Betsy Dragoo April 12, 2011 Feminist Critiques of Biomedicine Moya Bailey Bisexual Visibility in Media and Medicine
Sexuality is a complex idea that shapes identities and conceptions on attraction. Bisexuality has existed as long as people have, but the term has not. Its existence has not always been acknowledged. Not every society in the world has (or had) the same ideas about sexuality that “modern” western people hold. For instance, a Greek adult male who took a boy as his lover, but who also had a wife, was not considered bisexual nor homosexual.1 This Greek male would also not be condemned for his choice to sleep with members of the same or opposite sex, or even sleeping with someone much younger than himself. Thus, the notion that bisexuality is “new” and “trendy”, (as sometimes seen in the media) is false. Mainstream, or modern, sentiments towards sexuality tend to perpetuate the belief that there are only two sexual identities (heterosexual and homosexual). Definition of Terms In a world filled with labels, sexual orientation is difficult to define. The restrictive notion that there are only two sexes, and ignorance of gender identity, limits conceptions about sexual identities. The term “bisexual” is imperfect and limiting, just as “homosexual and “heterosexual” are. Straight, gay, and bisexual labels fail to incorporate the broad spectrum of human sexuality. “Bisexual” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “The state or condition of being
Garber, Marjorie. Bisexuality and The Eroticism of Everyday Life. 1st. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. Print. 14.
sexually attracted to members of both sexes”. 2 “Bi”, or two, limits conceptions of sexuality while, simultaneously freeing them. The existence of bisexuality disrupts the gay/straight only model while also reinforcing it. Consequently, I propose that use of the words “homosexual” “heterosexual” and “bisexual” is obsolete. The presence of another option, pansexuality, implies the fluidity of sexuality. Pansexuality is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “That encompasses all kinds of sexuality; not limited or inhibited in sexual choice with regards to gender or practice”. 3 Although pansexuality is the most freeing sexual term, and mirrors human sexuality most clearly, it is not widely used. This paper focuses solely on representations of bisexuals because of its close relation to pansexuality. The term bisexual is more often used, and research is focused specifically on bisexual people rather than pansexuals, despite their close relation. Bisexuals are underrepresented in the medical community and the media. This paper focuses on “bisexuality” specifically, but acknowledges that the term is imperfect. Bisexuals in the Gay Community This “alternative” identity (bisexuality) and its presence challenges notions about sexuality. Its existence defies the idea that sexual identities are either gay or straight. However, it also falls into a grey category. Bisexuals are often told to “pick a team”, because this middle ground is so problematic to traditional thinking. This middle ground of sorts (that is, between gay and straight) is a highly troubling space. Bisexuals are marginalized by some gay and lesbian
Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989; online version March 2011. <http://oed.com:80/Entry/19449>; accessed 03 May 2011. Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1887. 3 Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2005; online version March 2011. <http://oed.com:80/Entry/239170>; accessed 03 May 2011.
communities because they are not totally “gay”. Simultaneously, they also do not fit into heterosexual communities because of their homosexuality.4 Just as complex as the “grey” space which bisexuals seem to occupy is their space in the LGBTQ world. One scholar, Marjorie Garber, asserts in her work on bisexuality that the group is “invisible” in the queer world. They are “lumped” with the gay community and not treated as a separate identity.5 This lumping is problematic, because of the notion that bisexuals undermine gay rights. 6 They are lumped in with a community that sometimes isolates them. Thus, bisexual people are, one again, stuck in an ambiguous place. Bisexuals do not fit perfectly into one community, gay or straight. Bisexuals are marginalized because of an inability to “check a box”. One major way that bisexual people are sometimes condemned by the gay community is in their “heterosexual privilege”.7 Heterosexual privilege is awarded to persons in our society who are thought to be straight. One college, University of Missouri, said the following on heterosexual privilege: “you
can legally marry the person whom you love and you can receive tax breaks, health and insurance coverage, and spousal legal rights through being in a long-tem relationship”. 8 The misconception that bisexuals always receive heterosexual privilege and are never marginalized for their “homosexual” relationships is false. For example, if two women kiss in public, but identify as bisexual, they will still be perceived as “lesbians”, even if they do not identify as such. Although heterosexual privilege does exist for some bisexuals, denial of bisexual allies by the gay community
Garber, Marjorie. Bisexuality and The Eroticism of Everyday Life. 1st. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. Print. 83 Ibid, 50 6 Ibid, 85 7 Ibid, 84 8 LGBTQ Resource Center, University of Missouri, "Intro to Heterosexual Privilege." 2008.http://web.missouri.edu/~umcstudentlifelgbt/resources/ (accessed May 3, 2011).
creates unnecessary tension. Homosexual groups must include bisexuals, or bisexuals will stand alone, only hindering the ultimate goal of acceptance and rights for people, regardless of sexuality. Case Study: Bisexuals in the Media
The identity of bisexuality is a complex one, and its often confusing portrayals in the media hinder advancement of bisexuals. The confused and oversexed image of bisexual adolescents is illustrated in popular television shows geared towards youth. This paper will dissect some of those images, notably the television shows One Tree Hill and Skins.9 10 Television portrayals of gay or bisexual characters did not truly come into existence until the 1990‟s.11 Thus, Western portrayals of queer people is a relatively new and delicate subject. One scholar discussing this inception of gay characters in mass media said, “ABC lost over $1.5 million in revenue when producing an episode of the hit series thirtysomething that contained two gay characters in bed together, yet only four years later a lesbian kiss on Roseanne resulted in substantially more lucrative ratings spikes ultimately attracting advertisers to programs that were perceived as „„edgy‟‟ in terms of representing sexual identity.” 12 The implications of these ratings are complicated. Is it clear from these statistics that mild representations of female homosexuality prevail as more popular and thus widely accepted by its viewers. In this way, the depiction of lesbians in the media is more accepted then gay males. The irony in these television statistics is that the tame kiss shared by two women on
“Tea”, Skins, season one. Music Television Network, 24 January, 2011. “I Will Dare”, One Tree Hill, season two. The WB, 2003. 11 Meyer, Michaela. “„I‟m Just Trying to Find my Way Like Most Kids‟: Bisexuality, Adolescence and the Drama of One Tree Hill “. Sexuality & Culture; Dec2009, Vol. 13 Issue 4, p237-251, 15p. 12 Ibid, 237.
Rosanne was more readily accepted for its mildness, not its “edge”. It seems that it is more acceptable for women to kiss then to actually engage in gay sex. This is problematic because it undermines homosexual acceptance. By picking and choosing tame representations of homosexuality, queer people are not represented as they actually are. The queer community includes all genders, and tendency to show only women as gay is limiting. A more dynamic representation on sexuality is illustrated in the Teen drama, One Tree Hill. One character, “Anna”, is not only bisexual but also Latina. Upon her introduction, Anna perpetuates common misconceptions about bisexuals (and women of color) by being sexually promiscuous. The first night Anna is featured on the show, she tries to sleep with a male character, but when spurned, sleeps with a female one instead. Although Anna does enforce stereotypes about bisexuality, her character helps bisexual visibility. This is notable in that most television characters are perceived as “gay” or “straight”. However, Anna comes out specifically as a bisexual in the show, while simultaneously condemning labels of sexuality. Thus, her process of shunning while also embracing labels reflects my earlier thoughts on sexual identities. Anna is the only character that I have specifically encountered in cable television who acknowledges the imperfection of sexual labels. Another layer of Anna‟s identity is her identification as Latina. This is pivotal in that, One Tree Hill seems to perpetuate ideas about women of color being sexually “loose”. It is also notable that “Peyton”, the white heterosexual female ally in the show, effectively “saves” Anna from her sexuality. Peyton, who went to a dance with Anna as a friend, is called a dyke when someone spray paints the words on her locker. Peyton, who as heterosexual, then wears a t-shirt spray painted “Dyke” to embrace the word painted on her locker. Although this action could be seen as Peyton attempting to form an ally with Anna, some disagree. One scholar said, 5
“In many ways, Peyton‟s co-optation of queer activism can be read as a hostile erasure of Anna‟s ethnic and sexual identity. In essence, the heterosexual while woman must “save” the tragic lesbian Latino from homophobia and harm. This is particularly troublesome given the significant lack of non-white characters in the series. If Anna‟s sexual identity is open to potential erasure, her ethnicity is also”. 13
In this way, Anna is doubly marginalized. Her identification as both Latina and bisexual is effectively overshadowed by the white characters in the show. Anna is not given the opportunity to act as a female hero, in control of her own destiny. Peyton emerges as the female hero, stepping in to save her friend. This is especially problematic because Anna is not given a voice. Peyton adopts a homosexual identity by wearing the “dyke” t-shirt, and thus eradicates any opportunity Anna may have had to raise queer awareness for herself. The television show allows Peyton the right to “enlighten” her community, even though Anna should be the person to do this. Although Anna is temporarily allowed to discuss her sexuality, it is quickly overshadowed by the female hero of Peyton.
Other representations of young bisexual females are equally as troubling. Skins produced by MTV also portrays a bisexual non-white female. MTV is a major disseminator of information to teens, and completely overlooks the notion that one of their characters could be bisexual. “Tea”, the character to which I am referring, is continually labeled as gay by websites and blogs discussing the show. Despite the fact that Tea has sex with a male (“Tony”) twice, and has sex with women, she is always referred to as a lesbian. The lesbianism of Tea seems to be pivotal to her following. MTV said that the portrayal of Tea as an assertive lesbian “will become the most
Meyer, Michaela. “„I‟m Just Trying to Find my Way Like Most Kids‟: Bisexuality, Adolescence and the Drama of One Tree Hill “. Sexuality & Culture; Dec2009, Vol. 13 Issue 4, p237-251, 15p.
vital thing in the world to us.”14 Why is MTV so insistent on this image? Obviously, MTV subscribes to the gay/straight hegemony. This is troubling because it totally overlooks the existence of bisexuality and limits viewer‟s conceptions on sexuality. It also implies that to be current, you have to be gay. Here, bisexuality is totally overlooked.
Tea is portrayed as overtly sexual and loose, sleeping with a plethora of characters. She preys on the innocence of others. This ties in with the “fuck anything that moves” stereotype about bisexuals. Regardless of if MTV asserts that Tea is a lesbian, some viewers are certain to read her as bisexual. The portrayal of her as a loose person is especially problematic, because it directly reinforces the stereotype that bisexuals are oversexed. The notion that bisexuals will “fuck anything that moves” is reiterated in other media. One scholar discusses the representation of bisexuals as people that will “fuck anything that moves”, “This stereotype escalated into the realm of the psycho-killer with David Lynch‟s Blue Velvet (1986), in which Dennis Hopper plays a sadistic murderer who proudly proclaims, “I fuck anything that moves!” Of course, the “anything that moves” theme is recurrent in bisexual filmography.”15
It is interesting that mainstream networks and a director outside of the television scene portray bisexuals negatively. MTV and the director perpetuate stereotypes about bisexuals in choosing to portray them as over sexualized. It is compelling that both Tea and the sadistic
"Tea Apparently Awesomest Lesbian Character Ever." http://www.skinsfansite.com/2011/01/skins-us-teaapparently-awesomest.html (accessed May 3, 2011).
Bryant, Wayne, “Is That Me Up There?” Journal of Bisexuality; 2005, Vol. 5 Issue 2/3, p305-312, 7.
murderer are illustrated as controlling and evil. For example, Tea gives Tony a sexually transmitted infection and manipulates her classmates. In this way, bisexuals are stigmatized by the media as manipulative and evil. The “anything that moves” is a recurrent theme used to repress bisexuals, but, ironically some bisexuals have embraced the term. It is notable that a San Francisco journal for bisexuals was started under the name Anything That Moves in January 1991. Editor Karla Rossi prefaced the editorial with, “Our choice to use this title for the magazine has been nothing less than controversial. That we would choose to redefine the stereotype that “bisexuals will fuck anything that moves”, to suit our own purposes has created myriad reactions. Those critical of the title feel we are perpetuating the stereotype and damaging our images. Those in favor of its use see it as a movement away from the stereotype, toward bisexual empowerment. …We are challenging people to face their own external and internal biphobia. We are demanding attention, and re-defining “anything that moves” on our own terms”. 16
The journal was condemned for its honesty. Obviously, the writers of Anything That Moves are reclaiming the label of bisexuals as loose individuals. What readers choose to do with the title is up to them. The title of the journal directly assaults the viewer, but in a different way than Blue Velvet or Skins does. Instead of marginalizing bisexuals, the journal advocates for visibility. The journal effectively reclaims bisexual visibility in the media by defining what it means to be bisexual in their own words. This publication is important because it recognizes
Garber, Marjorie. Bisexuality and The Eroticism of Everyday Life. 1st. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. Print. 54-55
biphobia and chooses to challenge it. Instead of conforming to the “anything that moves” stereotype, the journal defies it.
In quoting this journal, I want to convey the importance of bisexual empowerment and visibility in the media. Although programs like MTV‟s Skins do perpetuate negative and false beliefs on bisexuality, it is important to outline those flaws for what they truly are. These characters are not real people. However, viewers identify with them and sometimes take their situations to be reflections of reality. Bisexual people are often portrayed as “oversexed” in films and popular television shows. Consequently, the media is reinforcing a negative idea of “bisexuals”, regardless of if the viewer realizes the character is bisexual or not. This decreases bisexual visibility and stigmatizes anyone who comes out as bisexual.
MTV indulges in the gay/straight model of two sexualities in Skins. The actor portraying Tea received the “Apparently Awesomest Lesbian Character Ever” award from MTV.17 It is notable that MTV takes such pride in their lesbian character. Perhaps the television channel wants to portray the station as sensitive and loving of homosexuals. This is troubling because what is considered “current” is gay acceptance, not bisexual or, furthermore, pansexual acceptance. One major problematic aspect of Skins is that MTV perpetuates stereotypes about bisexuals through painting Tea as lustful and hungry for more. On MTV‟s website, the actors who play Tea and Tony give an interview discussing their first kiss. The actor portraying Tea, Sophia Black-D'Elia, talks about the sexuality of her character:
"Tea Apparently Awesomest Lesbian Character Ever." http://www.skinsfansite.com/2011/01/skins-ustea-apparently-awesomest.html (accessed May 3, 2011).
They're [Tony and Tea] kind of brought together by this attraction, and I don't think it's necessarily a sexual attraction. I think it's a situation where you have these two people who are very bored, with no one in their lives that really gets them, and on that level, it's like a perfect attraction. But on another level, it's a disaster because Tea's a lesbian. It's not a situation where it's like she's a lesbian and then she finds a guy and is like, 'I'm not a lesbian anymore.' The assertion by Sophia Black- D'Elia that Tea can only be gay or straight actually limits her character. The most easily to identify with characters are those with multi-facetted personalities and choices, and the denial by MTV and Skins actors of a sexual identity alternative sets the television show at a disadvantage. The irony about Sophia Black- D'Elia‟s speech is that Tea sleeps with Tony later in the show. Clearly, the attraction between the two is more than boredom. The image of gay or bisexual persons on television shows geared towards youth is especially delicate. Most television-watching adolescents look towards these programs for cues on how to act, dress, and even have sex. MTV limits its viewers conceptions on sexuality by denying (intentionally or not) the existence of bisexuality in a character. Not only does neglecting the existence of bisexuality (as is the case in the MTV program and its actors), hinder the development of bisexual visibility, but as does the personality traits of these characters. The way these queer characters are illustrated is equally as difficult. Tea‟s
antics managed to get her a headline in the New York daily news on January 24, 2011. 18 The journalist, Nina Mandell, says this about the first representations of Tea: The brunette opened the show swallowing a pill, grabbing a fake ID, dutifully kissing her clueless father goodbye, going to a club and bringing home a girl to have sex with (don't worry PTC, the actress playing Tea is 18). With the tone well-set by Tea, the show is centered around the group's two major problems: Spreading around that nerdy Stanley lost his virginity to crazed Cadie and helping him avoid a drug dealer who he owes $900 for a drug deal gone bad on last week's episode. It is clear from this journalist‟s account that the message popular television shows like Skins and One Tree Hill sends about bisexual people is negative one. Tea is portrayed as an illicit drug user who engages in casual sex with women. Likewise, Anna is kicked out of a Catholic school for her bisexual behavior and succeeds in starting a controversy at her new high school. Both of the characters display promiscuous behavior in their relations with men and women. They are painted as the “bad girls” of the show. Another layer of bisexual stereotyping can be seen in the drug and alcohol use of these young women. They seem to cope with their sexuality by using. This is problematic because it reinforces negative images of bisexual people as illicit drug users who are unconcerned with their health. It is unfortunate that the media allows no positive representations of bisexuals in the media. I believe that a lack of role models for bisexual persons is a major cause of their often negative image. Coming out as a bisexual is especially difficult, perhaps that is why some outstanding people in history never did. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt hid her relations with
Mandell, Nina. "'Skins'' Tea (Sofia Black-D'Elia) tries to overcome superiority over her peers." January 25, 2011.http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-01-25/entertainment/27096716_1_tea-drug-dealer-mob-member (accessed May 3, 2011).
women, likely to avoid political downfall. 19 Marjorie Garber, a bisexual scholar, asserts that the identification is not “safe” in the political realm. She discusses how, even in recent times, if a politician is found to have slept with men while married to a woman, he is automatically assumed to be gay. 20 This assumption totally overlooks the option of bisexuality and paints any homosexual relations whatsoever to be wrong. Case Study: Bisexuals and Healthcare If bisexuals want images of them to change in the media, it is wise to begin with the medical community. As demonstrated by our class, Feminist Critiques of Biomedicine, medical communities often perpetuate negative stereotypes. Healthcare access is one of the most important things to an individual because of its role in sustaining our lives. This is why bisexual visibility is necessary in the medical community. However, many healthcare providers overlook the “option” of bisexuality. Doctors often ask if one is intimate with “men or women?” never both. This sort of “check a box” mentality is problematic, especially in the medical field where everyone has different needs. Needs are on a spectrum, just as sexuality is. We need to start viewing people as they are, rather than as patients just like every other patient. One level where media and health intertwine is in the image of the bisexual AIDs carrier. Because bisexuals are portrayed as oversexed and will “fuck anything that moves”, this portrayal logically is the next, and more hurtful, step in marginalizing bisexuals. Scholar Wayne Bryant says: “The 1990s brought the stereotype of the bisexual man who spreads AIDS to straight women. In Together Alone (1991), Brian is a man who has just had unprotected sex with
Garber, Marjorie. Bisexuality and The Eroticism of Everyday Life. 1st. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. Print. 76. Garber, Marjorie. Bisexuality and The Eroticism of Everyday Life. 1st. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. Print. 71.
a gay man named Bryan. Brian, who refuses to disclose his HIV status, finally admits that he has never been tested. Yet he never wears a condom if he can get away with it, and only reluctantly reveals that he is married, has a child, and that his wife is pregnant. Les Nuits Fauves (Savage Nights, 1993) is another film in which a bisexual man has unprotected sex with others. In this case, he does so knowing he has AIDS.” In these instances, bisexuals are painted as unfaithful AIDs carriers. The first example the author gives of Brian, illustrates bisexuals as dangerous and loose. The second example proposes the notion that bisexuals knowingly infect others with disease. They are illustrated as reckless concerning their health. This situation is mirrored in the case of Tea, when she sleeps with “Tony”, giving him a sexually transmitted infection. Images of bisexual people as irresponsible only hinder their image in the media and medial field. With such negative portrayals of bisexuals in the media, it is not surprising that they are underrepresented in the healthcare industry. The National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce said the following on bisexual healthcare: “While not to generalizeable to all bisexuals, an article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that bisexuals in a community survey of young and middle-aged adults reported poorer mental health than people of any other sexual orientation in the sample. This has important implications for health research, such as studies of mental health which group together homosexuals and bisexuals.”21 It is clear that one area that care for bisexual patients could be improved is in psychological care. When asked what kind of therapist one wants at Agnes Scott, the only
"Bisexuality." 2011.http://thetaskforce.org/issues/bisexuality (accessed May 3, 2011). http://thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/bi_health_5_07_b.pdf (accessed May 3, 2011) page 32
options are “gay” or “straight”. This is especially isolating, because the student feels as if she has no role models in her community to disclose her struggles. Because psychological illness usually emerges during the college years, it is pivotal to the development of a bisexual student. They deserve access to welcoming and understanding psychologists. The gay/straight mentality in the healthcare field needs to be revised to include the needs of bisexual people. This particular issue has gone unnoticed in the medical community. One study on this issue eloquently states, “Dennis (2003) suggests that young bisexuals are more prone to mental health problems because of feelings of not belonging and pressures to be either gay or straight. Travers and O‟Brien (1997) report that bisexual youth experience more isolation and confusion than their gay and lesbian peers, feel that their needs are not understood and find that gay and lesbian groups which include youth are not inclusive of bisexuals, while most bisexual resources are adult-oriented. They argue that bisexual youth need resources, support groups exclusively for bi youth, and supportive, understanding providers.” 22 Bisexuals do need more resources. There are virtually no specifically bisexual resources available on Agnes Scott‟s campus. Again, bisexuals are lumped with the lesbian community on this particular campus. This separation is probably a major reason why bisexual persons are at increased risks than other queer groups for psychological issues. Additionally, Bisexuals are at a greater risk for addictions. 23 This unfortunate fact ties in with how bisexuals are portrayed in the media. A few examples of this can be seen in One Tree Hill, when Anna drowns her confusion
Dobinson, Cheryl. “Improving the Access and Quality of Public Health Services for Bisexuals”. Journal of Bisexuality; 2005, Vol. 5 Issue 1, p52, 40p.
over sexuality with alcohol. Likewise, Tea takes a pill before she attends a party, where she has casual sex with a woman. Because bisexual patients may not feel comfortable in a primarily “gay” or “straight” environment, where do they feel safe? The answer is that they do not. A change must take place before they feel comfortable in a doctor‟s office. It is easy to simply condemn the medical community for not understanding the needs of bisexuals. However, it is impossible to understand a group of people without acknowledging their existence. Without medical acknowledgement of bisexuality, there can be no advancements in care for them. If the medical community does not specifically acknowledge the need for bisexual care, then their overall mental health as a group will never improve. It is clear from the statistics that the psychological care of bisexuals is vital to their quality of life. It is comforting to know that some individuals recognize this flaw in the medical community and are willing to publish their findings. This bisexual visibility is pivotal to fighting phobias of alternative sexualities. Studies like this one and books like “Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life” raise awareness that sexuality is fluid24. These scholarly sources represent an attempt to revise negative images of bisexuals. In reevaluating the way we look at bisexuality in media and healthcare, Western societies can begin to revise the problematic gay/straight only model.
Garber, Marjorie. Bisexuality and The Eroticism of Everyday Life. 1st. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.
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