The Trope of the Depraved Bisexual
An exploration and lukewarm celebration.
2018 has been a good year for bisexual visibility. We’ve got Janelle Monae and Nicole Cliffe; we have Valkyrie from Thor (though the scene confirming her bisexuality was cut), and Rosa from Brooklyn 99. Bisexual flag merchandise has been given greater prominence in Target’s Pride section this year; pansexual, a similar orientation, briefly became Merriam-Webster’s most-searched term (thank you Janelle). People are increasingly aware that bisexual people were integral to the founding of the LGBTQ rights movement, belong at Pride, experience unique oppression distinct from homophobia, and have a right to self-identify no matter who they are currently dating or who they have had sex with in the past.
Bisexual representation in media, like LGBTQ representation as a whole, appears to be at an all-time high in TV, film, and in comics. And refreshingly, some of that representation is fantastic, well-researched, and heartfelt. Take Daryl Whitefeather from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, whose character was given a full arc that involved discovering his bisexuality, coming out to family and friends, and explaining the ways in which bisexuality is distinct from being either gay or straight. If you’re bi, yourself, you’ve almost certainly heard his character’s song on the matter, “Gettin’ Bi”, but here it is for the uninitiated:
Despite instances of beautiful, joyful representation like this, many bisexuals in media are still hounded by an age-old, thoughtless shorthand that is far less realistic or compassionate: The Depraved Bisexual Trope.
What is a Depraved Bisexual?
A Depraved Bisexual is a character, usually in a work of fiction, whose bisexuality is used as an indicator that they are untrustworthy, perverse, and morally corrupt. They are often depicted as impulsive, even unstable or mentally ill. Depraved Bisexuals are not merely attracted to some women and some men; they are salacious, and undiscriminating, perhaps willing to fuck “anything that moves”. Their sexuality, in the narrative, is a source of distraction and corruption — they often are depicted as having explosive emotions, and a deep streak of hedonism and other animalistic urges. Because they cannot “decide” on a gender to be attracted to, the logic goes, they also cannot say no to anything sexual or pleasurable.
Depraved Bisexuals are often villains, or amoral side characters who are willing to betray the heroes for their own gain. They are motivated primarily by greed and self-satisfaction. Often, Depraved Bisexuals seduce multiple heroic characters, of multiple genders, without their consent. Many depraved bisexuals have fetishes that are implied or made explicit by the narrative. This fact often implies that bisexuality is, itself, a kind of fetish, or an outgrowth of the Depraved Bisexual’s sex-starved nature.
If the Depraved Bisexual is a woman, she is often depicted as incredibly sexually alluring, but quick to “switch sides” both in terms of her orientation and her moral alignment. Such a character is usually dressed in a highly sexualized manner, and may use her allure to seduce, and then betray, the protagonist. Poison Ivy is a clear-cut example of this. She is seductive and primal, and she cannot be relied upon; she romances both women and men and uses them to meet her own goals.
If the Depraved Bisexual is a man, he is likely to be slightly or excessively effeminate, and may be made into a subject of derision or disgust. His attire may be flamboyant or sumptuous, signalling that he prioritizes pleasure above all else. He may delight in the torture or sexual degradation of other people. Ultimately, his voracious, corrupting sexual appetite spells his downfall. Logan Delos from the series Westworld is an iconic, recent example of this trope. He thoughtlessly fucks his way through Westworld (and its financial acquisition), seeking carnal pleasure and stimulation even when doing so harms him.
Depraved Bisexual characters have been appearing in comics, novels, films, and on TV since fiction was invented. Nearly every character written by the Marquis de Sade was a Depraved Bisexual. Lilith was a Depraved Bisexual. Frank-N-Furter was a Depraved Bisexual. So was Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct. And, as the Logan Delos example well illustrates, the Depraved Bisexual trope has not gone away. Here is a quick, whirlwind tour of some notable Depraved Bisexuals of the past and present.
Depraved Bisexuals On Screen
Rose Armitage (Get Out).
One of the most chilling reveals of Get Out is that the protagonist Chris’ white, seemingly supportive girlfriend Rose has been working with her parents to kidnap and snatch the bodies of black victims for her entire adult life. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Chris discovers that not only has Rose ensnared scores of black men over the years, she also dated and kidnapped a black woman as well.
Narratively, the detail of Rose’s bisexual dating history is unneeded. It is never indicated in the film that Rose’s romantic partners are the sole source of black bodies stolen by her family, so there is never any need to explain where the black female victims came from. Nevertheless, the reveal that Rose has manipulated both male and female victims is used to make Rose’s betrayal of Chris seem somehow even more shocking. Her bisexuality, only glanced at via a photograph of a single female victim, makes her seem doubly duplicitous to the audience.
Unlike many of the characters on this list, Rose is not implied to be evil because she is bisexual; however, the late-in-the-film reveal that she is bi (in addition to being a lying, manipulating body-stealer) makes her seem more shadowy and hard-to-know.
Frank Underwood (House of Cards).
Kevin Spacey, the actor who portrayed Frank Underwood, was fired from the show in response to sexual assault accusations leveled at him by Anthony Rapp. Spacey attempted to distract from these accusations, and disarm them, but framing his apology as a public coming-out as a queer man. None of that is what this section is about. This section is about Frank.
Frank Underwood is the protagonist of House of Cards, but he’s a villain to his core: craven, manipulative, and selfish. He is portrayed as sexually impulsive and irresponsible; his affairs with women and men are attempts at control and self-satisfaction, but they often blow up in his face, forcing him to organize a homicide to cover his tracks.
Frank is secretive about his sexuality, but this secretiveness is not portrayed with much sympathy. He’s not a closeted bisexual man in an open relationship with his wife; he’s a horny, uncontrolled sociopath who uses women and men alike to meet his needs, until his sexuality spirals out of his control and harms him. His character’s relationship with video games and smoking is used in much the same way: signs of his animalism and hedonism, hidden from the public eye so they can’t recognize what a monster he is.
Frank-n-Furter (Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Another villain protagonist / Depraved Bisexual named Frank, Dr. Frank-n-Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is depicted as perverse, fetishistic, controlling, and deeply selfish. Countless queer and trans people have latched onto the character because he is glamorous and charmingly transgressive, but the narrative unquestionably portrays him as a murderer and manipulator, who uses other people’s bodies for his own gratification.
As a cross-dressing, gender-fucking character, Frank-N-Furter manages to combine the worst features of both the male and female Depraved Bisexual sub-types. He is seductive, and uses his sex appeal to ensnare and corrupt, as is often observed in female Depraved Bisexuals; he is also an impulsive, somewhat ridiculous aesthete and pleasure-seeker who is undone by his own desires, as is often the case in male Depraved Bisexuals.
Poison Ivy (Batman comics, The Animated Series, etc).
Perhaps the most positively-portrayed Depraved Bisexual on this list, Poison Ivy is an alluring, at times conniving femme fatale with relationships with both women and men. The degree to which her character is compassionate and sympathetic depends on the iteration of her (and of Batman) that you are viewing. In Batman: The Animated Series she is chaotic neutral, perhaps even chaotic good, breaking laws for her own good, but also to benefit the environment and her friend/lover, Harley Quinn. In contrast, in the film Batman & Robin, Ivy is purely self-interested, hypersexualized, and evil. She uses other people as pawns, drugs and seduces Robin, and takes pleasure in destruction pretty much for its own sake.
Across many iterations, Poison Ivy’s bisexuality is defined by her appeal to other people. In addition to being conventionally attractive, her plant-based powers allow her to control, entice, arouse, and poison others at will. Because she is captivating on a biochemical level, she can attract men and women with ease. However, this attraction is artificial, and dangerous, as it often results in people getting poisoned or wrapped up in vines. In this way, many Batman stories make Ivy’s very sexuality into a toxic substance. The fact that Ivy uses plant vines to ensnare and cage her victims also subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) links her sexuality with BDSM; both the poison and the kink aspects further send home the message that Ivy’s sexual orientation is untamed, inappropriate, and unsafe to be around.
Logan Delos (Westworld).
The main plot of Westworld is kicked off when the absurdly wealthy, entitled heir to the Delos fortune, Logan, takes an interest in purchasing the park. Logan is lured to Westworld by its promise of adventure and carnal delights, specifically the promise of getting to fuck and murder as many sexy robot-people as he likes. From the outset of the show’s convoluted timeline, Logan avails himself to men and women of both the androids and human persuasion, while drinking heavily and firing guns with little regard for the harm he is causing.
Logan’s bisexuality is used to illustrate to the viewer just how wantonly hedonistic his character is. Logan represents humanity’s uncontrolled worst urges. He is happy to shoot any robotic “host” with zero guilt, drink all day long, and fuck anything humanoid, of any gender without a thought. And his pleasure-seeking, unsympathetic behavior is harshly punished by the narrative — not only do his violent and sexual tastes cause harm to the conscious beings around him, they distract Logan from his own professional success as well. Ultimately, Logan’s lustful, short-sighted behavior results in him being ousted from the family business by the equally immoral, but straight (and, therefore, disciplined) William.
Tony (The Crown).
A fictionalized version of the real-life Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Tony is a more subtle, yet still damaging, example of a Depraved Bisexual character. Within the show, he is initially an appealing, artistic influence in Princess Margaret’s life, a scooter-driving, nude-photograph-taking charmer who takes her out of her comfort zone. Soon, however, he is revealed to be sexually voracious, bisexual, and duplicitous.
In real life, Tony and Margaret appear to have enjoyed an open marriage for many years, after which they split amicably and remained friends. In the narrative of The Crown, however, Tony is a manipulator who takes advantage of Margaret’s desire for love and excitement, and places her relationship with the public at risk. Tony is portrayed as selfish and unconcerned about how his extramarital affairs (with both women and men) impact his wife; after an initial period of wooing her, he becomes distant and preoccupied with his own pleasure. Like many Depraved Bisexuals in media, he cannot settle down or pick a side; he only serves himself.
Lee Garner Junior (Mad Men).
On Mad Men, Lee Garner Junior is one of the owners of Lucky Strike, the cigarette company that foots the bill for most of Sterling Cooper et al’s advertising endeavors. As the representative of Sterling Cooper’s biggest client, Lee Garner Jr. gets to pull quite a few strings to get what he wants. This involves demanding lavish parties, flirting openly with the married administrative assistant Joan Harris, sexually harassing agency partner Roger Sterling, and sexually assaulting the agency’s closeted gay Art Director, Salvatore Romano.
Lee Garner Jr. is predatory and entitled. He appears to derive perverse enjoyment from pressuring his advertising agency to go to extreme ends to keep him happy. He’s sadistic in his demands for revelry, women, and liquor…and in private, he avails himself to men he has identified as easy targets. When one of Garner’s victims, Salvatore, reveals to Don Draper that he has been sexually assaulted, Draper is forced to fire Salvatore to contain the blowback. Garner appears to enjoy even this aspect of his predation — his victims are easily eliminated, allowing his hedonism to continue unchecked.
Billy Chenowith (Six Feet Under).
In some media depictions, Depraved Bisexuals are literally portrayed as mentally ill, and both their mental illness and bisexual are used as indicators of their moral bankruptcy or brokenness. Billy Chenowith from Six Feet Under is a prime example of that.
Billy has Bipolar Disorder, and is unreliable, impulsive, and at times dangerous to be around. He vacillates between being tender with his sister, Brenda, and his primary love interest, Claire, and being explosively angry and violent. Billy makes bold commitments that he cannot honor, then runs off and disappears. He is charming and artistic, and then throws around paranoid accusations and lashes out at himself and others.
Billy is also romantically unreliable, leaving Claire for a male art professor at one point in the series. (The art professor, himself, is a Depraved Bisexual, who exploits, controls, and has sex with both male and female students throughout the series). In many implicit ways, Billy’s Bipolarity and his bisexuality are linked — both make him inconsiderate and dangerous. Billy has Bipolar manic phases, and then hurts himself or others; he also has bisexual impulses to cheat or sexually act out, resulting in him harming himself and others.
Billy also has an inappropriate, incestuous relationship with his sister Brenda throughout the series — and this deeply depraved, perversely intimate relationship is framed as being related to Billy’s mental illness and his unrestrained, unconventional sexual nature.
Lisa (Girl, Interrupted).
Angelina Jolie’s magnetic, antisocial character from Girl, Interrupted is another iconic example of a mentally ill Depraved Bisexual character. A literal sociopath who has been institutionalized countless times, Lisa is charming, uncontrolled, and sexually possessive. She uses sexual advances to receive help and favors from male guards at her institution and to keep female patients in her thrall. Her character is unstable and violent towards herself and others, and is sexually unrestrained. Lisa is willing to have sex with a stranger at a moment’s notice, and happy to berate and threaten even her closest friends to the point of suicidality.
Lisa’s antisocial personality, and her bisexuality, are again implied by the narrative of the film to be linked. She does not follow social rules that she finds pointless and limiting; this includes moral standards, gender norms, standards of sexual propriety, and basic norms of decency and friendship. The same wantonness that makes Lisa seem liberated and fascinating to the main character, Susana, also makes her dangerous. Lisa will say and do anything without concern for the consequences; this makes it easy for her to indulge her desires for both women and men.
Reflecting on The Depraved Bisexual
Bisexuals have come a long way. The public perception that we are indecisive, sexually out-of-control, or desprate for attention has abated, and increasing numbers of public figures are openly adopting the bisexual (or pansexual) label. Fictional depictions of bisexual characters have, slowly, begun to follow suit.
Looking at media as a whole, thought, and considering the history of how bi people have been represented, a less rosy picture does emergy. Most fictional bisexuals are of the “depraved” type, not the complex, carefully depicted Rosa Diaz/Daryl Whitefeather type. And the Depraved Bisexual trope has filled the public consciousness with stereotypes of bisexuals as greedy, inconsistent, and lascivious. A few positive images cannot rapidly undo decades of anti-bisexual programming.
The Depraved Bisexual trope is one of many reasons that queer people come to identify with villains and villainous aesthetics. Our desires and identities have been demonized; many of us come to internalize that demonization. Even once we learn better, we may cling to that demonization or attempt to reclaim it. Depraved Bisexuals are often compelling and stylish, after all. And they tend to prioritize their desires in a way that few real-life bisexuals are allowed to.
We may envy Depraved Bisexual characters, or seek to reclaim them, because they are so unapologetic and glamorous. And we should feel free to do so. Unfortunately, we must also keep in mind that the Depraved Bisexual trope is at the heart of why bisexual people experience a heightened risk of domestic violence and discrimination. We have been portrayed as slippery, inconsistent, and sexually indiscriminate for so long that many people truly believe they have the right to slut-shame us, scold us for refusing to “pick a side”, or manipulate us into threesomes. Thankfully, a new generation of bisexual characters is challenging that notion, allowing us to celebrate the Cindi Mayweathers and the Billy Chenowiths inside all of us.
Who are your favorite Depraved Bisexual characters? Which queer-coded villains do you identify with? Let me know in the comments!