyline.

      I don’t think anything in the show indicated, on the other hand, that Jenny was legitimately bisexual. She vaguely said it during the few months that she was figuring things out, but I think that’s pretty normal. (That said, I fully understand the argument that had it not been the RULE of the show and just an isolated representation among many it would have been less frustrating. But I disagree that her bisexuality was a fact.)

  5. Thumb up 7

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    I love this. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming across these tropes as the only pieces of representation among media.

    The L Word was especially disappointing because Alice was so promising in that first season. She was so perfect. She knew who she was, she knew she was bi, she wasn’t ‘confused, and it was just so refreshing! But then…they just had to do the thing, didn’t they.

  6. Thumb up 3

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    Ugh, that was so awful when Alice magically declared herself lesbian after identifying as bi for so long.

    Doesn’t Jenny excluding Tina make a lot of sense if we see it as a form of internalized biphobia? Not that a lot of things on the L Word make sense…

    I have heard great things about Nicola Griffith’s new novel about a bi character. It’s a hefty historical novel set in the early medieval period about a woman who became a saint, though, so probably not everyone’s cup of tea.

    Spelling Mississippi by Marnie Woodrow has a great bisexual character, who has been in relationships with men and women, and who tells her future partner that she comes from a “long line of bisexuals on her mother’s side.” The focus in the novel is on a same-sex relationship, but her previous one with a man is portrayed in quite a nuanced, sympathetic way. I reviewed it here if anyone wants more info:
    http://caseythecanadianlesbrarian.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/a-tale-of-eccentric-love-and-self-discovery-in-new-orleans-a-review-of-marnie-woodrows-spelling-mississippi/

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      See, that’s the thing: it would’ve made sense if they had addressed it as internalized biphobia. There are ways you can have characters say awful things and have the show make it clear you’re not supposed to agree with them – take Dana’s Season 1 biphobic comment to Alice as an example. But it didn’t do that. I’m all for a bisexual character expressing internalized biphobia in a story, but it has to be called-out as such.

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        I read it that way when I watched the show. But everyone on Autostraddle (including me) is clearly much smarter than the goons Ilene Chaiken had writing the L Word so….
        It’s quite likely that was unintentional and not meant to be internalized biphobia. Although, I would argue that most of time you are not meant to agree with Jenny because she’s portrayed as ‘crazy.’ Side note: not only is Jenny the stereotype of crazy bisexual, but she’s also the most explicitly feminist character, so they just rolled that crazy bi feminist thing into one with her. Super disappointing.

  7. Thumb up 9

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    I actually think there’s way more representation of bisexuals in the media (the fictionalized kind: Glee, PLL, etc) than straight up lesbians. That might be because there’s more bisexuals in the world than lesbos, but I also think it has something to do with the fact that the media can’t handle the idea that some ladies don’t want a man and never have. I can’t think of many lady loving characters on shows that haven’t at some point left the ladies for the dudes, either purposefully or “slipping up” according to the show.
    So you’d think because there’s way more representation that they’d have more chances to get it right. Weird.

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      Glee and PLL have bi characters but also lesbian characters – just ones who happen to have dated guys. While I agree that we should have more representation of lesbians who don’t have romantic or sexual histories with dudes (and agree also with the reason for why that’s a problem, that it’s because society is deeply uncomfortable with women who aren’t into men), I don’t know if I would call characters who have those histories “bisexual representation” if they are firmly established as lesbians.

      What makes The L Word different is both that most of the cast was lesbian anyway, and that we were teased good bisexual representation and then had that yanked away from us – and in a way that explicitly reinforced biphobia. I don’t think that was ever in the cards with a character like Santana on Glee; she was written as straight, and then the writers changed their minds, made her a lesbian and ret-conned her previous interest in dudes in a plausible way.

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      The other reason there are more bisexual women than lesbians on television is that shows will often decide to queer a character who has been previously portrayed as entirely straight. Grey’s Anatomy is a classic example with Torres. I think in some cases it’s probably deemed safer to make previously straight characters queer after they’re a few seasons in.

      TV is warped. Most queer women characters on TV fall along a pretty femme spectrum (this was true of the L Word) even though in many actual queer scenes femmes are often marginalized.

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      There are more portrayals of bisexual women than lesbians perhaps, though there are almost no portrayals of bisexual men in TV or movies.

      For women, the bi girls are only shown more often in heteronormative fiction, and they’re usually not portrayed particularly well. In queer-themed fiction, bisexuals of all kinds are routinely erased and marginalized.

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      Tina was a last-minute addition – just to make sure I was addressing all the bi girls on the show – and you’re right I forgot about that and that does change some things.

      But I still think it’s relevant because of the way the other characters treat her on the show. They use her as an example of bisexuality being “gross” (as in Alice’s comment) and bi women somehow betraying the lesbian community by dating men (as in Jenny’s comment). Tina’s arc not problematic on its own, but the way the show uses it definitely is.

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    I enjoyed your analysis of the show.

    I think you made a good point in that whilst in and of itself the way that the characters behaved was not necessarily problematic the way the show framed that behavior definitely was. For eg, with Alice, it would have been totally fine if she had gradually decided she wasn’t bisexual and she only wanted to be with women. However, to have her, who was initially sticking up for bisexuality, state that it was gross, and not have that challenged…that was really screwed up.

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    People watching these usually popular shows are basic and typical because the show itself is actually typical and basic. It is like the 80-20 rule, people love to think they are in the 20 but no.

    My attachment and feels for this show is mostly from nostalgia and what was the hot mess of my baby gay youth which was basic and typical. How the veneer of nostalgia can lionize a show but when revisited with newfound wisdom the cracks imperfections become visible and thus…where was I going with this sounds so esoteric and pretentious…omg my thesis is taking over my life.

    Basically re-watching this show armed with more knowledge on queerness, intersectionality, all the good sexy stuff this show is not that awesome but I value the impact it had on me when I was a baby gay.

    The problem with L word “representing” bisexuality was that the premise of the show was to show women loving women first and have all the nuances of queerness come second or let’s be honest here, an afterthought.

    When Tina started dating that guy I rolled my eyes because I felt how they represented Alice’s bisexuality (season 1 and most of two) “made sense.” I had no idea what Tina was doing (because she was suppose to be with Bette and “there will be *more* heterosexual relations *~*~ugh*~*~*~ on a *gay* show [I did a lot of unpacking with that!]). Clearly there is no “one true way” of being bisexual and going about life but in media portrayals of bisexual (especially female characters) relationships there is this extreme polarization in the circles of people and environments they hang out with depending on the gender of the partner.

    There seems to be a lack of autonomy and individuality of the bisexual character, so much of the annoying “half gay half straight” stuff. When I was dumb I thought Tina’s development was a “thing” that bisexual people do and hell, some actually do but guess what? It is usually independent of the person’s sexuality. I cannot count the times my straight female friends in college ‘disappeared’ when dating a new guy, having a different diet and pretty much became a different person.

    I haven’t heard from this girl I know in like a month, I see her but we never hang out and she keeps talking about her boyfriend who I cynically think will break up come May because options and we live in NYC, but I digress.

    We seriously have a lack of imagination when it comes to the narratives of bisexual people in the media. I find there is a lot of bi representation but it is the same thing over and over. This applies to a lot of different and intersectional narratives but a person who is bi there is no “half gay half straight,” crap. It really needs to stop because it hampers what can become new and refreshing bi narratives in media.

    I’m would love for future representation of all the queer people not to be typical and basic for the sake of it being popular, we can do better than that!

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      Yes, sadly there is a disparity between representation that queer kids need and representation that they actually deserve. Popular media is shitty, but we are starving for anything that can speak to us, so we end up liking things that are far from perfect; the tiny bits seem better than nothing.

      I don´t have many feelings about The L Word, I watched a few episodes, but I never really connected, I guess? Meh. However, I can relate: When I was a kid vampires were my favorite thing in the world. And when I was a teenager I stumbled upon The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice that had male bisexual vampires. From todays perspective I know they are terribly problematic – female characters are treated poorly and die horrible deaths, everything is super white and super privileged, etc. – but I still have nostalgic feelings about the novels, simply because they were something my baby bisexual self desperately craved. Nevertheless, I deserved better. We all do.

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    Wonder if one of the reasons the Not too bi situation occurs so frequently, in non lesbian/gay centered shows, is because it would require them to write another queer character… (this is probably obvious to you all but my flu addled brain says post it anyway, if it’s been stated already I apologise…and blame my flu brain…flu.)

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      Yeah, as I said, I think it’s a way for shows to “have their cake and eat it, too” by having a queer character to collect their GLAAD points, but not really depicting them in a way that would make homophobic viewers uncomfortable.

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    I thought it was made pretty obvious on the show that in the first season Jenny was trying to figure out whether she’s bi or gay, but afterwards she started identifying as a lesbian? If I remember it well she never says anything very definitive, just tentative ‘I might be bi???’ stuff.

    To see her – or any woman’s – relationship with a man, esp before she’s had the chance to figure things out, as definite proof that she’s “really” bisexual when she tells you she’s a lesbian is insulting. And tbh this never happens to gay men – if they have relationships with women, it never undermines their right to self-identify in whatever way they want.

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      I’d agree with you if we were talking about real people. But I think with a fictional character it’s fair to consider if the writers were actually writing that kind of arc for someone, or if they wrote them one way and then changed their minds later. And in the latter case I think bisexual viewers have every right to complain about representation being taken away from us. I’d feel the same way about a fictional bisexual male character, too. I was pissed off about the storyline Blaine got on Glee where he considered being bisexual and then realized he was actually gay – not because gay men don’t do that in real life (they do), but because it was done in such a way that reinforced Kurt’s biphobic comments during the episode and (especially when coupled with Ryan Murphy’s interview comments about the episode) to pooh-pooh the entire need for good bi representation on TV.

      I got the impression that both Alice and Jenny were cases of the writers changing their minds, but Alice’s arc seemed like it could be justified as a case of a bi-identified woman later realizing she was a lesbian, as she doesn’t date men after the first season IIRC. However, Jenny does seem to still be attracted to men, and dates a trans man later in the series. That was my read on it; I could be wrong, but I don’t think it’s offensive to either bi women or lesbians to have different interpretations of characters that the writers were wildly inconsistent on themselves.

      We should always respect real people’s choices of labels and what they say about their sexualities and their journeys, but with fictional people, their choices are not their own. They are their writers’, and those are always worth examining.

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        I gotta say, I disagree entirely. Jenny is only vaguely interested in Aquarium Guy post-Tim, and when she started dating Max he was still presenting as Moira (when she breaks up with him, in fact, she even says “I identify as a lesbian who likes to fuck girls”). At worst, it seems, the writers weren’t any more sure of Jenny’s sexuality in season 1 than the character herself was–but to me it’s pretty unequivocally certain that she was never meant to be Definitively A Bisexual Character.

        Alice, however? She’s still labeled as “bisexual” during that weird Charlie’s Angels dream sequence several years into the show’s run (I forget what season that took place). For that reason especially, I’m far less forgiving of the erasure/dismissal of Alice’s bisexuality than I feel you are.

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      Great point about gender inequity when it comes to being questioned about their identities, but this is a different situation because Jenny’s a fictional character, not a real person. I think all Rose is trying to say is that they missed an opportunity to depict bisexual identity. Jenny continued to be attracted to men after her declaration of lesbian identity and her relationship with Max could have been a great opportunity for the L-Word to talk about identity struggles of folks who love trans* folks.

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    Interesting. I have tried watching The L-Word some, but I could never really get into it. The more I read and hear, the more I feel like I haven’t really missed much (no offense meant to those who enjoyed it, of course), especially given its purported treatment of bisexuality and bisexual characters (which is kinda personal for me! :p ).

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    I’ve been toying with the idea of writing something that includes a bisexual character since I feel like the representation is so minimal, and this article definitely reaffirms that it is something that is vastly misrepresented in media(Although my lack of confidence as a writer is a bit of a hurdle).
    I definitely want to read Malinda Lo’s Adaption now though!

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    Everyone should just read some damn James Baldwin. His bisexual characters are always men (correct me if I’m missing something), but they are great portrayals of bisexuality nonetheless which I find lovely and refreshing anyway. Also he’s just, like, the best.

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    I feel like the show also majorly missed out on an opportunity to relate the characters’ biphobia with the heteronormative pressures of the society to “keep an open door” to men. Looking at things that way, it could have made the characters more relatable when they feel repulsed by bisexual behaviors in themselves and in others.

    Instead, the treatment of bisexuality is never* really unpacked — they could have juxtaposed Tina getting dressed up for her date with her man hunk with some street harassment for, say, Bette. That really could have helped me open up some conversations with my fellow queer ladies about why we want to be supportive of all sexualities but sometimes have to struggle with mixed feelings about women who benefit from getting to appear heterosexual. We could have talked about how much pressure we feel to “admit” to bisexuality if we did have relationships with men at any point or just wanted to experiment one drunken night, even though we don’t identify that way, f*** off you’re not getting in my pants dude.

    Instead we have what feels like arbitrary hatred for bisexual women and not a single sympathetic bisexual character survives without an identity switch. This is not only *not* representative for bisexual people, but misses a huge chunk of the experience in the lesbian community as well.

    *It feels like it never was? Maybe I missed it. It’s been awhile and I was mostly watching the show for omgigosh women on women action for the first time on my actual computer screen squeeee.

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      Eh, I think the idea of showing the biphobic characters as sympathetic for their biphobia would be a verrrrryyyyy tight line they’d have to walk that I don’t think The L Word was ever capable of, especially considering what they DID do instead.

      Particularly, the hypothetical “juxtaposition with street harassment for Bette” would come off, to me, as the writers saying that Tina “chose heterosexuality/safety” by choosing to date a man rather than Bette. And that’s a ridiculous idea that hurts bi people all the time – that by choosing to date a particular person of a particular gender, we’re “choosing” heterosexuality or homosexuality broadly, when it’s often just about that one person. Honestly, the way they DID handle it was better than that, because at least it was a character saying it. It would’ve been a lot easier for them to make Alice’s comments out to be something we’re not supposed to agree with, than to deal with the hypothetical you’re talking about in a non-biphobic matter.

      But I also have to say I’m not particularly interested in media “portraying biphobia as coming from an understandable place” – even though it often does, I’ll agree – compared to good and sympathetic bisexual representation. Portraying prejudice as “understandable” is something that is best saved for once the baseline stereotypes are pretty widely discredited, and that’s not the case here. Virulent biphobia is still alive and well on both ends of the sexuality spectrum. Let’s deal with that first. And honestly, it comes off as a little disturbing to me that you see it as so important to make biphobia “relatable”.

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      Ah, crap, I see Rose’s comment below (Didn’t get the notification because it wasn’t a direct reply to my post?). I totally agree with her.

      I wrote my original rant from the assumption that biphobia is nevvvvverrrrr ok. I figured you all already knew that. But Rose is right that I left a lot to read in between the lines.

      What I really was trying to get at that, by examining the motivations *behind* the biphobia of the characters, they might have created a more complete and more healthy conversation around the issue. It would have to super clear that, while realistic, the character’s motivations to be biphobic are STILL NOT OK. They would show the juxtaposition I suggested of Tina/Bette which would key the viewer into the “Yeah, I relate with those feelings” mindset, but then be responsible to show how that mindset is still hurtful to people, e.g. showing Tina as a sympathetic character.

      That way, they would acknowledge the mindset of many of their viewers, and then flip them on their heads to see why having that mindset is damaging. My idea is that it would bring both sides together, so we could say to each other, “I hear you why you have hesitations about bisexuality, and I hope you hear me when I say it isn’t good for anyone to leave those hesitations unexamined and unchecked.”

      Basically, my main problem with the L word is they hint at this huge complicated issue and totally suck at covering all perspectives, which is necessary to even go there.

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        *Add this:

        And what I also meant was, by not examining the motivations behind the biphobia of the characters, they just normalize biphobia, as if they’re saying “this is how you do lesbian, you just hate on bisexual people and that will never be challenged”

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          P.P.S. (When will I learn to think twice before hitting reply?) If the author or any moderater feels like it they are welcome to delete this thread and I will save these thoughts for a more appropriate place. It is more important to me to create a safe space for bisexual women in the community than to get deeply analytical on this subject.

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    I’ve been marathoning the L Word this year (somehow I missed that train so I’m making up for lost time) and I’m on season 5 and it’s been really… interesting seeing how the show handles diversity (or the lack thereof) and doesn’t seem to even try when it comes to biphobia.

    Watching shows like Lost Girl pull off a bisexual lead so well (even in spite of the entire premise of her being a succubus having so much potential for awful) makes me wonder what writers of others shows are even thinking. The only biphobia I’ve seen with Lost Girl is in the fandom.

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    I personally think it will take a bisexual writer/producer/what have you to treat bisexuality with integrity on these shows. Shows like the L Word are made by gays, for gays, and every other letter in the acronym is an afterthought. Also, I’d be willing to bet that some of this was to pander to the lesbians who don’t believe in/hate bisexuality. Ratings, you know? They didn’t want to lose that subset of their audience.

    I really hope that one day, a bi identified crew comes along and has a show where they treat bisexuality right.

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