I struggle to name a character that I believe, as a bisexual woman, truly represents that part of my identity. For whatever reason, theatre - among other mediums - seems to falter when it comes to bringing bisexual characters to light. And I can't help but wonder why.
I can guess a few things from observation. Lots of prominent plays and musicals featuring LGBTQ+ characters feature love stories with those characters where their orientation is revealed and demonstrated. It can be hard to pin a character down as a bisexual if they end up with someone of their same gender or a different gender. They just seem gay or straight.
Which is fair enough. In order to demonstrate a character is bisexual, then, they have to say it. But what I've found is the word "bisexual" seems to get tossed around as a fun way to make jokes and gain brownie points rather than actually represent bisexual people.
Let me explain. I believe the first time I heard the word "bisexual" spoken on stage was in If/Then, about the character Lucas. If you are not familiar with it, If/Then is the story of a woman named Elizabeth told in two parallel timelines, where one small choice changes the course of her life.
Having two timelines gives a unique opportunity: you can actually show that Lucas is bisexual. And, indeed, in one timeline Lucas pines after Elizabeth, and in the other he ends up in a committed relationship with a man. As far as bisexual representation goes, it's not bad. It is clear, it is evident, it is labelled as such. And yet it still didn't feel quite right to me.
Maybe it was Elizabeth's line, which has stuck in my mind (even if not exactly word-for-word) since I heard it: "I don’t believe in independents just like I don’t believe in bisexuals. Just pick a side!"
Ha ha! Hilarious! Wonderful! It's fantastic to see Lucas, one of the first explicit representations of bisexuality in a major production, reduced to a joke that adds nothing to the show!
Last year, among the plays I saw, one mentioned the word "bisexual." Indeed, one of the characters was bisexual, a man who was currently in a relationship with another man. And it was nice to hear the word. But it still didn't feel right. It didn't add anything to the experience, it just made me frustrated when I couldn't relate to his experiences at all. His sexuality just felt like the foundation for a monologue that didn’t reveal anything new.
Imagine my frustration further when at the end of Be More Chill, one character utters the word "bisexual" in relation to himself with no real build-up to and no real results of this revelation. While his sexuality isn’t mocked, it’s still mainly there to act as a punchline. I don’t feel represented by someone saying “I like girls and boys!” followed by laughter.
So much of what I have experienced of bisexuality in theatre is in its use as a buzzword. It's better than stereotypes, sure, but it seems like the word gets tossed around for the sake of being able to tout a bisexual character. Usually there's no exploration. Usually they're not the main character. Usually it's just there to be there. And it means almost nothing to me.
I appreciate the thought. Hearing the world “bisexual” helps to normalize it. For some audience members, it might be their first realization that such a thing exists. And that we're human too. But the audience that affects is only a fraction of the people attending theatrical events.
Generally, the shows I've seen with characters I would classify as bisexual and find I am most drawn to are the ones where the word "bisexual" is, interestingly, never said. I think of The Color Purple, where Shug Avery finds a deep love for Celie even though she's presumably been with men her entire life. I think of the show I'm working on right now, where women are attracted to other women but also have relationships with men. These are characters that, to me, are truly bisexual, even though they never say the buzzword.
Is it worth it to note that these are female characters, originally created by women? I think so. I can see that gender plays a great role in which characters I identify with and see myself reflected in. But it doesn't erase the pattern of bisexuality getting glossed over throughout our theatrical canon.
If the canon isn't enough, there is, of course, always headcanon. Part of the reason I identify so deeply with Rosa Bud from The Mystery of Edwin Drood is that I have read bisexuality into her actions and words. Rosa is one of my favorite characters of all time. I will say "Rosa is bisexual." But is that representation? No. It's what I created from building upon the existing piece.
Fandom can sometimes teeter into praising a show for having diversity and representation that doesn't exist. I think it is vital to acknowledge what is really there, and what are the ideas we bring in. Headcanon is wonderful. But, when it comes to representation, it is not enough.
Subtext is not enough. Saying the word “bisexual” is not enough. Only exploration and honesty about experience is enough.
Needless to say, bisexuality is far from the only identity to receive the buzzword treatment. Much like political relevance, so many ideas are tossed around without an ounce of exploration or genuineness. But all I know is my own experience, and that is all I will speak on.
I haven't found a piece that I find truly represents my bisexuality yet. But I feel confident that it is out there. It is probably written by a bisexual woman. And, if doesn’t exist then maybe, just maybe, I will have to write it myself.
(Photo credit Joan Marcus)