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On this past week’s episode of “Broad City,” Ilana Wexler, a hyperbolized version of writer Ilana Glazer, said the B-word.
Frequent pot-smoker Ilana is entirely free-spirited and deeply sexual. She’s one of the few female characters on television who successfully engages in casual sexual relationships without guilt or emotional conflict. Throughout most of the first two seasons, her partners, from long-term relationships to one-night stands, are all men. And then, in the second to last episode of season 2, Ilana engages in an intensely passionate affair with actress Alia Shawkat. Though the fling only lasts an episode, it both subverts and confirms all suspicions about the sexuality of one of the show’s main characters.
This relationship doesn’t come as a surprise to Ilana’s best friend Abbi, at least not because of the genders of those involved. It is seen as acceptable and normal, hardly out of the realm of Ilana’s behavior. However, Ilana doesn’t put a label on herself until the next season, in an excited declaration to long-term partner Lincoln: “We are open sex friends, we are poly, we are bi.”
As ephemeral as words are, they matter. To identify with a word imbues it with intense personal meaning. Hearing such identifying words can both build up and tear down conceptions of them.
I first heard the word bisexual during an accidental viewing of Tila Tequila’s “A Shot at Love.” I was 12. That one window into this new word, this strange word, made me wary of the idea it encapsulated for years. As I started to realize that my attractions weren’t confined to one gender, I was extremely reluctant to take on the bisexual label. It felt weighty, political, and somehow wrong to identify as bi.
If we look to the world of television, my reluctance seems perfectly normal. Most characters, even if they have relationships with or show attraction to multiple genders, identify as straight or gay based on their current partner. Many simply don’t address their labels at all, leaving audiences to speculate wildly. Most fans tend to claim a character with ambiguous sexuality for themselves, those most underrepresented populations fighting for the few televised individuals to whom we can relate.
Bisexuality, particularly female bisexuality, seems to scare a lot of people. From partners of all genders who express concerns over being left for someone of a different gender to girl-on-girl action being fetishized as fodder for the male gaze, our society doesn’t like the idea of healthy female sexuality that spans the gender spectrum. It doesn’t much like the idea of any healthy female sexuality, but I digress.
I speak out about my bisexuality with some frequency. I make Facebook posts and write articles about it. I put it in bios on social media. Although some motivation is personal, I often use this assertion of my identity as a political statement. I feel that I need to be vocal so others can hear it, so those struggling with their sexuality feel less alone, so those who are quick to dismiss my sexuality are forced to listen to it.
Words have power. As Albus Dumbledore once said, “Fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself.” To hear words is to feel comfort in them, to accept them. TV’s frequent shying away from the b-word, from naming bisexual identity, only adds to the stigma we face as we move through the world. It’s easier to say something isn’t real if we don’t hear about it. To see oneself on screen is empowering. Not to is disheartening.
I still look into myself and am often afraid of what I find. I toss words around: “lesbian,” “pansexual,” “queer.” “Bisexual” feels important and right, but it feels scary. It is forever unseen, unviewed. I can draw a clear line from bi-invisibility in reality to lack of representation on TV, and though television can’t be entirely blamed, it has remained eerily silent in a place where it could speak up.
Last week I attended a discussion group for young bisexuals in the Boston area. As our conversation meandered around a table at a coffee shop in Jamaica Plain, someone brought up the point that relationships of any kind with other bisexual people feel different, even from those with other LGTQ+ identified people. There’s a camaraderie there and an unspoken understanding. It feels comfortable.
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