Ayo, Bisexual Check

Bi Bobs, Cuffed Jeans, and Prototypes for a Bisexual Uniform on TikTok

How to Cite

Knopp-Schwyn, C., & Fracentese, M. (2023). Ayo, Bisexual Check: Bi Bobs, Cuffed Jeans, and Prototypes for a Bisexual Uniform on TikTok. M/C Journal, 26(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2967
Vol. 26 No. 1 (2023): uniform
Published 2023-03-14


A 2021 listicle pronouncing “10 Things That Are Bisexual Culture” concludes that “claiming that random things are ‘bi culture’ is the most bi-culture thing of all” (Wilber n.p.). While posed as tongue-in-cheek, the assignment of status as a signifier of bisexuality to seemingly arbitrary actions and items reinforces the notion that bi people seek a distinct visual and cultural identity and struggle to make one. We consider how creators on the algorithmically driven social media platform TikTok responded to an open-ended 2019 prompt (“ayo, bisexual check”) to show off styles and accessories that project a bisexual display, and how these videos, understood collectively, contribute to the cohesion of a prototype for a bisexual social uniform.

By social uniform, we refer to informally standardised clothing that identifies members of a group but lacks the bureaucratic regulation of an institutional uniform (Joseph). This lens is productive for interpreting subcultural dress norms, including those of queer identities at various scopes  (e.g. Nelson, “Here”; Stines). The development of these social uniforms can allow for stronger group coherence and provide individuals with “self-esteem through conformity” with one’s group and “self-regard by conflict” with other groups (Joseph 74). There is added utility to this signalling for queer people as a means to seek community and partnership against a societal backdrop of stigmatisation (Brennan). Being able to identify who is like oneself at a glance lets one know when and where one is safe to outwardly present an authentic version of oneself (Huxley and Hayfield; Rostosky et al.; Wang and Feinstein).

Bisexual communities notably lack such a uniform (Hayfield, Bisexual; Hayfield, “Invisibility”; Hayfield, “Never”; Hayfield and Wood; Huxley et al.). While bi people have expressed interest in having a distinct, coherent aesthetic or set of visual markers to express their bisexuality and recognise others as specifically bisexual, they have encountered obstacles towards the establishment of such a bi uniform (Madison, “Representing”; Nelson, “What”). The conception of homosexuality and heterosexuality as a binary leaves little room for the notion of bisexuality at all (Nelson, “Here”). In instances when people do attempt to stake a claim to a specifically bisexual visual identity, the result tends to be read binaristically nonetheless (Daly et al.; Hartman; Hayfield, Bisexual; Morgan and Davis-Delano; Nelson, “What”). Attempts to visually “split the middle” of established gay and straight styles have thus historically failed, with onlookers (even bisexual onlookers) either assuming the bi person in question is gay or straight (Hartman). Rosie Nelson goes so far as to contend that “the body of the bisexual is incapable of declaring itself outwardly bisexual to a monosexist society” (“Here” 87). In other words, Nelson argues that a distinctly bi visual identity—a bi social uniform—may be impossible so long as bisexuality remains invisible in broader discourses of sexual orientation and that only improved or increased representations of bisexuality in media, law, research, and culture can foment the conditions for bisexual visibility in the most literal sense (“Here”).

TikTok’s Bisexual Displays

Within this context of binary assumptions of gender and sexual orientation, Julie Hartman-Linck conceived the “bisexual display” (Hartman 39). By analogy with gender display as theorised by Lorber and building on Goffman’s construction of identity performance, the bisexual display refers to attempts to project a bisexual identity “using the accoutrements of gender, as well as more direct visual and verbal cues” (Hartman 43). Bisexuality is discursively erased, and even seemingly straightforward attempts to make bi identities known are often misconstrued by observers, either through ignorance (e.g., unfamiliarity with the significance of the bi pride flag) or through willful disbelief (e.g., doubt in the authenticity of bisexuality / the bisexual; see Alarie and Gaudet). Therefore, analysis of bisexual display focusses on the intended effect of the performer rather than on the actual understandings of their audiences: bisexual display offers a productive theoretical lens through which to consider how a bisexual identity is intentionally fashioned, even if attempts to fashion the bisexual identity may be misunderstood or ignored.

Emiel Maliepaard, in his research on bisexual geographies, argues that bisexual spaces are “temporal, local and (often) unplanned” (47). We identified one such space on TikTok, an algorithmically driven video-centric social media platform. TikTok affords creators a great deal of power to respond to and remix other creators’ content, most prominently with the “use this sound” function which lets creators incorporate audio either originating from or used in another video (colloquially a TikTok) into their own (Abidin and Kaye). The memetic process of (re)using a sound with some amount of variation generates a constituency of creators and other users whose participation in the video creation and engagement process aligns with what Zulli and Zulli theorised as TikTok’s imitation publics: “a collection of people whose digital connectivity is constituted through the shared ritual of content imitation and replication” (1882). These imitation publics in turn may spawn these temporal, local, and unplanned spaces, including virtual bisexual spaces.

Here, we conducted a content analysis of 50 short videos posted in 2019 with over 1,000 likes using the “ayo, bisexual check” (“ABC”) sound, which was first uploaded in late March 2019. The originator of the sound posted a video of themselves saying “ayo, bisexual check” and then showing off certain elements of clothing and reifying or countering certain stereotypes about bi identity. When other creators subsequently began to use the sound and associated format to do the same, they constituted the “ABC” sound’s imitation public. While there are multiple possible ways creators might have understood the prompt of a “bisexual check” (e.g., as encouraging them to dress in a way that projects their own bisexuality; to dress in a way that projects bisexuality most legibly to other bisexual or nonbisexual people; to dress in a way that feels most comfortable to them, as a bisexual; etc.), the intention behind these videos can be understood broadly to display some bisexual identity. The simple and direct nature of the prompt (“bisexual check”) generates the virtual “bisexual space”, both “highly temporal and specific” (Maliepaard 59). This space both offers an open-ended venue for creators to engage with a culture of visual identity, and maximises the potential for audiences to read what transpires in the videos as demonstrative (if not constitutive) of bisexual identity. By creating these TikToks, users are not waiting for more or better bisexual representation on TikTok but instead are actively embodying it, responding to the need identified by Nelson.

Elements of the Bisexual Check

At the broadest level, creators in the 50 sampled videos primarily showcased discrete fashion elements or accessories, rather than entire outfits. The structure of “ABC” TikToks allowed creators to draw attention to specific pieces of clothing, jewelry, haircuts and styles, makeup looks, and ways of fashioning clothes (see fig. 1 for an example). This mode of engaging with the “bisexual check” challenge differs from the mode of engagement we saw in videos using the “ABC” sound posted after 2019; while onscreen text, closed captions, and video descriptions in TikToks posted in 2019 were primarily in English, text in videos posted in 2020 and later was mostly in Tagalog. This suggested that 2019 and post-2019 TikToks emerged from distinct and separate cultural contexts; despite using the same “ABC” sound, they represented different imitation publics. The post-2019 videos tended to show their creators posing for one or several shots without focussing on particular elements of their outfits, instead displaying their looks as a whole. The later videos offer a useful variation in memetic content and stance (Shifman), a contrast which permits us to understand the 2019 “ABC” videos as attempts to display bisexuality chiefly through discrete visual markers (e.g., fashion elements).

Fig. 1: A screencap from the authors’ mocked-up “ABC” TikTok in which the creator uses a fingergun to showcase their cuffed jeans.

Studies of bi people in the past two decades (almost all of which have been about bi women; see Clarke et al., though see Rogers for a recent exception) have identified several ways bi subjects attempt to make their bisexuality known in the face of overwhelming invisibility. Hayfield summarised research about bi women’s fashion, documenting styles that are “funky, flamboyant, or associated with alternative looks and looking (e.g., hippie, Goth, punk, and so on) including through piercings and tattoos” (“Invisibility” 180). Hartman-Linck recorded bi women using bumper stickers, pride flags and pride flag iconography, pins, and jewelry using the pink-purple-blue bi pride flag design, as well as a general playfulness with specific gendered markers (Hartman). Madison likewise found bi people using the bi pride flag design and colours on clothes and jewelry, as well as bi-specific iconography like the biangles (overlapping pink and blue triangles that generate a smaller purple triangle between them), interlocking Mars and Venus signs (⚤), and pun-based symbols like the “bisexuwhale” (“Representing” 151–3).

More recently, the Internet has been a fruitful venue for discussions among bisexuals about a visual culture (Madison, “Bisexual”); discourse among bisexual people on social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr has generated some seemingly novel styles and fashions that have been highlighted as specifically bi looks. A 2017 tweet about jeans cuffed at the ankles (see fig. 1) and baggy shirts tucked in at the waist being “bisexual culture” has been mentioned in numerous popular news articles and blogs (e.g., Cao; Wilber). A Tumblr post from around the same time with images of three fictional characters sporting neck-length hairstyles cut straight at the bottoms appears to have been the genesis of the “bisexual bob”, a bob haircut worn by a bi person (usually a woman) that received similar coverage and discussion to the cuffed jeans and tucked-in shirts tweet (e.g., Locke; Vandervalk; Wilber). Other items identified in listicles as constituting “bi culture” include: being unable to sit in chairs “correctly”, dyed pink hair, puns, Converse brand shoes, plaid shirts, outer space, (excessive) use of the bi pride flag and colours, and anxiety disorders.

Within our sample, we identified an uptake of these nascent bi fashions, with 62% of videos featuring clothing being cuffed (most frequently jeans), 36% of videos highlighting shirts tucked into pants, and 20% of videos demonstrating bi bobs. More explicit iconography like bi pride flags and colours (what Hartman-Linck referred to as “sign equipment” in her conceptualisation of bisexual display) appeared in 16% of videos, compared to more general rainbow iconography, which showed up in 20% of them (Hartman). Button-down shirts appeared in 34% of videos, and both floral print shirts and Converse shoes appeared in 18% of the total corpus. Nose piercings actively contributed to the “bisexual check” in 12% of sampled TikToks, while a full-body dress appeared in just one video (2%). We identified no instances of biangles, interlocking Mars and Venus signs, or punny sign equipment.

Display Becoming Prototype, Prototype Becoming Uniform

Interpreting “ABC” videos as bisexual displays on the individual level and conceptualising the community of “ABC” creators and engagers as an imitation public allows us to understand the process taking place as social identity work, “the construction of identities for groups of people” (Eschler and Menking 2). Eschler and Menking (drawing upon Donath as well as Schwalbe and Mason-Schrock) argued that for social identities (like bisexuality), certain memes can offer prototypes: “a set of minimal social cues that a person can use to infer other information about an individual’s social world” (9). Similarly, Joseph argued that for any complex of sartorial meaning, there is a minimal symbol: “the least symbol necessary to suggest a uniform” (24). By their nature, prototypes (or minimal symbols) will be limited to the fewest key elements required to demarcate a social identity.

TikTok creators have the capacity to share their own “bisexual checks” with the “use this sound” feature or duet other creators’ videos to mirror or counter elements of the original creators’ checks in their own lives. Further, even if not posting their own “ABC” content, users have the ability to share, comment on, and like TikToks to engage with a creator’s bisexual display. Each new “ABC” video accomplishes what Rogers identified in his research on images of bi men on Instagram: they “add to a discourse and visual culture of bisexuality that both describes and prescribes the visual forms in which bisexuality appears” (366). Each contribution introduces a new, or more likely reifies an existing (if nascent) indicator of a bisexual identity.

It is no surprise, then, that visual indicators that had already garnered some popular support within online bisexual spaces (bi bobs, cuffed jeans, tucked-in shirts) were among the most common in our sample. Still, a fashion choice having already entered the bisexual public consciousness does not solely explain why it recurred in our sample while other choices and items mentioned in listicles did not. The userbase of creators who tend to achieve virality on TikTok skews young, white, wealthy, and female (Boffone; Kennedy), so styles favoured by bi people who share at least some of these identities (e.g., white teen or twentysomething girls and women with personal or familial wealth) are likely to recur more frequently and receive increased engagement from the broader TikTok userbase, which also skews young and female (Cyca). Anecdotally, this demographic picture of TikTok mirrored our sample, suggesting that markers posited by creators and received by users were most likely to reflect the tastes and norms of young, white, and female creators. Indeed, one of the few nonwhite “ABC” creators was the only person in our sample to use the sound to argue against the core premise of the videos, contending that all one needed to be bisexual was attraction to people of multiple genders rather than any of the specific visual markers posed by others in the sample. While a universal “bisexual check” is suggested by the sparse wording of the challenge, the resulting videos nonetheless demonstrate a specific racially, temporally, and culturally positioned understanding of bi identity. Just because anyone has the capacity to contribute their own vision of the “bisexual check” does not mean that all “ABC” videos will land with equal frequency on users’ For You Page feeds (TikTok’s “homepage” where videos are algorithmically delivered to users; see Simpson and Semaan), nor enjoy the same volume of attention from TikTok’s userbase.

Eschler and Menking consider the prototype to be “the least common denominator” (9), meaning that users will take the few most common elements shared amongst the “ABC” videos as symbols of a bisexual style. That the top “ABC” videos (those we sampled) heavily skew young, white, and female means that a bi uniform emerges from elements favoured by users sharing those demographics. Our mode of investigating this sound’s videos (moving systematically through all the videos using the “ABC” sound from most liked to less liked) does not contravene the affordances of TikTok’s platform but is somewhat outside of the app’s environment of expected use (Light et al.), which we understand to be either scrolling through the user’s For You Page or receiving and viewing TikToks messaged privately by friends. Still, users in these settings served two or more “ABC” videos are likely to consciously or unconsciously begin to identify the prototypical elements of a bisexual look as being those shared across multiple videos: the most frequently recurring markers creators choose to share as part of their bisexual displays reify existing styles already identified as “bi looks” or introduce new ones to the viewer.

Through the continuous and repeated proposal of bisexual looks, the prototype emerges for a bisexual uniform. These accoutrements (cuffed sleeves and pantlegs, especially on jeans, bi bob haircuts, tucked-in shirts) point towards a bi uniform that is put-together and favours clothes like jeans and button-down shirts that are commonly worn across genders. That a bisexual uniform that may be comfortably worn by members of any gender follows logically from the necessity for a bi look that is both shaped by and liable to be worn by bisexuals, who may be of any gender. Further, this bi uniform emphasises alterations that may be undertaken on items commonly already held rather than distinct new pieces that must first be acquired. This may be one reason that creators favoured these styles, rather than more blatant sign equipment like pins or shirts with bi iconography on them: they were simply more likely to have jeans in their closet than a biangles T-shirt.

The creators in our sample, regardless of the specific accoutrements displayed, answered Nelson’s call for increased and better bisexual representation, building one of many possible images for how bi people can fashion themselves (“Here”). The “ABC” imitation public’s collagic vision of a bisexual uniform may, in the future, be adapted, rejected, or serve as inspiration for others in the endlessly cyclical process of identity formation and reinforcement.


We have sought to understand what TikTok users have accomplished through the creation of and engagement with “ABC” videos, both specifically (i.e., what are the predominant visual indicators across the most popular videos) and generally (i.e., what processes are taking place and how they contribute towards the establishment of a bisexual social uniform). Creators are unlikely to have set out with a larger project of developing a bi uniform in mind when posting their 15-second “ayo, bisexual check” videos, but as part of one of TikTok’s innumerable imitation publics, their personal bisexual displays nonetheless offer prototypes for what a bisexual uniform could be. Any single “ABC” video is an example of a creator using TikTok’s affordances to respond individually to an open-ended prompt, but taken collectively, a consensus about the least common denominators for a bisexual uniform begins to emerge. Whether this online effort to cohere bisexual style results in bi people being able to identify one another (and/or be identified by nonbisexuals) remains to be seen, but we hope this article provides both a useful record of styles favoured by bisexuals on TikTok in 2019 and a productive explanation of the way individual posts in TikTok’s ecosystem of imitation publics may begin to constitute a social uniform for a community whose members have historically lacked one.


Thanks to Elizabeth Fetterolf, Amy Giacomucci, Trevor Harty, and the editors and reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. All online sources have been archived via Archive.org.


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Author Biographies

Collin Knopp-Schwyn, Independent scholar

Collin Knopp-Schwyn is a researcher and metadata worker interested in how bisexuality is conveyed, presented, and understood across media. They have previously published in the Journal of Bisexuality (with Mike) and presented at BECAUSE about the absence of and potential for bi characters in picturebooks. Current projects include a larger exploration of social identity work in bisexual TikToks (with Mike) and an overview of queer characters in 2010s fairytale picturebooks.

Michael Fracentese, Independent scholar

Michael Fracentese is an independent scholar interested in the portrayal and practice of bisexual identities in media and on platforms such as TikTok, and in digital social science more broadly. He has previously been published in the Journal of Bisexuality with Collin, with whom he is also working on a more expansive analysis of how the “Ayo, bisexual check” TikToks work to prescribe and describe a particular bi identity.