The Family, a suspense drama on ABC, has one of the best lesbian characters to appear on television — and one of the best characters, period, on the air right now. Willa is fascinating, full of secrets, and so consumed with the drive to be good and make everything right that she does some very, very bad things. The show also features a gay male character, FBI Agent Clements, an entirely agreeable presence. Clements casually mentioned his husband a few episodes after his introduction, and that deep, rolling thunder you heard all across Los Angeles late one Sunday night, was not, in fact, a welcome storm or a new quake. It was the staff of the show patting themselves on the back for having a gay character who doesn’t even act gay, bro! Did they blow your mind or what?
The show’s careful tolerance and liberalism when it comes to those characters makes the treatment of its lone bisexual character all the more baffling. I knew we might be in trouble when I saw that the promotional materials for the show called Bridey “omnisexual.” The writers could have gone with “bi” or “fluid” or “pansexual,” all terms that carry different nuances, but it went with “omnisexual,” You will have to excuse me for drawing the conclusion that this was not so much due to careful research into the community of people who call themselves omnisexual and quite a bit about the fact that the term can be directly translated as “Dude, she’ll fuck anything.”
Bridey Cruz has almost no actual character traits. She’s a walking plot device. (Well, honestly, she’s more of a fucking plot device.) The only things we know about her is that she’s a “lesbian lifestyle blogger” who seems to want to be a real reporter, so she’s ambitious, and that she’ll apparently sleep with anyone of any gender to get a story, so she’s promiscuous and ruthless. She also seems to enjoy the manipulative sex, so she’s voracious, and she lies to her partners about just about anything, so she’s amoral and deceitful.
Oh, we do know that she keeps a messy apartment, a character trait that is mentioned just seconds before another character who thinks she’s not a reporter discovers the hilarious number of reporting credentials she’s left scattered out in plain view even though she has invited him over for (surprise!) some sex.
I understand that if you’re a writer and a monosexual, Bridey might seem like an absolutely fantastic character to weave into your suspense drama — assuming you need someone who is less a human being than an ongoing device for stirring up trouble. What’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that sneaky, lying, sexually voracious, cheating bisexuals who will invariably leave their sincere gay partners to bang someone of the opposite gender is not just a tired TV and movie trope — it’s also a pernicious stereotype that’s widely held in both the straight and gay communities.
And, no, we’re not just talking about general butthurt here. Bisexuals have higher rates of depression, anxiety, mental illness, and suicide than other members of the LGB community (for whom those rates are already distressingly high). And that’s not just during adolescence or the coming out phase — it’s right up through adulthood. Bisexuals are also more likely to live in poverty, experience violence, or face hostile work environments. All the studies indicate that the problem stems from rejection by both the straight community and the other members of what is supposed to be a bisexual’s new community, gays and lesbians. And that rejection has a hell of a lot to do with people continually seeing (and thus buying into) the stereotype of the sneaky lying cheating voracious bisexual.
For the record, I don’t think for one minute that this hellacious, regressive character was created with any malice. I think that Jenna Bans, The Family’s creator, and the rest of the writing staff simply didn’t have a single clue. It’s clear that the reality of bisexuality is nowhere near the radar of anyone working on the show — or at least not anyone powerful enough to raise an objection and have it be heard.
It’s not like bisexuality is impossible to convey without stereotypes. Just one night over, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did it beautifully this season. But then, they clearly either had a bisexual on staff or actually talked and listened to a bisexual. I spent my first few weeks watching The Family — full disclosure: I recap the show for AfterEllen and I have not always been kind — wondering why the hell no one had simply run the pilot by a bisexual/fluid/pansexual person, who would have immediately yelled something along the lines of “Jesus Unicycling Christ, please, please don’t do this to us again.”
And then I realized that they probably simply didn’t think that there was any reason to. Because they’re down with the Gays, so they’re not haters, so how could anything they do be hateful? I think they simply couldn’t conceive of the idea that they might be doing something awful when their sentiments were so in line with all that is good.
You may also recall that the writers of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt were absolutely gobsmacked last season when not everyone in the Native American community thought that it was inherently hilarious that white actress Jane Krakowski’s character was revealed to be Native and then ran through about 30,000 tired stereotypes (But in a hip and ironic way, so it’s all good, right?). The Kimmy Schmidt crew reacted to the criticism this season with some serious acting out, opening the first two episodes with Krakowski running through another laundry list of Native stereotypes before heading back to New York, and then dropping in an episode in which Titus plays a geisha.
See if you can follow the complex metaphor of Episode Three of this season’s Kimmy Schmidt: Titus plays a race that is not his, and the people who object learn how very wrong they are to have ever taken issue with it. In fact, if they had only really listened, they would have understood how great his show is. The episode is especially amazing because it completely dismisses the idea that anyone might object based on a reasonable point of view; the listening is only supposed to go one way. The Kimmy Schmidt folks were careful to have Titus get into yellowface instead of one of the white characters, presumably to deliver the message of if you non-whites would just be quiet and pay attention, you would understand the sophisticated thing we’re doing here.
The episode might as well be called “Oh, Yeah? Well, You Don’t Even Get Us and We Don’t Care Anyway But Here’s Why You’re Wrong and We’re Right Forever HOW DARE YOU QUESTION US?”
I understand the frustration the writers of both shows seem to feel at the objections: They spent months planning and cooking this huge, lovely, multi-course Thanksgiving dinner and suddenly everyone is talking about the one little side-dish that turned out to have ipecac in it.
What they don’t see is the other side of the table: When you’re part of an out-group, you spend a lot of time craving just a taste of that one dish, but most years it doesn’t get served at all. (Plus it turns out to be really goddamned hard to fight your way into the kitchen to make some yourself.) So you wait, sometimes for years, and then finally some actually appears on the table and you even let yourself get a little bit excited… And then nineteen times out of twenty it turns out to have ipecac in it again.
Other than her penchant for keeping a messy apartment, Bridey Cruz is made entirely of ipecac.
It’s a hard distinction to make: I think the writers of The Family genuinely have good intentions in their inclusion of LBG characters, and yet Bridey is fucking awful and doing some real damage. I think that the writers of Kimmy Schmidt see themselves as so obviously against racism that it’s simply inconceivable that they might do something insensitive: “Hey, we’re all hip enough to joke about this, right?” When you think of yourself as woke and liberal, it’s hard to understand that there is still territory where you might not be an insider, that there are areas where you are actually the one sounding like your drunkenly belligerent Fox News-watching relative during that Thanksgiving dinner.
Again, I don’t think the writers of Kimmy Schmidt are trying to be dicks, or at least I don’t think they’re trying to be racist dicks. Not in the way Trump is, anyway. The fact that the excellent Tituss Burgess plays a lead suggests that they’re actually working to open up what a typical American sitcom can be. And I think that’s where they ran into trouble: They think of themselves as so clearly and obviously against racism that they assumed that nothing they do could be racist.
And that’s the problem with assuming you’re inherently one of the good guys instead of working to make sure you’re staying one of the good guys: You hardwire your blind spots in. Or, worse, you assume that because you’re definitely one of the good guys, nothing you do can be wrong.
It can create problems on a small scale: An ex-freelance client of mine used to love concocting lengthy ethical tests to make sure that only the very best, most liberal and honest people got into his nascent social network. When he eventually skipped out on paying me thousands of dollars, in part because he’d bought new computers he knew he didn’t need instead of budgeting, he did everything but admit that he had in any way behaved badly. His main argument, for real, was that he figured it would be OK because I had other freelance clients who would (he assumed) keep me afloat.
When I pointed out that his failure to pay me was causing real harm to another human being, he accused me of “attacking” him. He’s probably telling stories to this day about the unreasonable bitch who insisted on being paid the amount he had agreed to. Because the alternative possibility — that he was egregiously irresponsible and a complete weaseldick — was simply not conceivable to his beautifully ethical self.
But more important are the problems that assuming you’re indelibly on the side of righteousness can cause on a larger scale: Bernie Bros doubling down and screaming louder instead of admitting that yeah, that last attack was misogynist and maybe it’s time to dial it back; the legendary failure of middle-class white feminists to listen to the concerns of women of less income or more color; the nasty tendency of far too many members of the LGB part of the LGBT community to fluctuate between indifferent and vicious when it comes to trans folk.
Just like the cover-up often becomes worse than the crime, the refusal to admit that we all screw up often spirals out to become far worse than the original upscrewing.
It’s not, of course, exclusively a problem of liberals. Almost nobody pushing the rampant GOP-backed anti-LGBT bills woke up and said: “These people make me uncomfortable, so I’m going to be a massive cock-bag and try to harm them, or at least make their lives much more difficult.” Because they are on the side of Jesus — certainly moreso than any of those people who insist on living in ways that make others uncomfortable — and thus they cannot be doing something awful like discriminating against other human beings out of fear and pettiness.
So their brains flip the calculation: They’re not trying to spike loving relationships, they’re just defending the family. They’re not trying to drive trans folk out of public entirely, they’re just preventing bathroom attacks by transwomen. They’re not trying to stop blacks and Latinos from voting, it just happens to be a side effect of protecting the system from voter fraud.
It’s a foreign line of thinking to us lefties, but it’s not a foreign way of thinking. And we’re just as resistant to acknowledging that we’re doing it. Dealing with the idea that other people might be awful is way easier than dealing with the idea that we could be.
The old liberal axiom of “don’t be a jerk” still stands. We just need to keep on ourselves to make sure it doesn’t turn into “can’t be a jerk.”
Oh, and if you’re a television writer? Maybe run that script by a few people who belong to the group you’re writing about.