Biphobia and bisexual erasure: positive representation ‘has been a long time coming’

New Superman Jon Kent, with love interest Jay Nakamura. Image: DC Comics
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The lack of positive bisexual representation has plagued pop culture for a long time, with bisexuality being constantly portrayed in a negative light. Josh Sabini reports.

“I wish when I was growing up, I had some character that was openly bisexual. I would’ve been like ‘that’s what I am’, but I didn’t have that at all.” 

Melbourne Uni culture studies senior lecturer Dr Hannah McCann says getting some representation for bisexuality has been a long time coming.

“So having any character, let alone a huge mainstream comic character identify as bisexual is really significant for challenging the stigma around the identity,” she says.

DC Comics has announced that superhero character Jon Kent, son of Superman Clark Kent, is bisexual. The news was released on National Coming Out Day, October 11, a day of support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

The 17-year-old, who has taken over his father’s role of Superman, kisses reporter Jay Nakamura in issue five of the comic book Superman: Son of Kal-El, which is to be released on November 9.

The Australian writer of the comic, Tom Taylor, said in an accompanying Tweet: “I’ve always said everyone needs heroes and everyone deserves to see themselves in their heroes.”

Dr McCann, who is currently writing a paper on bisexuality, says that while this positive mainstream representation of bisexuality is good, she doesn’t think there has been a huge change yet.

“People still hold a lot of biphobic ideas, always things about bisexuals being too sexual, indecisive, untrustworthy. Those kinds of stereotypes are very pervasive and they’re in straight and queer communities alike,” she says.

Media representations of bisexuality commonly hold the same ideas, “playing into tropes of bisexuals being overly sexual or having multiple partners at the same time”.

Swinburne University sociology lecturer Dr Sal Clark, whose studies focus on identity, says society does not do well with ambiguity. 

“We’re programmed to think in binary ways, and we’re challenged by people or behaviours that undo that or make that uneasy for us,” Dr Clark says.

Along with biphobia being a continuous mainstream attack against bisexuality, there is also bisexual erasure – the belief that bisexuality is unstable, not a legitimate identity, but rather a transition stage between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Biphobia and bisexual erasure: positive representation 'has been a long time coming'

Dr Clark says bisexual erasure “stems from compulsory heterosexuality”.

“Society also has very rigid gender stereotypes that tend to be scaffolded onto people … making assumptions about people’s gender and sexuality,” she says.

“This is pervasive in terms of gender stereotypes and the misrepresentation of queer people in general. Society has the idea that a queer man must be feminine presenting, or a queer woman must be butch presenting.

“This leads to a lot of confusion around how a person could possibly be bisexual because they don’t present in the way that society expects them to in a very cis-normative kind of way.”

An example of bisexual erasure is in the TV show Sex in the City where Carrie Bradshaw said that bisexuality is a “layover on the way to gay town”.

Biphobia and bisexual erasure: positive representation 'has been a long time coming'
The comments of support flocked in through social media with the announcement of Superman’s coming out.

Dr McCann says character representations reflect society’s beliefs.

“Often you’ll have a character who identifies as bisexual get understood and represented in relation to who they’re dating at that time. Which is the same as in real life … that’s how bisexuals are marginalised in real life.”

Dr McCann uses the example of this happening in the fantasy drama series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the character Willow dated Spike at the beginning of the series and then later dated Tara.

“As soon as she dated Tara, her character was written as totally homosexual and not bisexual anymore,” Dr McCann says.

“And obviously that is a legitimate thing that some people experience and their identity changes.

“But a lot of people argued that with that representation, it was kind of erasing her bisexuality by denying the fact that she had a desire that wasn’t just for one gender.”

Superman’s coming out announcement has displayed society’s biphobia in action, with social media comments one the announcement ridiculing the decision.

American State Legislator Wendy Rogers, chimed in, saying: “Hollywood is trying to make Superman gay and he is not.”

However, the support shone through.

Twitter user @joelovescomics was one of many who commented on Mr Taylor’s tweet: “Tom i- thank you so much you have no idea how much this means genuinely shaking”.

Biphobia and bisexual erasure: positive representation 'has been a long time coming'

Dr McCann says the lack of positive bisexual representation can also be credited to living in a society that is dominated by heterosexuality.

“Homosexuality is set up as the opposite. Any queer identities are marginalised, and bisexuality is particularly marginalised,” she says.

“The position of being bisexual falls in this liminal space between heterosexuality and homosexuality, meaning it is extra marginalised when it comes to representation.”

With people who identify as bisexual making up a large percentage of the LGBTQIA+ community – the 2016 HILDA survey found that 3.6 per cent of Australians over 16 years old identified as bisexual – positive representations of bisexuality do not go unnoticed.

Biphobia and bisexual erasure: positive representation 'has been a long time coming'
Dr Sal Clark says having positive representations can be really affirming. Photo: Josh Sabini

Dr McCann and Dr Clark, who are both a part of the LGBTQIA+ community themselves, say positive representation is hugely important.

Dr Clark says: “It is nice to be seen. It is nice to have your experiences recognised, reflected and socially validated rather than feeling like it is this thing which can’t exist.

Having positive representations can just be really affirming.

“I’m in my mid 30s and I feel like I’m just coming across positive queer cinema and media these days and even as someone who’s very comfortable in my own gender and sexuality, it still chokes me up and I still go, ‘Oh, imagine what this would have been like as a 16-year-old or as a 12-year-old, even as a 29-year-old’.

“It’s really important to have these role models and these stories that you can relate to because otherwise all we have to relate to is cis-normative heterosexuals and it’s not always that easy to relate to them.”

Dr McCann says it is shocking how little bisexual representation there is in media and pop culture.

“It can be quite shocking if you are bisexual yourself and trying to find examples of people or characters you can identify with.”

“I don’t think you can underestimate how important representation is. Representation makes the identity possible. 

“It makes it more understandable for people to think this is a legitimate identity.”