John Berger provides a compelling analysis in Ways of Seeing on how we’ve been socialized through centuries of art to see women as objects and men as subjects. This way of seeing men and women is more than aesthetic choices but in fact shapes our ideologies of gender. As Berger asserts: “The art of the past no longer exists as it once did… In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose” (33).
What happens when there are no historical images that represent your identity? How do others learn to see you? How do you learn to represent yourself? This article addresses the challenges that bisexuals face in constructing and contending with media representations of non-normative sexualities. As Berger suggests: “A people or class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history” (33). This article seeks to apply Berger’s core concepts in Ways of Seeing studying representations of bisexuality in mainstream media. How bisexuality is represented, and therefore observed, shapes what can ultimately be culturally understood and recognized.
This article explores how bisexuals use digital media to construct self-representations and brand a bisexual identity. Bisexual representations are particularly relevant to study as they are often rendered invisible by the cultural hegemony of monosexuality. Cultural norms ideologically shape the intelligibility of representation; bisexuality is often misinterpreted when read within the dominant binaries of heterosexuality and homosexuality in Western European culture. This work addresses how users adapt visual, textual, and hyperlinked information in online spaces to create representations that can be culturally recognized. Users want to be seen as bisexuals.
The research for this article examined online social spaces created by and for bisexuals between 2013-2015, as well as mainstream media addressing bisexuality or bisexual characters. The social spaces studied included national and regional websites for bisexual organizations, blogs dedicated to bisexual issues and topics, and public bisexual groups on Facebook and Tumblr. Participant observation and semiotic analysis was employed to analyze how bisexual representation was discussed and performed.
Learning to See Bisexuality
Bisexuality is often constructed within the domain of medical and psychological classification systems as a sexual identity situated between one polarity or the other: between desiring men or desiring women as sexual partners or between being gay or being straight in sexual orientation, as most widely put forth by Alfred Kinsey in the 1950s (Kinsey et al., 1948; e.g., Blumstein, 1977; Diamond, 1993; Weinberg, 1995). This popularly held conception has a particular history that serves to reinforce the normative categories of heterosexuality and monosexuality.
This history does not reflect bisexual’s accounts of their own experiences of what it means to be bisexual. Bisexuals in the spaces I study express their sexuality as fluid both in terms of gender (objects of desire do not have to identify as only male or female) as well as in terms of the lifespan (desire based on sex or gender does not have remain consistent throughout one’s life). As one participant remarked: “I think of bisexual as a different orientation from both homosexuals (who orient exclusively towards same-sex romance/sexuality) and heterosexuals (who orient exclusively toward opposite-sex romance/sexuality). Bisexuals seem to think about the world in a different way: a world of ‘AND’ rather than a world of ‘OR’.” Or as another participant noted: “I saw video a couple of months ago that described ‘bi’ as being attracted to ‘same and different sexed people.’ I considered my internal debate settled at that point. Yes, it is binary, but only in the broadest sense.”
This data from my research is congruent with data from much larger studies that examined longitudinal psycho-social development of bisexual identities (Klein, 1978; Barker, 2007; Diamond, 2008). Individuals’ narratives of a more “fluid” identity suggest an emphasis at the individual level less about fluctuating between “two” possible types of sexual partners than about a dynamic, complex desire within a coherent self. Nevertheless, popular constructions of bisexuality in media continue to emphasize it within hegemonic monosexual ideologies.
Heterosexual relationships are overwhelmingly the most dominant relationship type portrayed in media, and the second most portrayed relationship is homosexuality, or a serial monogamy towards only one gender. This pairing is not only conveying the dominant hegemonic norms of heterosexuality (and most often paired with serial monogamy as well), but it is equally and powerfully reproducing the hegemonic ideal of monosexuality. Monosexuality is the romantic or sexual attraction to members of one sex or gender group only. A monosexual person may identify as either heterosexual or homosexual, the key element being that their sexual or romantic attraction remains consistently directed towards one sex or gender group. In this way, we have all been socialized since childhood to value not only monogamy but monosexuality as well. However, current research on sexuality suggests that self-identified bisexuals are the largest group among non-heterosexuals. In 2011, Dr. Gary Gates, Research Director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, analyzed data collected from nine national health surveys from the USA, United Kindgdom, Canada, Australia and Norway to provide the most comprehensive statistics available to date on how many people self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. While the population percentage of LGBT people varied by country, the ratio of lesbian, gay and bisexuals among LGBT people remained consistent, with self-identified bisexuals accounting for 40-60% of all LGBT populations regardless of country. This data is significant for challenging the popular assumption that bisexuals are a small minority among non-heterosexuals; indeed, this data indicates that non-monosexuals represent half of all non-heterosexuals. Yet we have learned to recognize monosexuality as dominant, normal and naturalized, even within LGBT representations. Conversely, we struggle to even recognize relationships that fall outside of this hegemonic norm. In essence, we lack ways of seeing bisexuals, pansexuals, omnisexuals, asexuals, and all queer-identified individuals who do not conform to monosexuality. We quite literally have not learned to see them, or—worse yet—learned how to not see them.
Bisexual representations are particularly relevant to study as they are often rendered invisible in cultures that practice monogamy paired with hegemonic monosexuality. Members of bisexual spaces desire to achieve recognition but struggle to overcome bisexual erasure in their daily lives.
Misrepresention: The Triad in Popular Media
When bisexuality is portrayed in media it is most commonly portrayed in a disingenuous manner where the bisexual is portrayed as being torn between potential lovers, on a pathway from straight to gay, or as a serial liar and cheater who cannot remain monogamous due to overwhelming attractions. Representations of bisexuals in media are infrequent, but those that are available too often follow these inaccurate stereotypes. By far the most common convention for representing bisexuality in visual media is the use of the triad: three people convey the (mis)representation of bisexuality as a sexuality in the “middle” of heterosexuality and homosexuality. For the purpose of this article, data analysis will be limited to print magazines for the sake of length and clarity.
The 2014 New York Times Magazine article “The Scientific Quest to Prove Bisexuality Exists” (Denizet-Lewis) addresses the controversial nature of bisexuality. The cover image depicts a close-up of a man’s face, separated into two halves: in one half, a woman is nuzzled up to the man’s cheek, and the other half a man is nuzzled up to his ear. Presumably the man is bisexual and therefore split into two parts: his heterosexual self and his homosexual self. This visual depiction of bisexuality reifies the notion that bisexuals are torn between two polar desires and experience equal and concurrent attraction to more than one partner simultaneously. Furthermore, the triad represented in this way suggests that the essential bisexual is having simultaneous liaisons with heterosexual and homosexual partners.
Within the convention of the triad there is also a sub-genre closely connected with hypersexualization and the male gaze. In these cases, the triad is commonly presented in varying states of undress and/or in a bed. An article in The Guardian from 11 April 2014 with the headline: “Make up your mind! The science behind bisexuality” (Browne) includes an image with three attractive young people in bed together. A man is sitting up between two sleeping women and smoking a cigarette – the cigarette connotes post-coital sexual activity, as does the smirk on his face. This may have been a suitable image if the article had been about having a threesome, but the headline—and the article—are attempting to explain the science behind bisexuality. Furthermore, while the image is intended to illustrate an article on bisexuality, the image is fundamentally misleading. The women in the image are asleep and to the side and the man is awake and in the middle. He is the central figure – it is a picture of him. So who is the bisexual in the image? What is the image attempting to do? It seems that the goal is to titillate, to excite, and to satisfy a particularly heterosexual fantasy rather than to discuss bisexuality. This hypersexualization once again references the mistaken idea (or heterosexual male fantasy) that bisexuality is only expressed through simultaneous sex acts.
Many of these examples are salacious but they occur with surprising regularity in the mainstream media. On 17 February 2016, the American Association of Retired Persons posted an article to the front page of their website titled “Am I Discovering I'm Bisexual?” (Schwartz, 2016). In the accompanying image at the top of the article, we see three people sitting on a park bench – two men on either side of a woman. The image is taken from behind the bench so we see their backs and ostensibly they do not see us, the viewer. The man on the left is kissing the woman in the center while also holding hands behind the back of the bench with the man sitting on her other side. The man on the right is looking away from the couple kissing, suggesting he is not directly included in their intimate activity. Furthermore, the two men are holding hands behind the bench, which could also be code for behind the woman’s back, suggesting infidelity to the dyad and depicting some form of duplicity. This triad reinforces the trope of the bisexual as promiscuous and untrustworthy.
Images such as these are common and range from the more inoffensive to the salacious. The resulting implications are that bisexuals are torn between their internal hetero and homo desires, require simultaneous partners, and are untrustworthy partners. Notably, in all these images it is never clear exactly which individuals are bisexual. Are all three members of the triad bisexual? While this is a possible read, the dominant discourse leads us to believe that one of person in the triad is the bisexual while the others adhere to more dominant sexualities.
Participants in my research were acutely aware of these media representations and expressed frequent negative reactions to the implications of the triad. Each article contained numerous online comments expressing frustration with the use of “threesomes.” As one commentator stated: “Without a threesome, we’re invisible. It’s messed up. I always imagine a t-shirt with 3 couples stick figure like: girl + girl, girl + boy, and boy + boy. and it says “6 bisexuals.” What is made clear in many user comments is that the mainstream social scripts used to portray bisexuality are clearly at odds with the ways in which bisexuals choose to describe or portray themselves.
Seeing through Capitalism
One of the significant conclusions of this research was the ways in which the misrepresentation of bisexuality results in many individuals feeling underrepresented or made invisible within mainstream media. The most salient themes to emerge from this research is participants’ affective struggle with feeling "invisible.” The frequency of discourse specific to invisibility is significant, as well as its expressed negatively associated experiences and feelings. The public sharing of those reactions among individuals, and the ensuing discourse that emerges from those interactions, include imagining what visibility “looks” like (its semiotic markers and what would make those markers “successful” for visibility), and the articulation of “solutions” to counter perceived invisibility. Notably, participants often express the desire for visibility in terms of commodification. As one participant posted, “their [sic] is no style for bi, there is no voice tone, unless I'm wearing my shirt, how is anyone to know?” Another participant explicated, “I wish there was a look. I wish I could get up every day and put on the clothes and jewelry that identified me to the world when I stepped out of my apartment. I wish I was as visible on the street as I am on facebook.” This longing for a culturally recognizable bisexual identity is articulated as a desire for a market commodification of “bisexual.” But a commodified identity may be a misguided desire. As Berger warns: “Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general purpose… It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more” (131). Consumerism—and its bedfellow—marketing, aim to sell the fantasy of a future self whereby the consumer transforms themselves through material objects, not transforming the culture to accept them. Berger further elicits that marketing essentially convinces us that we are not whole the way we are and sells us the idea of a wholeness achieved through consumerism (134). Following Berger’s argument, this desire for a commodified identity, while genuine, may fundamentally undermine the autonomy bisexuals currently have insomuch as without a corporate brand, bisexual representations are more culturally malleable and therefore potentially more inclusive to the real diversity of bisexual identified people.
However, Berger also rightly noted that “publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself” (139). Without any publicity, bisexuals are not wrong to feel invisible in a consumer culture. And yet “publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice” (149). A commodified identity will not likely usher in meaningful political change in a culture where bisexuals experience worse mental health and discrimination outcomes than lesbian and gay people (LGBT Advisory Committee, 2011).
Bisexuals Online: New Ways of Seeing
The Internet, which was touted early as a space of great potential for anonymity and exploration where visibility can be masked, here becomes the place where bisexuals try to make the perceived invisible ‘visible.’ Digital technologies and spaces provide particularly useful environments for participants of online bisexual spaces to negotiate issues of invisibility as participants construct visible identities through daily posts, threads, videos, and discourse in which bisexuality is discursively and visually imagined, produced, articulated, defended, and desired. But most importantly these digital technologies provide bisexuals with opportunities to counter misrepresentations in mainstream media. In the frequent example of intimate partners in the physical world rendering a bisexual’s identity invisible, participants of these online communities grapple with the seeming paradox of one’s offline self as the avatar and one’s online self as more fully integrated, represented, and recognized. One participant expressed this experience, remarking:
I feel I'm more out online that offline. That's because, in the offline world there's the whole ''social assumptions'' issue. My co-workers, friends, etc, know I have a boyfriend, wich [sic] equals ''straight'' for most ppl out there. So, I'll out myself when the occasion comes (talking abt smn I used to date, the LGBT youth group I used to belong to, or usually just abt some girl I find attractive) and usually ppl are not surprised. Whereas online, my pic at Facebook (and Orkut) is a Bisexual Pride icon. I follow Bi groups on Twitter. I'm a member of bi groups. So, online it's spelled out, while offline ppl usually think me having a bf means I'm straight.
The I Am Visible (IAV) campaign is just one example of an organized response to the perceived erasure of bisexuals in mainstream culture. Launched in January 2011 by Adrienne McCue (nee Williams), the executive director of the Bi Social Network, a non-profit organization aimed at bringing awareness to representations of bisexuality in media. The campaign was hosted on bisocialnetwork.com, with the goal to “stop biphobia and bi-erasure in our community, media, news, and entertainment,” Prior to going live, IAV implemented a six-month lead-up advertising campaign across multiple online bisexual forums, making it the most publicized new venture during the period of my study. IAV hosted user-generated videos and posters that followed the vernacular of coming out and provided emotional support for listeners who may be struggling with their identity in a world largely hostile to bisexuality. Perceived invisibility was the central theme of IAV, which was the most salient theme for every bisexual group I studied online.
Perhaps the most notable video and still image series to come out of IAV were those including Emmy nominated Scottish actor Alan Cumming. Cumming, a long-time Broadway thespian and acclaimed film actor, openly identifies as bisexual and has criticized ‘gaystream’ outlets on more than one occasion for intentionally mislabeling him as ‘gay.’ As such, Alan Cumming is one of the most prominently celebrated bisexual celebrities during the time of my study. While there are numerous famous out gays and lesbians in the media industry who have lent their celebrity status to endorse LGBT political messages—such as Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, and Neil Patrick Harris, to name a few—there have been notably fewer celebrities supporting bisexual specific causes. Therefore, Cummings involvement with IAV was significant for many bisexuals. His star status was perceived as contributing legitimacy to bisexuality and increasing cultural visibility for bisexuals.
These campaigns to become more visible are based in the need to counteract the false media narrative, which is, in a sense, to educate the wider society as to what bisexuality is not. The campaigns are an attempt to repair the false messages which have been “learnt” and replace them with more accurate representations.
The Internet provides bisexual activists with a tool with which they can work to correct the skewed media image of themselves. Additionally, the Internet has also become a place where bisexuals can more easily represent themselves through a wide variety of semiotic markers in ways which would be difficult or unacceptable offline. In these ways, the Internet has become a key device in bisexual activism and while it is important not to uncritically praise the technology it plays an important role in enabling correct representation.
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