Photo: Katie Yu/HBO Max
Bi men deserve better than TV’s giving them
Over the course of eight episodes, James Gunn’s Peacemaker managed to do something truly surprising: it turned a relatively flat villain from The Suicide Squad into the star of an incredibly fun and unexpectedly poignant spinoff. In The Suicide Squad, Chris “Peacemaker” Smith mostly serves as a joke about American imperialism. But in Peacemaker, he’s a tortured man with an abusive and dark past, who turned to violence in the hopes of making amends for his worst mistake. He’s also a glam rock fan, the best friend of an eagle, and, as Gunn revealed in a recent interview, bisexual.
The last bit might come as a surprise. I watched all eight episodes of the show without once clocking Peacemaker as bi. And after going back through the show, it was obvious why. To the extent that Peacemaker’s bisexuality exists within the actual text of the series, it’s largely in the context of throwaway jokes and “blink and you’ll miss it” innuendoes. In the first episode, Peacemaker references having sex with other men while in prison; not long after, we’re given a post-coital shot of a three-way Peacemaker has with Vigilante and Amber (also known as the woman he briefly holds hostage alongside her husband). Later in the series, Peacemaker’s dad belittles his manhood. And, of course, he’s a big fan of glam rock and gender bending rockers.
Read one way, it adds up to a bisexual character, especially if you’re used to queerness being doled out in sidelong glances and crumbs. But it’s also just as easy to interpret the character as a super horny straight dude who will sleep with men when they’re the only option, is happy to share a female sexual partner with a male friend, has a homophobic dick dad, and is passionate about really good music (which, to be clear, is how I read the character on my first run through the series).
Peacemaker isn’t the only bisexual — or bi-coded — male character who exists in this grey area. Bisexual (and pansexual and omnisexual) male characters are more common than ever, and yet their queerness never really seems to go much beyond innuendo, jokes, and tossed off comments about male attractiveness. Whether it’s Deadpool, Loki, Lando Calrissian, Bob Belcher of Bob’s Burgers, Rick of Rick & Morty, or Sterling Archer of Archer (just to name a few examples), bi male characters — or at least characters read by audience members as bi — may flirt with men, call other men hot, or even obliquely reference past boyfriends (as in the case of Loki’s official “coming out” in Disney Plus’ Loki). In some especially edgy cases, they’ll be sexually involved with other men in a one-off gag, as with Peacemaker’s three-way. But when it comes to their on-screen relationships, these characters tend to be exclusively partnered with women, their interest in men largely remaining theoretical (and, frequently, played up as a crass joke). On screen, men’s bi experiences seem rooted, not in a desire for intimacy and closeness with other men, but more a freewheeling horniness that’s expansive enough to encompass male bodies and sexuality. It’s bisexuality by way of being — to quote Parks & Recreation’s Jean-Ralphio Saperstein — “open minded as hell.”
20th Century Fox
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with identifying characters like Peacemaker or Loki or whomever as bi, or that every bi male character needs to have an onscreen relationship with another man. As with all sexual identities, male bisexuality is incredibly complex. For some bi men, the queer part of their identity really does begin and end with sex; and it’s not hard to see why a character like Peacemaker, who grew up in an incredibly conservative, and homophobic, environment, might be more comfortable sexually pursuing men, or buddying up with them in threeways, than actually pursuing a gay romantic relationship.
But when these are the only depictions of male bisexuality that we ever get in movies and on TV, it flattens our understanding of what it means to be a bisexual man. Instead of seeing the many diverse ways that men can be bi — whether that’s mostly straight men who occasionally pursue sex with men, mostly gay men who periodically enjoy flirtations with women, men whose sex and dating history includes partners of a range of genders, or other experiences entirely — we’re stuck with a limited vision that reinforces the idea that male bisexuality is nothing more than overflow of indiscriminate horniness, that bi men are nothing more than straight men with a broader sexual appetite, rather than an entirely separate category of man with its own relationship to sex, intimacy, and masculinity.
It’s an interesting contrast to portrayals of female bi characters, who are often given much more fleshed out queer identities — sometimes even in the same properties that merely hint at a male character’s desire to go both ways. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Rosa Diaz is openly bisexual and depicted in relationships with both men and women; Jake Peralta, on the other hand, remains in bi-coded territory, with some fans reading him as bi due to a his willingness to acknowledge other men’s attractiveness and a professed crush on Mario Lopez. Like Peacemaker, Harley Quinn offers an edgy take on a Suicide Squad character; unlike Peacemaker, the show’s title character actually winds up in a same-sex relationship, paired off with her best friend at the end of the show’s second season.
It’s a strange thing to witness: even as queer representation flourishes on TV and film, with thoughtful, complex LGBTQ characters of all stripes popping up all across the spectrum, bisexual men remain on the margins, stuck in this territory of plausible deniability. What gives?
Well, for starters, there’s a long history of stigma around male bisexuality. Within the mainstream straight world, bisexual women are often portrayed as sexy and fun; adventurous wild girls whose attraction to other women often makes them more, not less, desirable to male partners. Bisexual men, on the other hand, are more likely to be dismissed as closeted gay men at best, and vile interlopers at worst. At the height of the HIV epidemic, bisexual men were frequently portrayed as vectors of disease, a conduit allowing HIV to pass from the gay community into straight women. Decades later, bi men still get treated with suspicion — even in porn, where pretty much every female performer is expected to be (or at least pretend to be) bi, male bisexuality is largely taboo.
So, in a way, winking at male bisexuality allows these properties to claim representation cred without ever having to confront the many uncomfortable ideas people still have about bisexual men. Further, the specific flavor of bisexuality that pops up again and again — the dude so horny he doesn’t care what he sticks his dick into — doesn’t require us to think more deeply about how bisexuality might alter a male character’s relationship to masculinity and other men. After all, what’s more manly than just wanting to fuck all the time? (Notably, when asked by Vulture about Peacemaker’s bisexuality, Gunn responded with a comment about the character’s liberal attitude towards sexuality — which he then contrasts with the more “conservative” monogamous marriage embraced by lesbian character Leota Adebayo.)
What would it mean to give Peacemaker a more fully fleshed out, and more nuanced, queer identity — if, instead of just appearing in bed with Vigilante and a woman, he was actually allowed to explore a romantic relationship with Vigilante alone? What if Loki’s romantic interest in his self-titled series wasn’t a gender swapped version of himself, but instead another man? Would it change how we view a character like Deadpool if, instead of merely expressing (frequently violent) sexual desire for other men, we were asked to accept him as someone who’s sexually and emotionally vulnerable in the company of men; someone who doesn’t just ruthlessly dominate, but opens up emotionally, forms romantic bonds, and even, perhaps, sexually submits?
It probably would — but there’s good reason to think that change would be for the better, not just for bi men and the people who love them, but for the quality of media in general. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that bi female characters were stuck in a similar position as bi male characters are now; reduced to flat, 2D caricatures whose bi identity was largely made up crass jokes and innuendo. (Seriously: in 2014, The Toast was praising How I Met Your Mother for its portrayal of Lily, a character who never identifies as bi, never dates a woman, and mostly expresses her sapphism through comments about wanting to grope her friends and go to strip clubs.)
And as depictions of bi women have become richer and more nuanced — not just the tough as nails Rosa Diaz or chaotic Harley Quinn, but Owl House’s nerdy teen witch Luz, Dead to Me’s “casually queer” Judy, and even Miranda Hobbes in the Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That — it’s opened doors for a variety of new storylines and new avenues for these shows to explore, creating richer, more thoughtful TV and movies. Freeing bi male characters to be really, truly bi onscreen would offer a similar opportunity. Hopefully, it’s one that more showrunners will actually start to take.