On female same-sex representation in TV

Recently, my girlfriend and I binged The Haunting of Bly Manor. While I don’t love the horror genre (meaning I sleep with the lights on during “scary season”), my partner lives for it. So when the fall rolls around, we sit down and watch all the good (and bad) new horror films that come out.

If you haven’t seen Bly Manor yet, I won’t leak too many spoilers. What I will say is that there is a same-sex female relationship.

As a person who grew up in the 90s in a politically conservative part of Canada, I wasn’t exposed to same-sex couples on TV. I didn’t even see them in real life. Today, however, I am starting to feel more represented in TV. This year, from Ratchet to Deaf U, I’m seeing lesbian, gay, and bisexual characters.

I’m finding myself brought to tears at same-sex and non-binary couples. For the first time, I’m able to envision what my future, as a same-sex couple, could look and feel like.

Yet for all of the positive emotions I’m experiencing with this era of representation, some elements haven’t quite sat right with me.

At first, my reactions were positive. “That couple looks like us!” my girlfriend and I would say. “There’s so much love in their relationship; they’re such good friends,” we’d gush.

Many of the relationships also took place between a cis lesbian woman and a cis bisexual woman, another point to which we related. And seeing them onscreen made me all but rejoice.

I was desperately thirsty for any on-screen diversity, and blew past issues with the way LGBT+ females were represented.

It was after a phone call with a close friend of mine where I realized my issue.

We were discussing her dating life, and how she had recently re-downloaded a few apps. As she was setting up her profile, she said to me: “I almost set it to men and women — because dating women is working so well for you and everyone else.”

My girlfriend laughed. But I didn’t. Perhaps that’s because it happened to be the same day as the Amy Coney Barrett nomination hearings, where a new judge with a lifelong appointment in the most important court in North America referred to sexual orientation as a “choice.”

I realized my friend believed that I had made a choice to be bisexual, to date a woman, and that had caused my life to be nothing but bliss.

For me, this statement completely discounted the decades of fear I felt that one of my girlfriends would find out I was bisexual and stop being my friend. The self-loathing I had faced for years. The flush that crept into my cheeks when someone questioned me about the gender of my latest fling. The daily internal dialogue of “are you gay or straight?”, hoping that if I asked it enough times, an answer would just…emerge.

When my friend made light of my bisexuality, she wasn’t trying to hurt me. I know in my heart she accepts me. In her mind, she was simply making a joke with a friend.

But somewhere, there’s a part of her that believes I choose to be bisexual. And I think our cultural narratives have a serious role in that belief system.

In every one of the shows I’ve watched this year, bisexual characters either say something explicit about choice:

  • “Men are garbage, so I’m dating women now”;
  • They’re portrayed as straight until being pursued by a lesbian character, at which point they seamlessly transition to a same-sex relationship;
  • Their sexuality is kept ambiguous until the same-sex relationship begins;
  • etc.

By defining female bisexuality as a choice rather than an inherent characteristic, we undo a lot of movement we’ve made to make bisexual dialogue safe. We uphold a model of sexual orientation that is binary. We make it OK for people to tell us that “we just haven’t found the right guy/girl yet.”

For them to whisper behind closed doors that “so-and-so is really gay, and just hasn’t figured it out.”

We make it unsafe for bisexual people to exist, and to be open about their sexuality.

It’s hard enough to exist in the in-between when the world loves neat and shiny categories. When people will refuse to believe your truth, because they can’t comprehend that someone can exist in the gray space that is bisexuality.

As a bisexual woman, I’m looked at as attention-seeking and adventurous by straight men; I’m often seen as less “pure” and sometimes as untrustworthy by lesbians. We need TV to show bisexual women with diversity. We need TV to show them through their orientation as an inherent characteristic — not just as women who are simply sick of men.

Lover of books (mostly fantasy/sci-fi), piano, running, and learning new things. Mostly writing about tech &LGBT+ stuff.

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