How to Get Away with Murder is the diverse show we’ve all been waiting years for. Of the six principal cast members (Annalise and her five student interns/employees) only one of them fits into the “default character” mold of straight, white, and male—and so far, Asher, our resident token white boy, has gotten the least amount of screen time of all the principal characters (and is generally the least likable). By putting its diverse cast members front and center, HTGAWM proves that having a show populated with people of diverse races and sexual orientations on a mainstream television network can be just as successful as our typical, run-of-the-mill shows with predominantly straight and white cast members.
As great as HTGAWM is in terms of representation, though, it totally dropped the ball in last week’s episode when it came to bisexual representation.
And I mean really dropped the ball.
In “Smile, or Go to Jail” (last Thursday’s episode), we finally got to meet Michaela’s fiance, Aiden. It turns out that Aiden and Connor already have a history with each other and way back during Connor’s New Hampshire boarding school days, he was busy hooking up with all the hot boys—including Aiden. When Michaela figures out that Connor isn’t just trying to get under her skin with off-handed remarks about how hot her fiance is but has, in fact, seen Aiden naked and slept with him, Michaela looses it.
Now in all fairness—not that I am feeling particularly generous toward Michaela after her rampant biphobia—she and Aiden had told each other about their exes and previous relationships and Aiden had neglected to mention Connor. In that respect, I think she is right to be angry and annoyed with him. But she doesn’t seem particularly angry that Aiden has kept a past relationship from her. She seems upset that he kept a relationship with another guy a secret from her. Her reaction is rooted in the fact that Aiden’s sexual history includes men. If it turned out that Aiden and Laurel had had a relationship as teenagers, I sincerely doubt that Michaela would have reacted in the same way.
The episode posits two—and only two—options for Aiden’s sexuality. He can either be 100% straight or 100% gay, and Michaela treats Aiden’s single instance of sleeping with a man as proof that he must be completely and irrevocably gay. (Which, let us remember, is par for the course for bisexual men. Whereas bisexual women are usually assumed to be straight and pursuing relationships with women as a way to garner male attention, bisexual men are almost always assumed to be gay and too afraid to come out of the closet.) I waited and waited for someone in the show to whisper that mystical word bisexual as an explanation for Aiden’s past, but it never happened.
Now let me be frank, not all people who have relationships with people of multiple genders are, or identify as, bisexual (or pansexual or any of the other words the English language has to describe people who experience attraction to a multitude of gender identities). It is entirely possible for a “horny kid” (as Aiden describes his teenage self) to have same-gender relationships and not be homosexual or bisexual. Plenty of people experiment or question and explore their sexual identity—and that’s probably the case with Aiden. He IDs as a straight man who once had sex with another teenage boy. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.
What is a problem is not even mentioning the word bisexual. What is a problem is acting like someone who has been in relationships with people of different genders is incapable of being loyal and faithful to just one person. What is a problem is implying that any man who has ever had a sexual relationship with another man must be gay. What is a problem is an extremely progressive and inclusive show perpetuating biphobia and bisexual erasure.
For those of you who don’t want to fall into this trap in your own storytelling endeavors, here are a few things you can do.
(1) Use the word bisexual. I cannot emphasize how important this one is, so say it with me. Bi-sex-u-al. It’s not a dirty word, despite what media’s extreme avoidance of the word would make you think. The end confrontation between Michaela and Aiden would have been SO MUCH BETTER had either one of them mentioned the possibility that Aiden could be bisexual—even if he’s not. Instead of having Michaela demand over and over again to know if he’s gay, she very easily could have said, “Are you gay? Are you bi? What’s going on here?” Her reaction, I think, still would have felt a little extreme, but bisexual people everywhere would have breathed a little sigh of relief because someone actually acknowledged they exist. (Despite common misconception, bisexual people are not mythical creatures like unicorns.)
(2) Be aware of negative and damaging stereotypes that affect bisexual people—and avoid them. These stereotypes include the assumption that bisexuality is a phase instead of a long-lasting orientation, the assumption that bisexual people are greedy or confused or are cheaters, and the assumption that bi women are doing it for attention and that bi men are afraid to come out of the closet. You might not think that playing on these stereotypes is harmful, but when you consider that bisexual women experience a higher rate of intimate partner violence [X] and that bisexual people of any gender report higher rates of anxiety and depression than monosexual people (ie people who are only attracted to one gender)[X], you begin to see the damage we’re doing by perpetuating those stereotypes.
(3) Treat bisexuality as a valid option for your characters instead of favoring characters who are “just going through a phase” or are “just” experimenting. Instead of making Aiden “straight but with an exception,” he very easily could have been written as a bisexual man and his argument with Michaela at the end could have had just as much emotional impact. Instead of denying that he was gay and writing off his relationship with Connor as “a stupid thing that happened,” he could have talked about his fear of coming out to her because of the assumption that bisexual people are greedy cheaters and he still could have ended the argument with an assurance that he loves her. Just because he has the potential to love men and women doesn’t mean he’s incapable of being loyal to one partner. Choosing to make your characters bisexual and experience the lasting potential to be attracted to people of more than one gender does wonders for bisexual people who long to see themselves in the media they consumer. Let’s remember that “straight with an exception” or “gay with an exception” is not edgy nor is it a convenient recipe for angst. It’s erasing bisexuality and depriving those who identify that way of much needed media representation.