CO-DIRECTORS JESSICA NAFTALY AND SHAILYN COTTEN HAVE A DISCUSSION ABOUT BISEXUAL REPRESENTATION IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA.
What if your favorite childhood hero was like you? What if Hermione Granger had been gay? What if she had been bi? In an industry inundated with the same story about a white straight male hero, the rest of the population is craving to be seen, craving to be heard. We want representation, we want diversity, we want inclusion in our media, but we’re not getting it. Our popular culture should reflect the world as it actually is, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to be on the path to change the tune it’s been singing for the past hundred years any time soon.
Co-directors Jessica Naftaly and Shailyn Cotten both grew up with feelings that we didn’t know how to express or understand. We both felt wrong or different because we didn’t see anyone like us on the big screen or in books, worlds that are meant to allow you to escape reality for a moment. We couldn’t escape reality. Not when all of our heroes were straight. The word bisexual wasn’t even uttered or thought about. It wasn’t an option. To be bisexual, it is defined as being both attracted to men and women. It’s the B in the LGBTQ+ anagram, yet it’s also one of the most overlooked parts of the queer community and it’s because people don’t like that they can’t fit us into a neat little box. People are more likely to understand that you are gay or you are straight, whatever their reaction to that may be. The thought that you could be both at the same time is, for some reason, unheard of.
The impact of media on our society, but more importantly on our children, is profound. It is so incredibly important for them to see their own identities, faces just like theirs, reflected back at them off of the screen. This, after all, shapes their views of the world, and what is it telling them if they cannot find themselves appropriately represented in that world?
The Harry Potter series has been an integral part of my childhood, so don’t get me wrong. I am infatuated with J.K. Rowling’s books, and the film franchise that followed. Growing up, Hermione informed my image of a strong, badass hero. I was one of many young girls who would frame my decisions around the question, “What would Hermione Granger do?”
However, if Hermione Granger had fallen for Cho Chang or Luna Lovegood, it might not have taken me sixteen plus years to put a finger to my sexuality.
I have no problem with Hermione falling in love with Ron. I love that Katniss Everdeen marries Peeta in the end. I personally wouldn’t have minded if Bella Swan decided to go with Edward or Jacob. But as a young child, and a developing teen, these stories were my world and because I could not see my romantic attractions reflected in the heroines I looked up to, it took me more than half my life to finally label myself as bisexual. Let alone not flinch away from it.
Bisexuality is a real thing, and as a child, I never even knew about it. I had crushes on guys, but wrote lesbian fanfic in RPG forums. I still called myself straight. I thought I had to be one or the other.
Growing up, I didn’t really know that bisexuality was a thing. I heard of it, sure, once I started going into my teens, but it still never seemed real. Mostly, because I never saw it. I didn't see it on my television, I didn’t read about it in my books, and I certainly never saw it in my movies. Yet, I had crushes on both boys and girls. Thus, I had feelings I didn’t know what to do with, how to define, or categorize.
There’s still so much bigotry and hatred towards the idea of being gay and I certainly grew up in a less than accepting environment, so when I had crushes on boys in school, it was like a notch in the belt of confirmation that I wasn’t “gay”. However, I was still attracted to some girls in school as well, and my celebrity “crush” list certainly was a long, vast list of both genders. I was feeling something that I didn’t know you could feel. I think my favorite example of how painfully obvious this was, was watching the animated Disney film Robin Hood; I most definitely was attracted to both Robin Hood and Maid Marian (never mind that they were both foxes…)
However, I think it was when Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Paquin, two fairly main stream actresses that I looked up to and admired, came out as bisexual, that it started to feel real. My sexuality, for once, was starting to feel like it was becoming accepted and normalized. When A-list stars on your television tell you that they're feeling the same feelings you are, they not only give you someone to relate to, but confirm the validity of your feelings. Everything kind of fell into place, and while I don’t think you always have to define yourself or your sexuality, it felt good to be able to put a label on it proudly and legitimize all of my feelings.
As a grown woman, I still don’t see myself represented in the media. I can name on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed a bisexual woman crossing the screen. One of my favorite films featuring a bisexual female protagonist, a lesser known indie horror called Dark by director Nick Basile, had fantastic representation of LGBT characters as well as mental illness, but I could not forget that my introduction to her character was in a sex scene.
I don’t want Katniss to be gay. I don’t want Hermione to be bi. I just want for there to be more characters like me in the stories I watch. I don’t want it to feel forced, and I don’t want for it to be a second thought. I want to see those same, nuanced, strong female characters I’ve always been seeing; the ones I looked up to as a child.
And I want to see them with men. And I want to see them with women.
Representation is so important. It’s everything.
If younger me saw a bisexual Hermione Granger, a bisexual Elizabeth Swann, a bisexual Padme Amidala, the heroes of my childhood, she would have been happier. She would maybe be less fearful about telling the world. Maybe she would be out and proud. Maybe she would have saved several years of hurt, confusion, and frustration. It’s sadly not the case and even today, where the world pretends it’s ready to understand, where it pretends it’s ready to accept, there’s still no representation.
If you don’t see yourself reflected back at you in your pop culture, which is supposedly a reflection of reality, then your thoughts and feelings feel disenfranchised. You feel less than because the world refuses to recognize you.
I held on to Carol this last year because it was so important. It was main stream, it was Oscar-bait, it was romantic. It was about identity, yes; it had to be, but it was a love story unabashedly between two women filmed and written in the same way the love stories of the big Golden Age MGM blockbusters were. That alone made it seem tangible. Yet, most of my favorite movies are not the dramas. They are the action movies, the mysteries, the fantasy films, the sci-fi epics. I don’t see even an inch of myself in those, and that’s the hardest. When I was younger, I wasn’t watching tough, gritty dramas. I was watching Star Wars and Harry Potter. That’s why it needs to be mainstreamed. We need to see ourselves represented from when we are young so that way when those feelings come up, we know that they are valid and okay.
I want for it to feel so normal, that it doesn’t become a story about being “bi”. Because, if you asked me to define myself; if you told me to go on listing words I would use to describe myself, I would have exhausted my brain of useful adjectives before I finally thought to use the word “bisexual”.
I want the stories I love to reflect that.
We’re on our way, but we’ve still got a long uphill road ahead of us. We need more Magnus Banes, more Ilana Glazers, more Lisbeth Salanders. I want to see them everywhere. I want to see them in the next Harry Potter, I want to see them in the next big Disney film. I want to see them in the next big superhero blockbuster. I want to feel like I’m not only recognized and represented, but equal.
Ultimately, we hope that things are different for the next generation. We are striving to make that possible. We do not want the young girls of the future to be sitting in their bedrooms, watching their favorite film or reading their favorite book, utterly encapsulated and yet sad and confused, because they’re feeling things that they are not seeing in those stories. It is ultimately so important, for children especially, to see themselves reflected back off of the screens and the pages of the magical worlds they fall in love with and disappear into, because it has such an effect on them.
Not showing them, not representing them, is telling them that they don't matter and that they aren’t good enough. The stigmatism this forces upon our children and their self esteem is so incredibly toxic. We need to be shown that we are all the same and that we all matter.
Our worlds would have been changed if our heroes were like us.
This is why our current project After Oil is so important to us.
Our story is about how one young bisexual, African-American girl, Briar Dunlap, may be the difference between whether her community endures, or drowns in the rush to attain oil. What we’re doing might not be groundbreaking, but it’s our goal that we can make something we wish we had seen when we were younger. We want to represent everyone who feels underrepresented realistically, as vibrant and genuine characters that can exist outside solely their “identity”, but as multidimensional, complex beings that are a part of mainstream entertainment.
If one day a little girl or boy will see the character we’ve created and the story we’ve told and be able to say “I’m just like Briar!” we’ll have made more of a dent than we could ever have hoped for.