Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s poor bi+ representation
Content Warnings: Biphobia and bi-erasure
Such onscreen adaptations continue to erase and poorly write bi+ characters, playing to harmful stereotypes (just give us a bi who can’t sit properly!) which creates universes in which superheroes can’t be a nuanced and honest bi+ character.
By Charlie Roberts
In case you hadn’t heard: Jon Kent, Superman’s son, is going to have a same-sex relationship and come-out as bi. The news began trending on Twitter, with commentators from Fox News in the USA and some crusty actor in the UK taking issue with a bi Superman because this makes superheroes “political.” Firstly, superheroes have always been political. Secondly, it is deeply offensive and ignorant to state bisexuality is a political statement, but it is unsurprising commentators peddle this narrative when bi+ sexualities are rarely shown in the media.
Comic book readers will tell you Marvel and DC comics have good LGBT+ representation, and less mainstream comics are even better. However, these are not the stories a large portion of the audience is watching. Many fans, including myself, only see superheroes presented in onscreen adaptions. The uproar regarding Jon Kent coming out as bi was entirely predictable given the way previous DC adaptations have represented bisexuality. Such onscreen adaptations continue to erase and poorly write bi+ characters, playing to harmful stereotypes (just give us a bi who can’t sit properly!) which creates universes in which superheroes can’t be a nuanced and honest bi+ character.
In 2015, Supergirl first aired, a CW show focusing on the cousin of Superman. In Series 4, the first openly transgender superhero in the Arrowverse was introduced - allowing for a really powerful trans rights storyline to be included – adding to the plethora of LGBT+ representation across the Arrowverse series. It is therefore a little disappointing when Alex Danvers’ identity is poorly written.
Alex comes out as lesbian in Series 2 after falling for Maggie Sawyer (read about *that* shockingly bad representation here). Alex admits to Maggie in S3 Ep5, “... Even with everything else, when it was boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever…” The audience is led to believe Alex has questioned her sexuality for many years before realising she is gay, however, many bi+ people see this as a reflection of their coming-out journey, too. Storylines like Alex’s are frequently the only lesbian coming-out experience written onscreen. Usually, this comes about when the showrunners realise they have no queer rep, and it’s a rejection of the bi+ coming-out experience.
In 2019, the Arrowverse introduced Batwoman and the show has been held in high regard for its representation of lesbian characters portrayed by LGBT+ actors. In Series 1, Sophie Moore is married to Tyler, a man. As the storyline develops, we learn she and Kate have history, but Sophie is from a conservative family and her mother does not approve of same-sex relationships.
In S2 Ep13, Sophie declares “As a lesbian married to a man for three years…” to which Ryan Wilder states, “I thought you were bi.” With this, it is clear the showrunners are aware they have presented Sophie to be bi+. Rather than allow her to accept she did love Tyler and their marriage was not a façade, she is given the line, “Yeah, there’s a lot we don’t know about each other…” erasing her bisexuality. As with Alex, CW presents a lesbian who hid her sexuality, forcing relationships with men. Whilst it’s a valid coming-out journey for many lesbians, CW rejects the opportunity (twice!) to present a bi+ coming-out experience.
In the Batman origin story, Gotham, we meet Barbara Kean. In Series 1, Barbara’s sexuality is first presented as “the cheating bi”– a harmful trope which impacts self- and social-acceptance. As the series progress, Barbara has an on and off relationship with Tabitha Galavan, also presented as bi.
The story arcs of the two depict their heterosexual relationships to be serious, they love and value the men, but their romantic sexual relationship is clearly only included for the straight-male audience. It is not to include LGBT+ representation or explore bi+ storylines. It purely plays to the dangerous narrative so many bi+ women work hard to reject: We’re only here to entertain straight men (which puts bi+ women’s lives at risk).
The only other queer relationship in Gotham is between Penguin and Nygma. Penguin falls for Nygma in Series 3 – it’s not clear if Nygma actually reciprocates Penguin’s feelings, but it is accepted that Nygma is presented as bi+. Whereas Barbara and Tabitha routinely show sexual contact, Nygma and Penguin never have a sexual encounter – again, illustrating the relationship between the women is for the male audience, not for queer representation, because two men couldn’t possibly kiss. It is also incredibly suspicious that the only MLM relationship in the entire five series is between the characters portrayed by (possibly the only) two openly LGBT+ actors - Robin Lord Taylor is gay and Cory Michael Smith is queer. A writer must’ve shouted, “Oh! We have no gays!” and the production company responded, “Two of our main male actors are into men, just use them!”
Gotham should have been a fantastic show with a stellar cast, but the overt masculinity failed the show in many ways. It is extremely disappointing that a show written within the last decade presented such offensive views (although, it was a FOX show, so…)
The highly anticipated “feminist” superhero (oh it really wasn’t!), Wonder Woman, was released in 2017. Reading about creator William Marston and his polyamorous marriage with two bisexual women, who he based Wonder Woman on, I became saddened by the erasure in the film and its sequel. Whilst Wonder Woman’s storyline has changed over time and through adaptations, Princess Diana of Themyscira is always from an island of women and has relationships with men, usually Steve (an island of women and she chooses a bloke called Steve? *Steeveee*!?) In Marston’s comics, Diana is presented as bi+, something actor Gal Godot and director Patty Jenkins acknowledge. (However, the filmmakers chose to tell the story of Diana and… ~Steve~.)
The life of Marston and his family is incredible and such a beautiful insight into historical queer identities. In erasing Diana’s sexuality, the film franchise denies this fascinating life which inspired the original comics and, it could be argued, a key part of queer superhero history. To acknowledge this in the interviews but not in the film feels like an insult to injury – if you know, why didn’t you include it?
Onscreen adaptations made Jon Kent’s sexuality political
Many fans don’t read comics and their interpretation of superheroes is from screen adaptations. When the characters have their bisexual identity erased or presented as a toxic stereotype, rarely portrayed in a nuanced and just manner, it becomes clear why people believe announcing a bi+ character is a political statement. Jon Kent is not the first bi+ superhero, the decision to give him a same-sex relationship should not create such a media-storm. However, until showrunners and filmmakers can create accurate bi+ representations in the superhero universe, or at least pay homage to the historical identity of the superhero, right-wing commentators will continue to make biphobic comments and audiences will continue to believe superheroes can’t be bi+.
Charlie is one of the volunteers with Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival. Her passions are reading feminist discourse and LGBT+ literature, and drinking tea.