Gemma: So sometime in the mid-aughts, a bi secondary female character became a hip new thing, particularly though not exclusively on network shows. Specifically, the shock reveal that a secondary female character was bi. I feel like that lasted a while, is still around in some ways. I name, off the top of my head: House, Bones, Nurse Jackie, in its own way The Good Wife, though Kalinda managed to turn the trope inside out for a while.
Rasha: Didn’t Ally McBeal have it too? Or do I think that because I never watched the show and I know who Portia de Rossi is?
G: I cannot remember if Portia de Rossi’s character was queer or not. Ally McBeal had a biphobic episode that was very upsetting to 17-year-old me, though, so I’m not sure they’d have done that.
R: Yeah, it seems like it would be too much for them. Wait, did Sex and the City do it, or am I again confusing a character for the actress?
G: Yes, Samantha had a bi turn. (Not Cynthia Nixon’s character.) She dated Sonia Braga for 3 or 4 eps.
R: Samantha is the sexy one, right? Here I show how I have held myself pure and above some parts of pop culture (mainly because I didn’t have TV from 1999-2006 and the internet didn’t have very much television then).
G: Yes, Samantha is the most sex-driven one. Like all bi women in that stretch, she dated a woman midseason, for a short period in which we didn’t see much relationship development.
R: Well, because dating a woman is on its own being offered as “development.”
G: Right, point. That’s an interesting one to push, actually. It’s sort of relationship ex machina.
R: So here I think we can mark one of the things that such shows handled poorly: the novelty/titillation of bisexuality itself is offered as sufficient content without any ensuing exploration of how the specific relationship or experiences affect the particular character whose storyline bisexuality stumbles into. Sounds like SATC is a prime example. Again, Kalinda is mega counterpoint, at least for a time.
G: SATC actually did it better than any of the network examples I can think of. About on a par with Nurse Jackie, although I am much more attached to O’Hara than I am to Samantha.
R: You mean, in the case where a season regular has a bicuriosity?
G: Yes. Samantha’s relationship with Maria was much richer than was Angela’s with Roxie on Bones, or than you’ve led me to believe Thirteen’s manifest bi-ness was on House.
R: I mean, I remember there being a bit more about O’Hara being tumbled by her feelings for her lady amor, but it’s been a bit and I’m short on specifics.
G: O’Hara’s relationship with Sarah was rich conceptually, but very, very abbreviated. (Sarah was also Julia Ormond, which helped.)
G: Edie Falco brings the prestige actors.
R: Lourdes, Thirteen’s bi-ness was not.
G: But everybody wrote about it so frequently!
R: Well, like most character development of House’s assistants, we only get a couple of episodes per season. She gets outed relatively early on, but we don’t see her in a relationship with a woman that I remember. What sticks out most in my mind is the one I like think of as the Downward Spiral episode (which House‘s writers seemed to enjoy giving to its female characters–see Cameron’s drug-fueled hookup with Chase): Thirteen is in denial about her degenerative neurological disease and is going out every night and hooking up with women. Annie Lennox’s “Dark Road” is playing over the opening sequence that depicts it. In case you might have your own interpretations as a viewer about what’s going on.
G: Oh, we can’t have that.
R: Of course, then Omar Epps saves her, as both her boyfriend and doctor in a clinical trial. Which in theory is fine. Omar Epps has many charms and is a fine-looking man. But I don’t remember her ever being with a woman outside of the Downward Spiral Episode. So it really read to me as Thirteen’s sexuality was something she needed to be literally cured of like her hereditary Huntington’s.
G: I never watched House, but I remember a loooooot of writing on how bi Thirteen was. But ew.
R: Which is now making me think of Chasing Amy.
G: Chasing Amy was very important to my fourteen-year-old self. I don’t remember it very well, but it was somehow my first movie where I recognized bi as being connected viscerally to me.
R: I rewatched it as a more grown person at some point, and found that it could mostly hold up, except that it stars Baffleck and is way too grounded in his perspective as the protagonist. If the lady character (who is Baffleck’s Amy but is not named Amy) had been the main character, then it would have been more interesting. The scene with her and her dyke crew is not inaccurate. They were not there for the het relationship. And given that it was with Bloatfleck, I cannot blame them.
G: I like young Baffleck. He’s just dulled as he’s gotten older. I should probably watch it again.
R: It holds up. The playground scene where she blows his mind by explaining fisting is worthy. I’m pretty sure they never fisted.
G: That would have gone completely over the head of me at fourteen.
R: Oh, I totally got that, but I probably saw it at 15/16.
G: I was a late bloomer on that score.
R: You know, I feel like there’s sometimes an overlap between the Bi Lady Secondary character trope and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and/or the Mysterious Femme Fatale trope. What are your thoughts on that, given the examples we’ve looked at?
G: Well, it’s definitely true of Angela on Bones, who is written to fall somewhere on the MPDG spectrum although Michaela Conlin has never been capable of playing to that.
R: Her voice is too deep and honeyed. She’s too sarcastic, too. To her credit!
G: She also has no levity and very little nuance.
R: If Conlin’s failings include failing at being a Manic Pixie, I will take that as a win.
G: Look, I’m as happy as anyone for fewer bi Manic Pixies. But she can’t play what’s written for her and she can’t bring much of anything else. Anyway, I digress. She’s written to that trope, and her bi-ness is written as part of her Mysterious Wild Artist identity.
R: But she definitely has that free-lovin’ promiscuous vibe in the early seasons. And Thirteen and Kalinda also embody that kind of polyamorous ethos, though they fall more toward the Mysterious Dark Femme Fatale end of the trope spectrum.
G: Kalinda certainly falls closer to Femme Fatale, in that her sexuality is used actively and deliberately, rather than tossed around because she’s just so FREE!
R: Thirteen shares Kalinda’s tendency toward privacy as power and projecting a self-contained sufficiency as part of her public self, but whereas with Kalinda that is fractured by her relationships with work colleagues and occasionally with lovers, Thirteen feels like she gets broken and snaps into a pattern of reliance on boyfriend and father figure/boss to keep her on track.
G: Samantha was never either of those tropes, which was something I admired about SATC, though its casual racism and its epic classism blare even more loudly these days. Samantha liked sex very factually. Her desire for Maria, named from the beginning as exceptional, threw a wrench into that, because for a while it made Samantha emotional.
R: Where’s O’Hara in this trope-ness?
G: O’Hara is portrayed as wild, closer to MPDG than femme fatale although much more competent. But there’s a way in which the romance with Sarah, midseason though it be, is written as O’Hara’s true romantic love, and everything else is just doomed to remain shallow. We see O’Hara having one-night stands and quickies, and then having a child deliberately alone two seasons later. Sarah’s the only person she’s ever portrayed as feeling romantic love for in the course of the show.
R: O’Hara struck me as a sort of Auntie Mame figure, but that may not be fair. I agree with you about O’Hara’s lady love being her real love in that storyverse.
G: We’ll return to Jackie and O’Hara in female friendships, because it is literally my favorite female friendship on TV.
R: OMG, I just realized we haven’t even thought to include Delphine. NEXT TIME.
G: Next time: Delphine! Comedy and possible evidence of a new wave that Kalinda was out in front of (e.g. Ilana on Broad City)!
R: You intrigue me. Until next!