While by no means perfect, the treatment of homosexuality in modern media is improving. Gay storylines were once introduced purely for shock value, but now their appearance is far more commonplace and is often portrayed as legitimate drama (or comedy) alongside heterosexual narratives. However, while treatment of simple homosexuality has been increasingly progressive, bisexuality remains a subject without decent representation in many shows. This includes shows that would otherwise have a decent portrayal of homosexuality, but have somehow missed the boat when it comes to the concept of being attracted to both genders rather than just being gay or straight. Such examples are found in Will and Grace, Friends, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Will and Grace is a generally progressive show as sitcoms go. Its premise involves a straight woman (Grace) and a gay guy (Will) sharing an apartment. Also among the main characters is Will’s gay friend Jack. Elements of the gay community are frequently featured in a positive light, if stereotypical. The show has been criticized for their stereotypical depictions, but I think it is forgivable given the kind of show it is. Will and Grace is an exceptionally silly show and I feel that for what it is, it is pretty progressive. However, it does fail to recognize bisexuality as a legitimate sexual orientation alongside homosexuality and heterosexuality.
This is seen in the episode An Affair to Forget, the plot of which involves Jack getting aroused by a lap dance performed on him by a female stripper. Because Jack is extraordinarily gay, this freaks him out plenty. The entire thing is played as a parody of the kind of identity crisis a supposedly heterosexual man would have upon realization of homosexual inclinations. “I’m a freak, an aberration, a man that gets turned on by… women.”
As it turns out, the stripper is actually a transsexual woman who has yet to have her bottom half feminized. Because Jack instinctively felt a masculine body, his attraction now makes sense and he feels great relief to have been confirmed homosexual. While funny, it ignores the existence of bisexuality. It is possible for Jack to have been attracted to a ciswoman without turning straight or whatnot.
Friends has less of a focus on homosexuality as does Will and Grace, but does have some homosexual characters presented in a decent manner. One of the main characters, Ross, was married to Carol before she admitted she was having a lesbian affair and divorced him. Despite this, she later gives birth to his son and they share custody, maintaining a reasonable if somewhat awkward relationship. I believe the portrayal to be progressive in a sense because the characters are not stigmatized for their homosexuality and are ultimately on level with heterosexual characters, although it would admittedly be more progressive in this sense were the show to have LGBT characters occupying main roles.
The problem lies with one of Phoebe’s songs. The character Phoebe is known for her popular music, despite apparent lack of talent. Her songs tend to be about bizarre subjects, such as her “Ode to a Pubic Hair” or the ever popular “Smelly Cat”. In the episode The One After the Superbowl, Phoebe sings a song about sexual orientations: “Sometimes men love women / And sometimes men love men / And then there are bisexuals / Although some just say they’re kidding themselves / La la la la la la…” Ouch.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer features the character of Willow, who “turns gay” in the fourth season. She had previously had heterosexual relationships with the male characters Oz and Xander, both of which were portrayed as legitimate attraction. Her first hint of gayness is in the third season episode Doppelgängland, in which her evil vampire counterpart arrives from another universe and tries to seduce/rape her.
Willow: “That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil… and skanky… and I think I’m kinda gay…”
Buffy: “Willow, just remember: a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was.”
Angel: “Well, actually…” (Buffy looks at him) “That’s a good point.”
Then later in the fourth season, she gets involved with her fellow witch Tara over the course of several episodes. When her ex-boyfriend Oz shows up from his successful trip to find a cure for his lycanthropy (episode New Moon Rising), he expects her to come back to him and be his girlfriend again. Problem is, she now feels committed to Tara as well as to him and has to decide which person to stay with. She straddles both sides as she tries to decide, until ultimately Oz finds out and loses his “inner cool”, which keeps his werewolf side in check, and can no longer stay around Willow. Willow and Tara live happily ever after (at least until Joss the Character Slayer strikes).
Willow should probably be regarded as a bisexual character; however, she is instead portrayed as a straight woman who became gay. This is repeatedly referenced in the dialog, such as Willow asserting that she wouldn’t have another affair with Xander because “Hello! Gay now!” or the Buffy-bot (a sexbot built in Buffy’s semblance) noting of Willow “You’re my best friend. You’re recently gay.” I believe Joss Whedon does note in one of the episode commentaries that he’s aware that’s not really how it works, but that didn’t keep him from putting it in the show in the first place.
In conclusion, despite the increasingly progressive portrayal of homosexuality, bisexuality remains rather minimal. The shows I discuss here are not your average Hallmark Channel, Christian-type programming that would naturally be anti-gay inclined. These are shows that should know better, but don’t. One can only hope that the representation of bisexuality will improve in the future.