[Warning: Spoilers throughout]
One of my close friends is watching “Sex and the City” for the first time as she recovers from getting her tonsils out, and she’s been texting me her reactions to the show. It’s funny to vicariously live through her experience of watching an iconic series like SATC in 2021.
I first watched the show in 2015, long after it stopped airing in 2004, thanks to a roommate who had a box set that I devoured during the depressive seven months I lived in DC, pining for New York City. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the show, which I’d expected to feel much more outdated than it did—with some important digressions.
Yesterday my friend texted me about one episode of the show I’d forgotten about, in which Carrie is disgusted by the fact that a younger man she is seeing is, in her words, “a bisexual.” Her friends back her up at a classic biphobic brunch with the gals. “Of course it’s a problem,” pipes up Miranda. Bisexuality, Carrie quips, “is just a layover on the way to Gaytown.” Charlotte adds, “pick a side, and stay there.” Samantha, bless her heart, is the only one who doesn’t have a problem with it.
As my friend (who is bi herself) texted, “They named every bi stereotype in one brunch.”
The implication here is that bisexuality is shameful, slutty, threatening, and simply, not real. For a show allegedly about sex positivity among women, that sure is closed-minded.
Today, at least among the progressive crowd, this kind of thinking feels completely backwards, a testament to how far the LGBTQ movement has come over the last two decades. Indeed, the fight for marriage equality is often cited among organizers as one of the fastest, most effective shifts in public opinions in social movement history. Though marriage equality and LGBTQ rights are of course not the same thing, the legalization of gay marriage does attest to a monumental shift in the perception of queerness over the course of one generation.
Bi representation specifically has also come a long way, and in television that journey has been a rocky one. Broadly speaking, the late ‘90s and early aughts years of “Sex and the City” and “Friends,” and even “Will and Grace,” were chock full of offensive bi stereotypes and erasure. One of those stereotypes is that lesbianism and bisexuality among women exists for the sole purpose of titillating men, a stereotype that was alive and well during the mid-aughts “I Kissed a Girl” phase of bisexual representation on TV (see “The O.C.” and “How I Met Your Mother.”) Then there was the “depraved bisexual” trope embodied by Alison in “Pretty Little Liars,” (and a deeply offensive portrayal of a trans person) despite the show’s positive portrayal of a lesbian character, Emily. Yet in recent years, and particularly in the wake of 2016, as Gen Z has become ascendant, we’ve seen more positive and nuanced portrayals of bisexuality. I’m especially excited to talk about this topic, because they concern two of my favorite shows, which are criminally underrated and underwatched. (If this newsletter post gets you to watch one of them, my job here will be done! Let me first reiterate my spoilers warning.)
First, run, don’t walk to your nearest Netflix account and watch the zany dramedy “Teenage Bounty Hunters.” The show was produced by Jenji Kohan of “Orange Is the New Black” (2013) fame, a revolutionary show that spoke to the power that television can have in influencing public political discourse on the prison-industrial complex—and also featured a bisexual protagonist and a range of queer characters. “Teenage Bounty Hunters” is sillier but still has important things to say. It takes place in a very white, very conservative, very Christian suburb of Atlanta. When the show begins, Sterling (Maddie Phillips), one of a pair of twin protagonist high school students, is dating Luke, a sweet and hapless boy she’s been with since she was in elementary school, but midway through the show, there’s a twist, when Sterling realizes she is attracted to her class rival, April (Devon Hales). Sterling is mortified after she kisses April, but surprisingly, April reciprocates.
Over the next few episodes the two date secretly. While some television shows from the mid-2000s have faced criticism for not showing queer couples demonstrating any kind of romantic affection (see: “Modern Family”), in “Teenage Bounty Hunters” we get to see April and Sterling “do cute couple stuff like woodworking, laser tag, and making silly kissy faces on the phone,” as Delia Harrington noted for Bi.org, part of the American Institute for Bisexuality, an organization that seeks to support people who identify as bisexual and promote bi visibility.
April knows she’s a lesbian, but Sterling isn’t so sure. She seems to be more bi or fluid, but doesn’t want to put a label on it yet. What she doesn’t want is for her relationship to be a secret. But April is afraid to go public because her father, who “hates the gays,” won’t support her if she comes out.” Importantly, April doesn’t think being gay is at odds with her Christianity. “I do not believe God is going to smite me for being a lesbian. He made me, along with narwals and those tiny blue poison frogs. So clearly he has a master plan,” she tells Sterling in one scene.
April and Sterling’s is a bittersweet, complicated, and ultimately pretty heartbreaking story of teenage love—and the barriers that growing up in a conservative, religious setting creates for them. The fact that Sterling hides her relationship with April from her twin sister speaks to the role of internalized anti-queerness, despite Sterling’s attempts to fight it. It’s interesting to see how the characters grapple with the seeming contradictions of their identities, though some remain less explored. For example, the show doesn’t address how April could be a Republican, or how Sterling could be so into guns. But perhaps these are the kinds of contradictions real people embody too, especially teenagers whose main influence has been their parents. It will be enlightening to see what happens to April and Sterling once they get to college!
“Good Trouble” perhaps hints at how queer identities for characters like Sterling might develop once they have a little more life experience. “Good Trouble” is a spin-off of “The Fosters” (2013), a show about two lesbian moms and their family. It came out the same year as “Orange Is The New Black,” and it served as kind of a millennial-Gen Z bridge that ushered in the era of politically aware TV, mixing interpersonal drama with real political commentary about the foster care system, among other issues. The show’s main characters are Callie (Maia Mitchell) and Mariana Adams-Foster (Cierra Ramirez), adoptive sisters just out of college, and the other residents of The Coterie, a communal housing community. That includes Alice, a lesbian comedian, Malika (Zuri Adele), a Black Lives Matter activist who in later seasons explores her own queerness; Davia, a teacher and body positivity influencer; and Gael; a bisexual artist who gets involved with Callie.
As the series progresses, we see Gael pursue relationships with both men and women, which are treated as equally valid and important—though ultimately the show’s main “ship” is with Callie. He’s open in his own life, but he’s not out to his parents, who are conservative Cubans. The portrayal here is especially complicated by the fact that Gael’s sister, Jazmin (Hailie Sahar), is trans, and Gael is the only person in the family who supports her. However, he still enjoys a relationship with his family when she cannot. As she points out, he has the luxury of being a cis, white-passing man who can hide his queerness when it serves him.
Tommy Martinez, who plays Gael, said in a 2019 panel with The Advocate that the role appealed to him in part due to his observations of homophobia in his community as well as his own previous romantic encounters with men. “With his sexuality, in the places I grew up in, it was something that was never talked about, nor was it ever challenged,” Martinez said.
In season 2, Gael goes to his parents’ house to see if he can get Jazmin’s dog tags from when she served in the military (as Alejandro). She is throwing a “doble quinceñara” (to celebrate turning 30 and her womanhood) to raise funds against the transgender ban in the military. His father resists and insists that “she killed him.” Gael contends, “No one died, your child is still alive!” His dad responds, “I only have one child now.”
That’s when Gael comes out to his parents in Jazmin’s defense. “You know what? If Jazmin is no longer your child because she’s trans, then I guess you have no children at all. Because I’m bisexual.”
Gael storms out. His family has made him choose between his sister and the rest of them, and he’s decided to choose his sister. Later in the episode, their grandfather shows up to the Coterie and gives Jazmin her dog tags, but it’s not for several seasons, when their grandfather is in the hospital, that the rest of the family finally accepts their children.
Representation is important and it goes a long way in shows like “Good Trouble.” But we can’t ignore the fact that “Teenage Bounty Hunters” was canceled after one season and “Good Trouble” has extremely low viewership, which suggests that both networks and viewers haven’t fully embraced portrayals of queerness on television.
Another weakness in terms of the portrayal of Jazmin is that it on some level seems to suggest that Jazmin being a veteran somehow makes her more worthy of acceptance, a “model trans person,” so to speak. Absent any acknowledgement on how, for example, the military-industrial complex harms transgender people, the commentary somewhat dilutes itself.
But we’re certainly a far cry from “pick a side, and stay there.” (For a comprehensive take down of all of the bi stereotypes, look no further than “Getting Bi,” the amazing song from the musical dramedy “Crazy Ex Girlfriend.” Sample lyric: “Now/ Some might say: aw you're Just gay./ Why don't you just /Go gay all the way? But that's/ Not it./ Cause bi's legit.”)
One of the great things about “Good Trouble” and other shows like it is the range of its portrayals of queerness. There’s not just one way to be gay, or bi, or trans, or polyamorous, and there’s no judgment between partners or friends about how others choose to identify. For example, in another plot line in the show, Malika is beginning to date a woman. Shows like “Teenage Bounty Hunters” and “Good Trouble” embrace the idea that sexuality is a spectrum, and that there is no wrong or right way to be queer. This is a welcome message for youth growing up today, who in past generations, including my, may have felt pressured to choose a set identity early on rather than explore it.
As Zuri Adele, the actress who plays her, wrote in an Instagram post earlier this week, “Watching Malika explore her queerness without explanation, labels, or apology is the embodiment of what I needed (and continue to need) on television growing up.”
[Note: This edition of the newsletter is a week late because I was out of town last weekend. To make up for this, I’ll be publishing the next post next weekend, which discusses the anniversary of 9/11 and portrayals of Muslim characters on TV, instead of the usual biweekly posting schedule.]