Media representation for minority groups is crucially important. I’ve written about this before. Over on my Tumblr Dashboard, there are two major discussions about bisexual representation occurring. The first is a long-running debate about the canonicity of Destiel (the romantic relationship between Dean Winchester and Castiel on Supernatural). The second is the increasingly common identification of Steve Rogers as a bisexual character.
The argument surrounding Destiel is a long running one. Viewers have been identifying and identifying with the romantic chemistry between Dean and Castiel since Castiel was introduced in season 4. However, as the series is now set to enter what is most likely its final season, these discussions are escalating, with a recent twitter conversation #AskSupernatural, becoming inundated with accusations of queerbaiting. Destiel, as a concept, is a complicated animal. Interest in the pairing has an element of traditional romantic shipping; Dean and Castiel are leads in an emotionally intense and male heavy show. But a lot of interest in the idea is based on real representation. Making Dean and Castiel a couple would also make the characters (both of whom have had previous relationships with female characters) canonically bisexual. This has become part of a larger discussion of Dean Winchester’s bisexuality as fans have noted that even outside of his emotionally intense relationship with Castiel, Dean is, in many ways already portrayed as a (closeted) bisexual man. He flirts with men and develops crushes on them at several points in the series, is associated with queer icons and behaviours, and in one highly amusing scene in season 7, talks a lesbian through seducing a male guard. In light of this, canonizing his relationship with Castiel would be simple way of making his long-running subtextual bisexuality, textual. Which, for many of Dean’s bisexual fans, is much more meaningful than the state of his relationship with Castiel.
Following the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a similar discussion has surrounded Steve Rogers. Winter Soldier introduced both the characters of Sam Wilson and Sharon Carter. Sharon Carter’s introduction is explicitly romantic. She is suggested as a potential date for Steve by Natasha and flirts with Steve during their introduction. However, Sam Wilson’s earlier introduction, follows a nearly identical set of romantic tropes, and has been described by the directors as a ‘meet-cute’, a term which describes an initial romantic meeting. The fact that Natasha’s role in the narrative falls squarely into the role of the non-romantic action hero buddy highlights the strongly romantic elements of Sam’s role. The film also centralized the relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes and directly compares that relationship with the explicitly romantic relationship between Steve and Peggy Carter. Despite being introduced as the titular villain, Bucky’s role in the story is really that of the damsel in distress which Steve is saving, a role he also occupied in Captain America: The First Avenger where Steve is motivated to the initial bout of heroics which really make him Captain America in order to save Bucky, and after Bucky falls out of the train his fridging provides the motivation for Steve to sacrifice himself to defeat the Red Skull. Even though it is Peggy, not Bucky who acts as Steve’s canonical love interest, Bucky continually occupies a set of feminine-coded tropes. In the face of all this overwhelming subtextual queerness, there is an increasing number of fans who are pushing for this subtext to be acknowledged as text, by making Steve canonically bisexual.
Subtextually queer characters are insufficient as representation and queer, especially bisexual representation is shockingly lacking. One of the main drives behind the campaigns to canonize Steve Rogers and Dean Winchester as bisexual characters is an attempt to correct this inequality. However, it notably fails to mention the second, less noticeable double standard which makes these campaigns necessary. A common complaint leveled by Destiel shippers is that if Castiel had been played by a woman, Dean and Cas’s relationship would already be canonical. This typically means, variously, that they would have kissed or had sex on screen, or that their relationship would have been verbally acknowledged. However, this complaint about how a heterosexual relationship would most likely be treated differently by the show overlooks a second difference. If Castiel had been played by a woman and Dean and Castiel’s relationship was not treated or played any differently, they would almost certainly be accepted as a romantic couple anyway. Similarly, despite a number of near identical scenes between Steve and Sam and Steve and Peggy and Sharon Carter, Peggy and Sharon are recognized as love interests or potential love interests for Steve, while Sam isn’t.
There are actually two failures of bisexual representation occurring. There are too few bisexual characters, but the standards a bisexual character has to meet to be accepted is also higher than for a straight character. These two things are, obviously, related. The underrepresentation and erasure of bisexual and other queer characters is driven by a set of heteronormative ideas; that bisexual characters are unnecessary, not real, or too racy or sexual to be included in a mainstream work and that writing a story about a bisexual character will somehow cause their bisexuality to overwhelm the story and make it a ‘bisexual story’. This can be seen fairly strikingly in some of the comments made about the idea of Steve Rogers being bisexual, claiming that making him bisexual would somehow be debasing or oversexualizing him.
But the fact that a character can only be accepted as bisexual when their bisexuality is made overwhelmingly obvious is another aspect of heteronormativity; the idea that people are straight unless proven without a doubt otherwise and it directly feeds the idea of bisexuals and other queer characters as hypersexual. When they aren’t being sexual on screen they become invisible. And this double-standard of proof is damaging in a lot of ways, because it extends not only to how we read fictional characters, but how we treat real people. The whole need for queer people to come out is driven by the fact that if they don’t they will be assumed to be straight. Bisexuals also face a second force of mononormativity, which is why bisexual people who enter long term relationships are often assumed to have ‘become’ either gay or straight depending on the gender of their current partner. Because people are only accepted as bisexual when their sexuality is placed obviously in the foreground, it then feeds the continued idea of bisexuality as fundamentally racy, explicitly sexual thing.
It is however, important to recognize that explicitly spelled-out representation serves a double function. Subtextual representation is recognized almost exclusively by queer people, while more obvious representation which cannot be ignored, does double duty as representation, but also as education. People who still need to be educated about what bisexuality is and what it means, do not have the tools needed to identify non-explicit representations. But the quest for better bisexual representation should ultimately be about bisexual people, not subsumed into an educational endeavor. Somewhere, and at some point, space needs to be made for bisexual characters without neon signs over their heads.
There is no obvious solution to this problem. Accepting subtextually bisexual characters like Steve Rogers and Dean Winchester is a comforting form of solidarity within the queer community, but it feeds the erasure of more explicitly bisexual characters. Refusing to accept that characters are bisexual unless they are stated to be, in turn, feeds the idea that overwhelming proof of bisexuality is necessary and that more subtle portrayals of bisexuality, like Steve Rogers and Dean Winchester can be safely dismissed. Short of dismantling the whole heteronormative structure (which will, unfortunately, likely take some time) there is no ideal way to balance these two competing needs.