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GLAAD

TV shows like 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' and 'Degrassi' teach audiences that "bisexual" isn't a bad word

September 20, 2019

Article contains mild spoilers for Degrassi: Next Class season four and Brooklyn 99 season five. 

On July 7, 2017, I was binge-watching the fourth season of Degrassi: Next Class. In one of the episodes, Miles Hollingsworth III is invited to interview for a position for a writing program at the London Academy of the Arts. He finds out that one of the reasons he recieved an interview is because the position he is applying for is reserved for “diverse applicants,” and purposefully bombs the interview. Miles discusses his discomfort with this identity moniker and says to his English teacher: “What does it matter if I’m bisexual?”

When I heard that word I almost cried.

I was seventeen and had been watching Degrassi for five years; the same amount of time I had known I was bisexual. Throughout this time, I had watched seventeen seasons of Degrassi with tens of main characters and tons of teenage drama. Even so, despite three main characters having dated girls and boys, no character had ever explicitly said they were bisexual. 

Beyond Degrassi, I had never heard or seen any character say that they were bisexual outside of the fan fiction genre. All my knowledge of - and exposure to - bisexuality had come from being around other bisexual people, reading queer theory, and consuming fan fiction. I had seen other queer characters, although they were usually white cis gay men, but never anyone whose experience of queerness was even remotely close to mine.

Growing up, ‘bisexual’ sounded like a swear word to me. I was used to characters whispering it ashamedly or replacing it with vague phrases like “I like who I like.” Miles starts there, but grows more confident in his identity throughout the episode and season. At the end of the episode regarding the writing program, he explains to his boyfriend: “All my life, I’ve struggled with my own identity… This has left me afraid. Afraid to be labelled. Afraid to identify as bisexual. But that is a part of me.” He finishes with, “The bisexual part of me is the part that lets me love you.” Miles doesn’t just accept his own sexuality, he celebrates it, and invites others to celebrate it with him. The personal catharsis of finally hearing the b-word spoken out loud by a character describing themself was unimaginable.

A little over a year later, I was watching Brooklyn 99 following  the recommendation of a college friend (coincidentally, she is also bisexual). I reached episode nine of season five and heard Rosa Diaz say to another character: “I’m dating a woman. I’m bi.” 

This time I didn't cry but I couldn’t contain my smile. 

I could identify much more with Rosa than with Miles. The representation I had in TV series shifted significantly; Miles was a rich white Canadian boy from Toronto and Rosa was a working-class Latina from Brooklyn. Rosa’s life hit much closer to home, and so her storyline impacted me much more. Moreover, Stephanie Beatriz, the actor who plays Rosa, spoke openly about how Rosa’s storylines were based on her own experiences with bisexuality. The fact that Rosa’s character was informed by Stephanie Beatriz’s experience meant that Rosa’s character became more tangible, as I felt my own experiences reflected accurately. I held my breath as she came out to her parents, and was ecstatic to see her have an on-screen girlfriend. 

Queer representation is about so much more than just attaching a queer label to a character. Both Miles and Rosa had to deal with societal biphobia, familial reflection and confusion; people accused them of not really liking their same gender or of them just going through a phase. Viewers gained insight into the nuances of bisexual+ experiences by watching Miles figure out his sexuality, and watching Rosa reveal that she has known her sexuality since she was twelve, but did not share it until later in her life. Having a bisexual character allows writers to represent uniquely bisexual stories, rather than falsely equating all queer experiences.

Representation shapes the cultural image of identities. The term ‘bisexual’ can be confusing to people who are unfamiliar with it, so having characters who date people of different genders and openly identify as bisexual clarifies the definition and reduces fear. In addition, more representation often leads to more diverse representation. Historically, the cultural image of bisexuality has reflected common misconceptions of the bisexual community: characters are shown as “just experimenting,” their bisexuality is mentioned but not shown, or they are hypersexual. Characters like Miles and Rosa add nuance and diversity to the discussion of bisexuality. Without this nuance, our cultural discussion falls flat, and people feel excluded from their identity. 

I am happy that teens and adults today are being exposed to a variety of queer people. I hope that all queer identities continue to be more extensively represented, especially queer people of color and “less mainstream” queer identities like pansexual and genderfluid. I also hope that future TV writers and producers will not be afraid to call identities by their names. Bisexual isn’t a bad word. I hope to hear more people saying it soon. 

Pallas Gutierrez is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and a sophomore at Northwestern University majoring in Theatre with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies. They are also an Opinion Editor at The Daily Northwestern, and a Student Theatre Coalition Accessibility, Inclusion, and Diversity Chair.

the voice and vision of a new generation