Jul 27, 2023

The Summer I Turned Pretty, Heartstopper, Red, White & Royal Blue: Finally, bisexual male hunk representation.

In the year 2000, Carrie Bradshaw uttered a line that epitomized the prevailing attitude toward bisexuality in media. In the Sex and the City episode “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl…,” the not-so-adventurous sex columnist, upon discovering that the very appealing man she’s been seeing likes both women and men, muses in front of her usual brunch salon of gal pals, “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it’s just a layover on the way to Gaytown.”

Well, much has changed in the 23 years since Carrie’s misinformed comment. I’m happy to report that that dreaded “layover” has finally become a destination, and it’s full of hunks.

We’ve reached a tipping point for depictions of bisexual men in entertainment. He who was once the object of disgust—or more often, utterly invisible—is now on full display on our screens. He’s sunkissed, shirtless, and charming, and protagonists—male and female alike—are entranced. Recent hits like Heartstopper, The Summer I Turned Pretty, and Red, White & Royal Blue herald the arrival of the new bi king, one whose fluid sexuality is no longer treated as a punchline or a cause for concern, but instead an explicit part of his dashing appeal.

The second season of Heartstopper, Netflix’s coming-of-age rom-com about two young men who fall in love, brings back Kit Connor’s Nick Nelson, a soft-spoken rugby captain with perfectly coiffed strawberry-blond hair. In the small-town English utopia that is Heartstopper, basically everyone is queer, and the few homophobes who do exist are swiftly put in their place by the rest of this idealized society. Nick is this Shangri-La’s ultimate heartthrob: a popular, yet thoughtful, teen boy who discovers his own bisexuality by watching the videos of an ultra-earnest bi male YouTuber. Nick comes into his own via tender chats with his mom (a congenial Olivia Colman) and secret make-outs with his boyfriend Charlie. Season 2 sees him taking some gentle steps out of the closet, sharing with others the personal news that he’s bisexual. These declarations are never met with scorn or disdain; instead, the other characters embrace his vulnerability and become even closer because of it.

The Summer I Turned Pretty, an Amazon Prime Video drama series based on YA author Jenny Han’s trilogy of novels, showcases a fraught love triangle between one girl and a pair of brothers, set against the backdrop of a picture-perfect idyllic New England beach town. The younger of the two brothers, the endearing Jeremiah Fisher, is bisexual, claiming in the first season that he’s an “equal-opportunity flirt.” His bisexuality—and Gavin Casalegno’s self-assured performance of it—helps establish the character’s warm and open embrace of the world. He’s quick to accept drinks, dares, and kisses, and he’s more forthcoming than other boys, from articulating that he’s not a “queerbaiter” right before locking lips with a boy at a house party to openly declaring his feelings for the protagonist, Belly. Belly is drawn to Jeremiah not in spite of his queerness, but in part because of it: His self-assured queerness softens his cocky bravado and makes his coquettish streak a statement of empowerment instead of sleaze. It’s what makes Jere Jere.

The final entry into the canon of Bi Kings of Summer 2023 comes from the sublimely terrible Red, White & Royal Blue on Amazon Prime. Based on Casey McQuiston’s smash-hit romance novel, the film follows the bisexual son of America’s first woman president as he has a steamy covert affair with a British prince. Even Taylor Zakhar Perez’s somewhat bumbling and unconvincing performance can’t diminish the character Alex Claremont-Diaz’s lovely bi-himbo light. He’s got mile-long eyelashes, a chiseled torso straight out of a Marvel movie, and a ridiculous scene of a half-dozen women taking turns stealing a New Year’s kiss from him just before his first make-out with the prince. Where TV and film used to gawk with suspicion at male bisexuality, or use it as a tedious teaching moment, Red, White & Royal Blue unabashedly offers Alex up as someone to be lusted after. In the delusional fantasy of a film that imagines that the state of Texas could one day vote blue, he is a Prince Charming, only he’s not just looking for Cinderellas.

It’s been a long road to get to this kind of portrayal. In 2018, television critic Caroline Framke assessed the bisexual representation revolution on television, analyzing the surprisingly delightful queer arcs of beloved characters like Stephanie Beatriz’s Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Yael Grobglas’ Petra Solano on Jane the Virgin. But Framke’s analysis showed little comparable advancement for bi men’s representation. She wrote: “Bisexual men are still so rare on television that when I put out a call for opinions on bi representation, my inbox was flooded with frustrated bi men grasping at straws for decent examples.”

When bi women characters were finally shaking off their hypersexualized, villainous, stereotype-ridden baggage, bi men remained absent. Over the years, more examples finally began to crop up, but they were often relegated to the margins of desirability—the very prospect of male bisexuality was wholly unalluring to the characters around them. Across different networks, the bisexual man also became a useful plot device for illuminating the regressive—or even just persnickety—sexual mores of a straight woman. In 2016, we saw Insecure’s Molly (Yvonne Orji) abandon a promising romance upon learning about his past sexual exploration with men. In 2017, a bi male love interest for the titular character in Jane the Virgin became little more than an opportunity for our leading lady to evolve politically through a cloying, didactic exchange that involved the guy having to clarify that their relationship was not “a stop on [his] way to coming out as gay.” (Carrie’s legacy lives on, damn her.)

Fortunately, other examples at the time didn’t stink quite so much of bi Afterschool Special. The whimsical musical fantasia Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was home to one of the most tender depictions of male bisexuality in Darryl, a late-bi-bloomer attorney played with energetic glee by Pete Gardner. But, although Darryl—who was declared television’s “most darling bisexual” by Vulture critic E. Alex Jung—was sweet, and his big solo coming-out song “Gettin’ Bi” instantly became beloved in the sexually fluid corners of the internet, the character was still marked by a hint of sexlessness, prompting a feeling of “aww” more than any sparks. A similar story can be told about David Rose (Dan Levy) on Schitt’s Creek—a wonderful character, in many ways, but one whose prickly particularities left him more coded as a “best friend” than a love interest.

The third season of Netflix’s Sex Education, back in 2021, took male bisexuality seriously (granted, only after the bi character in question spearheaded a nasty homophobic bullying campaign against his future love interest). But it wasn’t until this summer that the bi man seems to have reached full hunk potential in mainstream media. Nick, Jeremiah, Alex—they follow a grand tradition of rom-com and teen-drama heroes. There’s a simple formula to this type of character: He has to be commanding and athletic, seductive yet loyal, mushy about love and fearless in the face of the (often silly) forces working to keep him from his love interest. Whether it’s Nick claiming responsibility for Charlie’s hickey in a tense game of spin the bottle, Jeremiah getting a classic, long-awaited, music-swelling make-out, or Alex storming the damn palace to declare his love, these characters are finally checking those essential boxes.

It’s not lost on me that these three examples are all made for adolescent audiences—it makes sense when you consider that each new generation is queerer than the last—and that a large portion of the fan bases are probably teen girls, some of whom may project their own desires onto queer romances. But this fact makes the bisexual hunk that much more exciting, and maybe even radical, to me: Young people, including some straight ones, observe the casual embrace of a bi male hero’s queerness and they refuse to see it as a catch. Instead, it’s a novel opportunity for their shameless thirst. In this moment of extreme demonization of queerness, these corny, softhearted, commercially successful depictions of unrestrained male bisexuality feel more welcome than ever. (It’s worth mentioning that this month, angry residents in Marion County, Mississippi, got the Heartstopper book series pulled from a public library shelf.)

Of course, I’m ready for the bi man to become quite a bit messier (the ladies are already there!) on the road to portraying the full dimensionality and plurality of bi and queer characters on screen. But, in the meantime, the monosexual king is dead; long live the bi king!