Gender and Stereotyping in Fantasy – Part Five: Bisexuality
When we talk about queer character representation, there’s letters of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum that get left behind, for whatever reason. With Bisexuality Visibility Week’s focus directing the spotlight, now seemed as good a time as any to explore the characters in SFF who identify (or are clearly identifiable) as bisexual. But first, a working definition:
Bisexuality is romantic or physical attraction to two (or more) genders. This means that a person, male, female or otherwise, rather likes the notion of romantic/physical relations with someone of at least two of the genders on offer for their perusal. It is not a fifty-fifty divide and there is no membership test to pass. A person might go their entire lives engaging in relationships with just one gender and yet they are no less bisexual because of this. That part is the bit that many people (both heterosexual and homosexual alike) get a bit antsy about, when really it’s very simple.
Bisexuality often gets left by the wayside in lieu of gay representation, which further serves to perpetuate myths about what bisexuality actually is. Many people refer to bisexuality and pansexuality synonymously, but others choose not to. Here we’ll roll with bisexual, since that’s the word that’s visible at the moment.
Whether an author consciously decides to make a character bisexual as part of an organic process, or if, after careful consideration of the abundant cishetronormativity of their work, they decide to give bisexual representation, it is very easy to convey the point that a character is open to relations with people outside of the gender society has ingrained the reader to expect. A passing glance in a tavern from the gentleman thief to the fetching stable boy just popping in on his way to bed; a runaway princess thinking fondly of her lady-in-waiting, with whom she might have nurtured secret budding romance; that warrior on the battlefield who can’t get the eyes of the other swordsman from his head when the fighting is done. It’s easy, it’s natural and trust me—there are far more people who identify as bisexual than we’re led to believe. One reason for this is the false assumption that bisexuality looks a specific way.
Bisexuality is not a split-down-the-middle percentage; no pie charts half blue and half pink to express the equal divide in attraction. Some bisexuals far prefer people of their own gender, but still feel attraction towards the occasional person outside of this rule. As said before, whether they engage in relations with anyone but their greater preferred gender doesn’t matter a jot. The ratio of bisexuality can be greater or smaller towards one side, depending entirely on the person.
With this in mind, it’s pretty pathetic that there is so little prevalent bisexual rep in SFF. Whilst it can be frustrating to think of a character as queer, only then to see them end up with a character outside their own gender—the need for queer (note: not gay—queer is so much more than homosexuality) characters is so strong than even we occasionally slip into less-than-great mental patterns when seeking this representation—the fact that they ultimately choose a heterosexual relationship does not erase their bisexuality. This erasure is a bad thing, especially since biphobia is so huge a problem in and of itself, without readers invested in the queer speculative fiction community further perpetuating this with their own disappointment or disapproval.
For example, take the game Dragon Age: II. In this, save for the Chantry-serving character, Sebastian, all the characters are bisexual and romanceable by the Champion of Kirkwall, regardless of the player’s gender. This, at first, seems great! The player can choose who they romance, without having to consider the sexual preference of the character they’re interested in most. Brilliant, right?
Well yes—but also, no. The thing with the open romances, is that it definitely taught the player entitlement, both heterosexual and homosexual. It was fantastic that there were more characters to pursue who would respond to your Champion, gender being irrelevant. However, when it came to Dragon Age: Inquisition and the announcement that not all of the characters would be bisexual, the reaction from some (even those most appreciative of desperately needed queer rep) were less than pleased. How dare they take away the assumed bisexuality of my characters and make me potentially initiate a romance only to discover that the character isn’t interested in my Inquisitor?
It was actually the best thing the Bioware team could have done. They made real people with real sexualities—and yes, some of those were indeed bisexual. Others weren’t. Some were gay and some were straight. Simple as that. By removing the open bisexuality from the romanceable characters, the presentation of bisexuality became something (arguably) quite meaningless. Think about it: you’re a male Champion, and you want a gay romance with Anders? You got it. Female and want Merril? No problem. You have your gay romance, right there. Want it straight? Go get ‘em—whoever you want—there’s your straight romance without the player even entertaining the notion of a gay relationship or the fact that the character might have been bisexual naturally (in the case of Fenris, for example). The easiest way of erasing bisexuality as a thing from the game, was, in an ironic sort of way, to make everyone bisexual. It was pure player entitlement. I didn’t realise this until Inquisition, since I’d only ever really experienced gay romances with my Champion.
Inquisition changed that. Characters were either gay, straight or bisexual, therefore presenting bisexuality as an equal sexuality with hetero and homo and not something that was easily overlooked as simply a gameplay mechanic. It was a sudden change from the assumed bisexuality of each character, but by doing so, each character who was bisexual was suddenly more visibly so. It was genius: each sexuality was given equal attention and the characters were allowed legitimate sexual identities.
That isn’t to say that some characters wouldn’t have been canonically bisexual regardless of the gameplay. Isabella, Leliana and Fenris make up that number, with particular emphasis on the first two. As longer-standing characters in the games, their stories are naturally more deeply developed than a character who is present for one game (on screen, at least). Leliana for one has had at least one major relationship with another woman, but she is also a romanceable option in Dragon Age: Origins by both a male and female Warden. It is her history that clarifies her bisexuality rather than a game mechanic. Additionally, in the first game, not every cast member was romanceable/bisexual, so it didn’t suffer the same accidental erasure.
Isabella and Fenris tie in together as clarification of one another’s bisexuality, when, in Dragon Age: II, if you are not romancing either one of them (as either gender, as stated before), they will begin a serious relationship with each other. Zevran is (arguably) another example of at least being bi-curious in that he is romanceable by both genders as well as eager to engage in the occasional threesome with the Warden and a female companion. Unfortunately, Zevran is also a little bit of a sleaze and his participation with the Warden and (most notably) Leliana seems more a product of the sexualisation of women and the taboo allure of threesomes (especially if the Warden is female) than any real interest in other men—however, as he is also a bisexual romance option, it’s difficult to really call and the development of the romances in Origins leaves more to be desired than the tighter plotting and story-telling than in the later games.
In this vein, the fact that, in one version of the comics, Harley Quinn is in a relationship with Poison Ivy is often presented as sexy instead of a queer relationship, because she likely suffers from the sexualisation of female/female relationships instead of accurate consideration as a bisexual (and therefore queer) character. Of course the same goes for her girlfriend. Here, however, with comic books always changing and their stories and characters in constant (near maddening) flux, decisions about sexuality and gender are so easily backpedalled from canon, overlooked or simply ignored, which is incredibly unfortunate.
Bisexuality is so often invisible, so much so that they are often not referred to as “queer” at all, when, in fact, they are. They’re not gay when they’re in a relationship with a member of the same sex and they’re not straight when they’re with a gender outside their own. They remain bisexual. They remain queer. To this end, I wondered how many characters have their sexualities erased.
Then I thought of Aedion Ashryver from Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass series. Even after his bisexuality is stated very clearly on the page, I didn’t automatically think: finally! A member of the main cast who is queer! Even though I should have. Bi-erasure, right there. It’s a big thing to have a queer character standing centre-stage in such a popular YA fantasy series as Throne of Glass. Whether Aedion’s same-gender romance is in his past and he’s currently got his sights trained on a woman—Aedion is still queer. That’s important.
Adam Parrish, from The Raven Cycle, by Maggie Stiefvater, might suffer the exact same issue, but in reverse to Aedion: Adam dates a girl and then ultimately ends up in a relationship with another boy. Adam is not gay; Adam is bisexual. That his boyfriend is gay does not change or lessen Adam’s own bisexuality. Similarly, in Audrey Coulthurst’s upcoming Of Fire and Stars, although there is a same-gender relationship, one of the pair (Denna) would identify as gay whilst her girlfriend (Mare) would remain bisexual. Colton, Tara Sim’s clock spirit in her upcoming Timekeeper is labelled as a gay character, when in fact gender is largely irrelevant to him, regardless of his romance with another boy. Similarly, Micah Grey of Laura Lam’s Micah Grey series is also bisexual, having entertained romances with both men and women. Amira, in Corinne Duyvis’s Otherbound, is yet another example.
Once you begin to look, to shift your focus, bisexuality is present. It’s particularly important to notice instances where the author deliberately points out their character’s preferences, such as Laura Lam’s False Hearts, where Taema very clearly states she is bisexual, and also in Empire of Storms, where Sarah J Maas has Lorcan (a very typically masculine-coded character) admits a good mood after being propositioned by both men and women one night. The moment the author consciously chooses to shine that spotlight, our awareness of a character’s queerness is doubled.
There are likely several bisexual characters in speculative fiction that are never noted as queer and certainly not as bisexual, whether because they are engaged in relationships with a different gender to their own, or because they are considered gay and left at that. From Robin Hobb’s The Fool to Joanne Hall’s Rhodri (The Art of Forgetting) and Tanya Huff’s Blood Books, many works featuring queer characters are often overlooked because of this ingrained tendency to view queer as equalling gay. Of course now the term encompasses trans, genderfluid or intersex characters, but this is a matter of gender representation and not sexual preference.
So often these two things are conflated as meaning the same thing, even though one glance at the terms quickly reveals otherwise. Even so, because of the misrepresentation of (and/or lack thereof) sexualities outside of gay and heterosexual—namely bisexuality, but also asexuality and even demisexuality—the term queer is likely woefully underused.
In addition, a story, book or series does not need to revolve around a queer issue to be a queer-rep book. In fact, it’s often better to not be a book about this queerness and rather an inclusion of it. Queer characters and their lives instead of a story of or about their queerness.
At the end of the day, speculative fiction is evolving and changing and we are seeing more bisexual representation in the media we imbibe and produce. The next necessary step is to admit and realise bi-erasure/phobia (especially when it is unintentional or internally-wrought) and normalise the fact that bisexuality is a) normal b) widespread c) not a phase or something that must be qualified for by history, behaviour, or performance.
But above all, being bisexual means being queer. It is valid, it’s there in the LGBTQIA+ acronym and it isn’t going anywhere. And what better time than Bisexual Visibility Week to examine our own perhaps incorrect assessments about bisexuality and the characters that claim it for their own, and thereafter, celebrate their queerness? There are likely more than you think.