Below is the full text of my final paper from my Women’s and Gender Studies course Feminist Theories that I took Fall of 2016. In it, I discuss duplicity, hypersexualization, and moral ambiguity of bisexual television characters. THIS IS AN ORIGINAL PIECE.
In this paper I will explore the problem of duplicity, hypersexualization and moral confusion of characters that are either self-proclaimed or coded as bisexual in (semi)popular television shows. I take the position that the characters’ bisexuality is inherent and intertwined with their characterizations as deviant and oversexed. While queer characters are often characterized as evil in some form or other, bisexual characters are often used as plot devices in order to stabilize monosexual identities (heterosexuality and less often homosexuality) and are often portrayed fighting to suppress or hide their wrongness. The sites that I will focus on are as follows: Tyrell Wylick of USA Network’s Mr. Robot (2015-present), Bo Dennis of Showcase’s Lost Girl (2010-2015), and Annalise Keating of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2016).
The Depraved Bisexual
All press is good press, right? Or instead is it, all press is good press except when that press exists as widespread media representation that perpetuates vicious stereotypes on an already minimally validated identity? In October of last year, The Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber published a culture article briefly exploring “the Trope of the Evil Television Bisexual”. Kornhaber notes that as characters of marginalized race, gender and sexuality identities are now more often on TV than ever before, it is also fairly easy (so easy that you don’t have to look very long or hard) to spot clichés. He notes that “while gay and lesbian character on TV increasingly are portrayed in a way that doesn’t make their sexuality into a large and dubious metaphor about their character, bisexuality often is portrayed as going hand-in-hand with moral flexibility.” (Kornhaber, 2015) So is born “The Depraved Bisexual”.
As television introduces more notably bisexual characters, one should observe who is allowed to be queer(ed); that is to ask: what identities are simultaneously present when a character is revealed to be bisexual? The Disney-owned ABC show Once Upon a Time was progressively praised when Princess Mulan was revealed to be bisexual. However, Adam Key critiques the choice to make Disney’s most masculine princess the one who is queer, saying “the message sent by choosing Mulan is that though some women are romantically attracted to other women, it is only the ones who are manly that do so.” (Key, 2015) The rhetoric implications of Mulan’s manliness are upheld both through her animated storyline where she comically bests her fellow soldiers in a musical performance (titled I’ll Make a Man Out of You) and in her live-action role on Once Upon a Time where she accepts Robin Hood’s offer to join not his group of merry warriors/fighters/people but his group of merry men. Being portrayed as bisexual rather than lesbian does not erase the stereotype of queering Mulan when she already has a history of being canonly displayed as butch. Mulan’s performance and perception as a man is what makes her bisexuality not as groundbreaking as it would be had a femme princess been queered. The two-ness of bisexuality’s mainstream narrative can further be easily applied to cross-dressing Mulan considering the Elizabethan era boy-actress paradox, “the boundary-defying pleasure of the performer’s “both at once status,” boy and woman.” (Schildcrout, 2011)
Be that as it may, bisexual original characters who have no prior media existence are still subject to having a myriad of stereotypes associated with their sexuality bestowed upon them. GLADD’s recognized tropes for such characters are: A) characters who use sex as a means of manipulation or who are lacking the ability to form genuine relationships, B) characters who are depicted as untrustworthy, prone to infidelity, and/or lacking a sense of morality, C) characters having associations with self-destructive behavior, and D) story arcs treating a character’s attraction to more than one gender as a temporary plot device that is rarely (if ever) addressed again in canon. The three subjects of my analyses can all be observed embodying at least one of these tropes at some point within their respective series. My purpose is to analyze each character’s subconscious depravity under one of three corrupted subsets. When observed critically, the characterizations of Tyrell Wellick of USA Network’s Mr. Robot, Bo Dennis of Showcase’s Lost Girl, and Annalise Keating of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) follow patterns that mirror the traits of duplicity, hypersexuality and moral ambiguity with their bisexual behaviors, all of which can be classified as depraved. While I will discuss all three of these traits in each site (character), there will be a focal attribute that is more transparently prevalent with each individual character arc than others, that I will state before introducing each.
Central Bad Bi Attribute: duplicity and deceitfulness
Mr. Robot is a drama series about Elliot, a socially anxious computer programmer who subconsciously plans the destruction of corporate America while managing his own unreliable psyche. Tyrell is a recurring secondary character, the Senior Vice President of Technology at E Corp, a conglomerate business where Elliot works by day as a cybersecurity engineer. Most, if not all, of Tyrell’s screen time depicts his hunger for power and social elevation. In his attempts to secure the success he feels he deserves, Tyrell is prone to deception if he believes it will bring him closer to his goals. Tyrell is desperate for upward mobility at E Corp, desiring to become the company’s CTO (Chief Technology Officer). The scene that depicts the extent of his duplicity is during the third episode of season one. This is when Tyrell, disappointed at having a meeting with the current CTO cancelled, contacts and seduces the Big Man’s male secretary, Anwar. When Anwar is showering, Tyrell uses the opportunity to install spyware onto the secretary’s phone, allowing him to retrieve valuable tips on the CEO. Tyrell’s duplicitous peak is revealed exactly as his “double” sexuality is, since prior in the series Tyrell is seen with his pregnant wife, Johanna.
Throughout in the season, Tyrell is seen behaving in violent and self-destructing ways in reaction to his fears and failures. The first glimpse of this can be seen before his encounter with Anwar, when Tyrell repeatedly slaps himself in the mirror while repeating the mantra: “You will be the next CTO of this company.” His violence escalates when shortly afterward, he is brushed off by the CTO (who has cancelled their meeting) and takes out his anger by paying a homeless man $300 to beat him unconscious. Later on in the series, Tyrell has fits of anger, throwing and breaking dishes in his home while Johanna, seemingly used to his tantrums, eats dinner, unaffected. Topping his violent self-destruction is the murder Tyrell commits towards the end of the season after another adulterous and perverse act. Tyrell’s instability, ever-present paranoia and wavering morality all unfold to their full potential once he is revealed as a sexual deviant who is “simultaneously conceivable and inconceivable.” (Meyer, 2010) One of his fits of anger is triggered when he overhears two E Corp executives laughing at the idea of a man having gay sex in order to climb a corporate ladder, driving him to yell and fire the two men on the spot. In Jordan Schildcrout’s analysis of the postmodern thriller play turned film Deathtrap, the author claims that much of the marginalization and intimidation of queer people is due to the stigmatization of their identity being shameful – the closet, “a space of entrapment for queer people” is what furies Tyrell, not the act that is subject. (Schildcrout, 2011)
The symbol of Tyrell’s pregnant wife is one that intensifies the historical stigma that condemns male bisexuality as dangerous and perverse on multiple fronts. Johanna is “the innocent wife threatened by a duplicitous husband.” (Schildcrout, 2011) Jonathan David White expands on this in Bisexuals Who Kill when exploring 1980’s biphobia during hysteria surrounding HIV/AIDS: “Male bisexuality is the dangerous eruption of homosexuality within the heterosexual matrix, the sign of the vulnerability of the “straight” world to queers (or, indeed, queerness).” Not only is Tyrell embodying multiple tropes that GLADD has recognized (sex as a means of manipulation, untrustworthiness, infidelity) but he is dangerous to heterosexual hegemony and family by exposing “the general population – a term always used as a code for heterosexual, non-drug-using whites.” (White. 2001) Tyrell further embodies the Depraved Bisexual when on episode five in season one, with pressure from his scheming wife, he makes sexual advances towards the wife of another man who he has discovered to be the next CTO in line, while the couples are at a dinner party. Earlier in the series still, Tyrell is again urged by his domineering wife to tie her up in order for them to have BDSM sex. Later when he is suspected in this murder of the CTO’s wife (spoiler alert: he’s guilty), Johanna induces labor so that he is able to get away. Once she gives birth at the hospital, she is brisk in telling Tyrell that his is not welcome in her or the child’s life until he “handles the situation”; he is queered, he is othered, and he is excluded. He is simultaneously endangering Johanna with his perverse sexuality and criminality, while also becoming emasculated by his cold and calculating wife. Tyrell then, is further becoming a contradiction, as is the usual narrative of bisexual identity.
Central Bad Bi Attribute: hypersexual by nature
Lost Girl follows Bo Dennis, a woman who grew up not knowing the truth about herself; she belongs to a species of magical creatures called Fae and is a succubus that feeds on Chi (life energy) and sexual energy. Bo was raised by humans, so she did not understand why she literally drained the life out of anyone she kissed or had sex with until she discovered the Fae world. The series centers on Bo managing her powers, relationships, and a looming prophecy that names her a savior in a disaster to come. “The presence of a bisexual figure in film is an indicator that a cultural tension is being broached, whose contours the bisexual enables the audience to negotiate, and whose dangers the bisexual always embodies.” (Meyer, 2010) Bo’s knowledge of her own existence and history immediately sets off a social tension between the magical and the mundane, good and evil. Bo, used to resisting such binaries on her own, is suddenly commanded to ‘take sides’. When she rejects doing so, she must manage the constant tug-of-war that has her situated in the middle, urging her to fully and finally decide one way or another.
A motif in Lost Girl that cannot be ignored is choice. Bo has one foot in each of two worlds, but on multiple fronts: Fae and Human, Dark Fae and Light Fae, Dyson and Lauren. Bo is constantly pressured to choose, and she time and again refuses to, in order to maintain her independence. Raised by humans in the human world, Bo does not believe they are lower creatures than her, as the rest of the Fae world does. Bo’s best friend and sidekick, Kenzie, is an extension of Bo that the rest of her species does not understand. They expect Bo to remain with the humans in their world that she grew up loving, or to completely leave them behind in order to take her place as superior in the Fae world.
Among the Fae then, there are two sides which everyone has declared loyalty to once they develop their powers: Light and Dark. Both sides are led by respective authority figureheads, have known ‘turfs’ with invisible boundary lines and agree to adhere to basic universal Fae guidelines, like not killing humans. Light Fae are generally disciplined Fae who treat humans decently, although they do not favor them, and Dark Fae are more autonomous, frequently messing with humans for entertainment. Bo, while possessing characteristics of both sides, does not wish to be involved in the politics of the Fae world, so she declares herself unaligned, a feat that is rarely tried and hardly accepted by either side. Since she is unaligned, Bo is able to literally cross sides as she chooses.
Since Bo is a succubus, she relies on sex for her energy and ability to heal. Once emerged into the Fae world, she meets and develops deep romantic feelings on both Dyson (Fae werewolf) and Lauren (human doctor). She explores personal relationships with each of them at different times and is often chided by them, as well as other friends, to choose between them. Bo, of course, finds this difficult, as she truly loves each. In the third season, Bo asked Lauren to be with her in a monogamous relationship and although she tried to be physically faithful, her need to feed could not sustain it. “The faithful bisexual would seem to be an oxymoron, making him a perfect character for a play about deception and switching allegiances.” (Scholdcrout, 2011) Bo, within the Lost Girl universe, tries to reject the stereotypical narrative of bisexuality being antonymous with monogamy, but her hypersexual nature does not allow her to do so, at least sexually. Since Lauren is a human, having sex with Bo physically drains and depletes her life energy in ways that Dyson does not. Subliminally, Lost Girl depicts that Bo is not as sexually satisfied having sex with a (human) woman as she is having sex with a (Fae) man. Although in the end Bo ultimately chooses to be with Lauren, this happens after a major event makes it impossible for Bo and Dyson to be romantically together.
Bo’s bisexuality does reject the ‘temporary plot device’ trope, as Bo is quite visibly bi throughout the series – viewers cannot ignore the differing genders of the various lovers she takes, even those outside of her relationships with Dyson and Lauren. In one scene, Bo is seen going home with a heterosexual Fae couple that expresses interest with her at a bar and then having long and rambunctious sex. While this can be understood as Bo accepting her nature and expressing sexual freedom “with bisexual women often offered as commodities for the male gaze,” (White, 2001) a threesome is exactly what a straight, male viewer would enjoy and expect from the bisexual protagonist. Bo is strong, independent, and sexually liberated once she maintains control over her life-sucking powers, but still, all of her women sexual partners reflect the lesbian pornography model of what women who have sex with women look like: tall, thin, white, and femme. As can be observed in all the soft-porn love scenes Bo has with Lauren opposed to the rougher and more frequent scenes with Dyson, “same-sex encounters between women become, through the colonization of gaze and language, extensions of male heterosexuality.” (White, 2001)
Bo is always seen straddling two options, and is always being berated for having ‘the best of both worlds’. “The bisexual, in short, is seen as a dangerous person not to be trusted, because his or her vision of party loyalty [..] is nonexistent. Often mistrusted as the most duplicitous of deviant sexualities, bisexuality denies the hetero-/homosexual binary; the bisexual visits both “camps” but has “loyalty” to neither.” (Schildcrout, 2011) Despite her fierce love and loyalty for all in her circle, not just her love interest, Bo is constantly mistrusted, second-guessed and feared. The series opening monologue is Bo lamenting her reality living on the fence: “Life is hard when you don’t know who you are. It’s harder when you don’t know what you are. My love carries a death sentence. I was lost for years, searching while hiding, only to find that I belong to a world hidden from humans. I won’t hide anymore. I will live the life I choose.” (Lost Girl, 2010-2015) The life that Bo chooses is not one of what people expect from her. She holds little concern for others’ perception of her and only is as she believes herself to be.
Central Bi Attribute: moral confusion/ambiguity
How to Get Away with Murder is a legal drama following criminal law professor and lawyer Annalise Keating, her group of hand-picked top students working under her, and her two dedicated associates. Annalise is tenacious in everything she does no matter if she is in the courtroom, the classroom, or the bedroom. Annalise is successful, black, and bisexual – kind of. She begins the first season married to Sam, a white psychology professor, later becomes lovers with Nate, a black police detective, and also is fleetingly reunited with her death row attorney ex-girlfriend, Eve. It is revealed during season one that Eve and Annalise shared a young, happy romance as law students at Harvard University, but that it came to a halt when Annalise “decided she wasn’t a lesbian” and instead chose to date – and then marry – her therapist at the time, Sam. When Eve reappears in Annalise’s life, in order to help her with her work, of course old flames begin to spark again, even if only momentarily. It is obvious that Annalise harbors anxieties about her sexuality. While Annalise ‘chose’ heterosexuality, this was not because of her failing relationship with women, it was because of Schildcrout’s deathtrap, the closet. Annalise fears being labeled and treated as a lesbian.
As a young law student, Annalise would cry to Eve about how other students and colleagues were intimidated and afraid of her. Annalise could not control being black or a woman, and how others would perceive and treat her because of those identities. “These characters serve as intersectional hybrids that serve hegemonic and counterhegemonic functions simultaneously.” (Meyer, 2010) The part of her intersectional identity that she felt she could control in her favor was her sexuality – by no means would she let her desire to be with a woman be something to hold her back in the law world. “The sexual politics of bisexuality function to stabilize heterosexuality (and to some extent homosexuality), it is not surprising that many of these images of bisexual women include narratives of crisis beyond sexual identity confusion. Television images of crisis articulated through bisexuality frame the character’s bisexuality as a result of deeper, darker issues […].” (Meyer, 2010) Annalise’s abandonment of Eve mirrors the unease she feels being queer compared to the stability of a more normative, heterosexual house she would share with her (straight, white) husband. Like the characters in Deathtrap threatened by exposure, Annalise is constantly trading on ambiguity; she “cannot be fully closeted or exposed, but must exist instead on a threshold of possibility.” She is “simultaneously in and out, protagonist and villain, murderer and victim.” (Schildcrout, 2011) She must navigate this limbo of “outness”, while constantly dodging the dangers of the deathtrap.
Annalise acts as both criminal and detective. She is a closeted sexual deviant, not only in her historical bisexuality, but also in her affair with Nate that marks her an adulterer (even though it is revealed that Sam was unfaithful long before). Viewers see her cover up countless crimes committed by herself, her students, and associates, including murder. “It is up to the detective to distinguish between truth and lie, expose actual identities, and facilitate the return of moral certainty,” (White, 2001) but what happens when the person assigned detective is also the depraved and morally ambiguous? Annalise’s students are in constant states of stress and paranoia, not just from covering their own tracks, but also from their unease with trusting Annalise, who demands their blind loyalty. There are moments, too, when viewers observe Annalise alone, seemingly questioning her own motives and morals. “Apparently everyone has some sexual secret, some closet, or some queerness that can be exposed or exploited, and the need to prevent exposure leads inevitably to violence.” (Schildcrout, 2011) None of the characters on HTGAWM are innocent. They are all accomplices to each other’s wrongdoings, but also in constant cycles of sharing and withholding secrets. The pack depends on each other and stick together, while simultaneously distrusting their closest allies. Often they blame Annalise for the moral confusion they collectively share – before they worked and learned under her, their values were black and white; binary. The deterioration of their social consciousness all begins and ends with her morally ambiguous leadership.
None of the sites of my analyses have traditionally ‘come out’, nor have any of them explicitly stated that they identified themselves as bisexual. “They do not ‘come out’ as bisexual, rather their sexuality is introduced casually, usually as a secondary plot device.” (Meyer, 2010) So much of their characterizations are contingent to their bisexuality, yet the representation present is still shy in its proclamation. GLADD representative Alexandra Bolles reports that while the majority of the LGBT population are identified as bisexual, they are still “less likely than their gay and lesbian peers to be out to the people they love, because their identity is constantly misconstrued as either a form of confusion, a lie, or a contrived and hypersexualized means to an end.” (Kornhaber, 2015) The Depraved Bisexual trope that is so often present in the characterization of bisexual characters cannot be divorced to the reality of the stigma that allows such misunderstanding to persist.