Symposium

Bisexual erasure in queer sci-fi "utopias"

Victoria Serafini

California State University, Fullerton, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—I discuss the paradoxes of queer representation in contemporary science fiction television by analyzing bisexual female protagonists of the CW's The 100 (2014–), BBC America's Orphan Black (2013–), and SyFy's Wynonna Earp (2016–). Queer female fans engage in femslash to make sense of the utopic intentions of executive producers who attempt to create better queer representation through labelless premises that de-emphasize queerness.

[0.2] Keywords—Science fiction; Television

Serafini, Victoria. 2017. "Bisexual Erasure in Queer Sci-Fi 'Utopias.'" In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.1001.

[0.3] I will remember how to write your name, Clarke, but do not delude yourself into thinking I would change my way of living for you because you fell from the sky with lust for a utopia that does not exist.

—nightshifted, "(I Wanna Be) Your Left Hand Man"

1. Introduction

[1.1] Contemporary science fiction television attempts to create queer utopias in an effort to articulate what a postqueer world may look like. Here I consider science fiction programming as an example of "utopia as a stage" (Muñoz 2009, 99). I am particularly interested in how content creators frame their narratives in worlds/utopias that could be and how this struggle between the real present and the fictional future proves to put queer female fans in a paradoxical position when consuming such programming.

[1.2] Bisexual fans additionally have to deal with a larger real-world social phenomenon, bisexual erasure, a process that works to enforce the belief that bisexuality is not a legitimate sexuality or simply does not exist (note 1). The term was coined in 2000 by legal scholar Kenji Yoshino, who notes that "bisexuals are invisible in modern American society and that this invisibility arises from erasure rather than nonexistence" (388). Unlike Yoshino, however, I assert that the invisibility of bisexual characters on television may be a combination of both erasure and nonexistence because there are so few bisexual characters on television. In fact, bisexual characters, compared to gay and lesbian characters, are very few, and those that do exist are often depicted stereotypically (note 2).

[1.3] An illustrative example is that of the character of Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), the protagonist of CW's sci-fi program The 100 (2014–). Despite using dystopian tropes, executive producer Jason Rothenberg has insisted that the world of The 100 leans toward utopia in terms of its representations of sexuality. Rothenberg refuses to use sexuality labels in the program, which some critics have praised as being "progressive" and "groundbreaking" (Peitzman 2016). Despite these claims, Rothenberg's evasion of definitive labels may actually contribute to the erasure of the program's bisexual protagonist.

[1.4] In contrast with the example of Clarke are those of the characters Cosima Niehaus (Tatiana Maslany) and Delphine Cormier (Évelyne Brochu) of BBC America's Orphan Black (2013–). Unlike The 100, Orphan Black is a scientific/technological utopia that embraces sexuality labels, which becomes problematic for Delphine when she is labeled a lesbian by her girlfriend and others. Science fiction programs like The 100 and Orphan Black allow producers to envision better worlds and allow queer female fandoms to question their relationship to their televisual representations by actively engaging in femslash and social media activism. We see bisexual fans "lust for a utopia that does not exist," but what happens when they paradoxically reject the utopias given to them in these sci-fi programs?

2. Dystopic world with utopian ideals

[2.1] In the world of The 100, sexuality labels do not exist. Rothenberg admits this is "the way I wish our world was" (Li 2016). But is a labelless world the best way to represent and be inclusive of different sexualities on television? On the one hand, the refusal to use labels can create an egalitarian premise where sexuality is not the defining quality of a character. However, it can also be a way to evade discussions of sexuality and thus promote bisexual erasure by taking away the opportunity for self-identification for bisexual characters. Without labels, and thus verbal cues, audiences must rely solely on visual and narrative cues to decode sexuality on The 100.

[2.2] Clarke's sexuality has long been an issue of debate among fans of The 100. During the first and second seasons of the show, Clarke has a male love interest, Finn (Thomas McDonell), whom she is shown having sex with. After Finn is sentenced to death by Commander Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) for massacring one of Lexa's people's villages, Clarke mercy kills him to save him from being tortured to death. Finn's death marks a truce between Clarke and Lexa's people. As they burn his body on a pyre in 2.09 "Remember Me," Lexa reveals that she once lost someone special: "Her name was Costia." Lexa advises Clarke that to get over Finn's death, she must accept that love is weakness.

[2.3] After this canonical expression of Lexa's homosexuality, fans began to ask Rothenberg to confirm Lexa's sexual orientation, even though such labels are not permitted in canon. Why were fans so insistent on a label? With so little representation in the media, queer women constantly search for any possible representation, and they engage in subtextual femslash to make up for this lack of canon representation. Thus, when asked by a fan whether Lexa was a lesbian, Rothenberg tweeted, "That's what we'd call her in the real world. In #the100 we just call her HEDA [Commander]" (Twitter, @JRothenbergTV, July 28, 2015).

[2.4] This example illustrates the struggle between the dystopian world of The 100, the utopian ideals set by the producers, and the struggle for positive queer representation sought by fans of the show. The 100's utopian premise falls short when fans and producers on social media sites cannot avoid the imperative to put labels on supposedly labelless characters.

3. Legitimizing bisexuality through visual cues

[3.1] Now that we have seen how Rothenberg constructs Lexa's homosexuality, let's consider how he frames questions of Clarke's bisexuality. In 2.14 "Bodyguard of Lies," Lexa admits to caring for Clarke, going against her personal mantra: love is weakness. Clarke is shocked and storms away. Clarke later apologizes: "Maybe life should be about more than just surviving. Don't we deserve better than that?" Lexa sighs, "Maybe we do," before kissing Clarke, who kisses Lexa back. This marks an important turning point in Clarke's character development: until now, Clarke has focused only on the survival of herself and her people; within this context, the kiss could be interpreted as a manipulative move by Clarke. Yet seeing Clarke as manipulative is puzzling when we consider that being manipulative is a stereotype of bisexual individuals. However, because Clarke lives in a postqueer world, can we reject the stereotype by separating her bisexuality from her manipulative nature?

[3.2] To fully legitimize Clarke's bisexuality, Rothenberg included a scene in the season 3 premiere in which Clarke has a one-night stand with Niylah, a woman who runs a trading post. In an interview, Rothenberg admitted that he chose a female partner over a male partner because he felt "like it needed to be clear that she [Clarke] is bisexual" (Ryan 2016a). Bisexuality can thus only be legitimized on television by visually depicting a character having sex with people of two different sexes. Rothenberg noted, "She [Clarke] just wants to escape her pain…she's not feeling bad—she's feeling sexual, and that's a good thing" (Peitzman 2016). One female blogger on a feminist media site wrote, "The portrayal of Clarke…plays away from these shallow stereotypes, while not denying her an active sex life" (Bitch Flicks, September 24, 2015). Again, there is a tension between stereotypes and depictions of queer sexuality in The 100, which is made extremely complex by Rothenberg's self-proclaimed egalitarian premise.

[3.3] Even though the program's labelless premise does not allow Clarke to self-identify as bisexual, this does not take away from the fact that Clarke's queerness is canon. One fan, who identifies herself as bisexual in her post, wrote this on Tumblr: "Here was a bisexual character who simply…existed…Her bisexuality wasn't her sole defining characteristic, but it was also an essential and important part of her identity" (whovianfeminism, March 19, 2016). Queer female fans thus simultaneously and paradoxically emphasize queerness and deemphasize queerness. I now turn to how this paradox is also apparent in programs that use sexuality labels.

4. A world full of labels: The better alternative?

[4.1] Unlike The 100, Orphan Black presents itself as a utopian world that embraces sexuality labels. However, like The 100, producers of Orphan Black have worked to assure fans that sexuality is not the most interesting thing about a character, nor should it be (note 3).

[4.2] The portrayal of female bisexuality on Orphan Black is convoluted. Let's first consider Delphine's girlfriend, Cosima Niehaus, a fellow PhD student studying evolutionary development. According to Tatiana Maslany, executive producers/cocreators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson told her that Cosima is bisexual. In an interview, Maslany said she "could feel it [Cosima's bisexuality] in the writing even when it wasn't explicit," and she felt that "she [Cosima] identifies as bisexual, and very much understands her sexuality as a spectrum from a scientific viewpoint…Cosima just loves people" (Anne 2013). Yet Cosima never self-identifies as a bisexual woman, instead using the labels "gay" or "lesbian" to describe her sexuality. There is a discrepancy between what the producers label a character as and what the character self-identifies as in the program's world, much like Rothenberg and his use of labels on Twitter to describe characters on The 100.

[4.3] The word "bisexual" is only used once in Orphan Black, when Delphine admits to Cosima, "I have never thought about bisexuality [until you kissed me]. I mean, for myself…But as a scientist, I know that sexuality is a spectrum. But you know, social biases, they codified attraction. It's contrary to the biological facts" (1.08 "Entangled Bank"). After this, Delphine never references her sexuality; Cosima and her friends label her as lesbian or gay.

[4.4] Even though sexuality on Orphan Black is determined through a combination of visual and verbal cues, wrongly labeling a character's sexuality is problematic and can also work to produce bisexual erasure. Labels do not automatically make for better bisexual representation even though verbally acknowledging bisexuality as a legitimate sexuality is extremely important to many bisexual members of the fandom. Like Clarke, Delphine's character is riddled with bisexual stereotypes (mainly Delphine's use of manipulation). Can we excuse these stereotypes as simple characterization in a queer utopia where sexuality doesn't matter?

5. Conclusion: Queer female representation after the "disposable spring"

[5.1] The dead are gone, Clarke. The living are hungry.

—Lexa, 2.09 "Remember Me," The 100

[5.2] Queer female fans who engage in femslash fandom on sites such as Tumblr and Twitter seek validation from producers and writers who are paradoxically in turn being blamed for invalidating the experiences of said fans through the "bury your gays" (BYG) trope. Maureen Ryan (2016b) dubbed the spring 2016 television season the "disposable spring," noting the high death rate of sexual-minority characters. According to a list compiled by Vox (and later by LGBT Fans Deserve Better) (note 4), queer women (bisexual/gay) constituted 10 percent of the total deaths on television during the 2015–16 season despite accounting for less than 4 percent of the total characters on television (Framke, Zarracina, and Frostenson 2016; LGBT Fans Deserve Better 2016). Many show runners who have killed off queer women have claimed that doing so does not contribute to the BYG trope because their characters were more than their queer identities. To these producers, their utopic views on queerness seem to separate them from being blamed for using stereotypes and tropes because their characters "just happened" to be queer (note 5).

[5.3] Many queer female fans have pointed to SyFy's Wynonna Earp (2016–) as the end of the disposable spring and the start of a promise for positive queer representation on television. Wynonna Earp, a Canadian sci-fi western about a woman who must rid her town of undead demons, features a queer female couple with a happy ending (at least as of season 1). Waverly Earp (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), sister of Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano), breaks up with her boyfriend and starts a relationship with the town's deputy, Officer Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell). When Nicole is shot in the season's finale episode (1.13 "I Walk the Line"), she lives because she is wearing a bulletproof vest. Many fans on social media sites called the scene a satirical take on the BYG trope (figure 1). This scene is the antithesis to Lexa's death scene in 3.07 "Thirteen," which aired 3 months before, in which Lexa is killed by a stray bullet to the stomach only minutes after finally consummating her relationship with Clarke.

GIF of Nicole throwing away the bullet caught in her vest, with the bullet changing to 'BYG' ('bury your gays').

Figure 1. A satirical take on Wynonna Earp's season 1 finale episode, 1.13 "I Walk the Line." In this fan-made GIF, Nicole throws away the bullet caught in her bulletproof vest as her girlfriend, Waverly, cries out in relief. The bullet is changed to "BYG" (bury your gays) to symbolize Nicole's (and executive producer Emily Andras's) challenge to and rejection of the BYG trope (http://lenaluthcr.tumblr.com/post/146471221672/nicole-throwing-the-bullet-trope-away).

[5.4] Emily Andras, executive producer of Wynonna Earp, has refused to label Waverly's sexuality (though most fans have agreed that Waverly is bisexual). Yet when asked in an interview about Nicole's sexuality, Andras confidently replied, "She's definitely L [L in LGBT]. She's full L" (Snarker 2016). Even in this fan-acclaimed utopia, Wynonna Earp seems to find it easy to accept with certainty Nicole's homosexuality but has a hard time with the ambiguous nature of Waverly's potential bisexuality. Ironically, fans do not seem to be concerned with this. Instead, they are just happy that WayHaught (Waverly/Nicole Haught) is canon and alive. Fans trust Andras in part because she was an executive producer on Lost Girl (2010–15), a Canadian sci-fi show with a bisexual lead and one of television's only queer female happy endings.

[5.5] Is Andras's Wynonna Earp the utopia queer female fans have been searching for? Is it a space (or perhaps a stage) where queer women live and love without tropes? This depends on how future seasons of the program address Waverly's sexuality. In the meantime, queer female fandoms engage in a sort of paradoxical femslash, wishing for a world in which queerness is not the defining characteristic of television characters, yet also wanting characters who embrace their queerness. Muñoz reminds us that "utopia is an idealist mode of critique that reminds us that there is something missing, that the present and presence (and its opposite number, absence) is not enough" (2009, 100). Will it ever be enough for queer female fandom, or will these fans always be lusting for this queer utopia, to no avail?

6. Acknowledgment

[6.1] I extend my most sincere gratitude to my mentor, Hunter Hargraves, who encouraged and assisted me throughout the writing process.

7. Notes

1. Though Yoshino (2000) is credited for coining the term "bisexual erasure," he does not give a clear definition of it. Thus, for a definition of bisexual erasure, I instead used that of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) (http://www.glaad.org/bisexual/bierasure).

2. See GLAAD's "Where We Are on TV Report—2015" (http://www.glaad.org/whereweareontv15), 26, for a full numerical breakdown of bisexual characters on American broadcast, cable, and streaming television in 2015–16.

3. This refers to an exchange between Rachel (Tatiana Maslany) and Cosima in which Rachel interrupts Cosima and Delphine as they kiss and says, "So, you're gay." Cosima replies, "My sexuality's not the most interesting thing about me" (2.02 "Governed by Sound Reason and True Religion").

4. LGBT Fans Deserve Better is a (politically charged) movement/activist group created by fans (after Lexa's death on The 100) in an effort to increase awareness around the BYG trope/queer media representation (http://lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/). The movement has created a fund-raiser for the Trevor Project (raising more than $137,000) and written the Lexa Pledge (http://lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/pledge/).

5. To see how producers have processed fans' reactions to the death of queer characters on The 100 and Orphan Black, see Rothenberg's (2016) "apology" to the fandom, written 3 weeks after Lexa's death, and Maslany's (who is also a producer on Orphan Black) and Manson/Fawcett's addressing of Delphine's "death" in the season 3 finale (Patch 2016).

8. Works cited

Anne, Valerie. 2013. "Tatiana Maslany Gives Us the Scoop on the Orphan Black Clones and Cosima's Bisexuality." AfterEllen, May 24. http://www.afterellen.com/general-news/107651-tatiana-maslany-gives-us-the-scoop-on-the-orphan-black-clones-and-cosimas-bisexuality.

Framke, Caroline, Javier Zarracina, and Sarah Frostenson. 2016. "All the TV Character Deaths of 2015–'16, in One Chart." Vox, June 1. http://www.vox.com/a/tv-deaths-lgbt-diversity.

LGBT Fans Deserve Better. 2016. "All Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Women on TV: 2015–2016." LGBT Fans Deserve Better, March 31. http://lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/blog/2016/03/31/bury-tropes-not-us-2016-edition/.

Li, Shirley. 2016. "Why Defining Clarke's Sexuality Marked a 'Turning Point' for The 100." Entertainment Weekly, February 17. http://www.ew.com/article/2016/02/17/the-100-clarke-bisexuality.

Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. "Stages: Queers, Punks, and the Utopian Performative." In Sexual Cultures: Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 97–113. New York: New York University Press.

Patch, Nick. 2016. "Tatiana Maslany Laments Reaction to (Spoiler's) Death." TheStar.com, April 11. https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2016/04/11/tatiana-maslany-laments-reaction-to-spoilers-death.html.

Peitzman, Louis. 2016. "The Show That's Breaking New Ground for Queer Representation." BuzzFeed, January 21. https://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/how-the-100-became-one-of-tvs-most-radically-queer-shows?utm_term=.lfn7dno54z#.hv3rx1D965.

Rothenberg, Jason. 2016. "The Life and Death of Lexa." Jason Rothenberg, March 24. https://medium.com/@jrothenberg/the-life-and-death-of-lexa-e461224be1db#.z7pqpwxau.

Ryan, Maureen. 2016a. "The 100 Showrunner Talks Clarke's Sexuality, Lexa's Return and Season 3 Stakes." Variety, January 21. http://variety.com/2016/tv/features/the-100-season-3-clexa-clarke-bisexual-1201685357/.

Ryan, Maureen. 2016b. "TV's Disposable Spring Makes Westeros' Winter Seem Tame." Variety, April 18. http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/tv-deaths-game-of-thrones-1201755683/.

Snarker, Dorothy. 2016. "Wynonna Earp Creator Emily Andras Talks WayHaught Survival." AfterEllen, June 2. http://www.afterellen.com/tv/490411-wynonna-earp-creator-emily-andras-talks-wayhaught-survival.

Yoshino, Kenji. 2000. "The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure." Stanford Law Review 52 (2): 353–461. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1229482.



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