Australian Reality TV Has A Biphobia Problem

Shows like 'Married at First Sight' need to stop using bisexuality as a cheap plot point.

MAFS bisexual biphobia

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In Monday night’s episode of Married At First Sight, new groom Liam Cooper was revealed to be bisexual — except he wasn’t so much ‘revealed’ to be as he was outed, in a sequence of events many viewers found uncomfortable at best and biphobic at worst.

In the episode, Liam is asked by fellow MAFS castmates about his dating ‘non-negotiables’ at his wedding to his TV bride Georgia Fairweather. When he explains that he doesn’t have any, Bec Zemek asks: “What happens if they didn’t swing your way? Is that a non-negotiable?”. While there is a chance the question came to Bec randomly, there is also a highly likely chance it was fed to her by one of the show’s producers. What followed Bec’s loaded question was Liam being forced to come out, at his wedding, in front of his new wife, to a group of complete strangers.

In the following episode, which also aired this week, Liam and Georgia participated in the ‘honesty box’ exercise, which had already been completed by the group’s OG couples. As part of this exercise, the couple were asked to share how many people they’d each slept with — a question that no other couples on the show had previously been shown answering, leaving the task feeling like another excuse to make Liam’s bisexuality a plot point, as Georgia asks Liam to reveal how many of the people he’s had sex with were men.

While Georgia (for the most part) reacted positively to Liam’s sexuality and coming out, the reactions from viewers were mixed. While, some praised MAFS for casting its first bisexual man, others called out the show for its uncomfortable setup. But this is not the first time an Australian reality TV show has used a bisexual contestant’s coming out as fodder for drama.

In 2018, Brooke Blurton appeared on The Bachelor Australia where she disclosed to bachelor Nick Cummins, aka the Honey Badger, that she’d had past relationships with women at a cocktail party.

In early March, Brooke was interviewed by fellow Bachelor star Abbie Chatfield on her podcast, It’s A Lot. Brooke revealed that she was pressured by the producers and other contestants to come out to Nick. She told Abbie she didn’t want to — not because she was ashamed, but because she didn’t think it was anyone’s business. “I’m here on a show, dating a bachelor, a male. It doesn’t really matter if I break up with him and I get back together with a girl,” she said.

Brooke was especially frustrated with the way the producers framed her sexuality, saying it was framed as “the biggest bombshell, big reveal, big secret, all this stuff”. (It’s also worth noting that Brooke doesn’t identify as bisexual, despite constantly being referred to as such in the media.)

On top of that, the way she was portrayed as having a lack of confidence in her sexuality also upset her. “They made me out that I was saying that I wanted to be with a guy and I would have a baby with a guy, making out like girls, can’t do IVF or whatever.”

Brooke is not the only Bachelor contestant to have experienced her sexuality being used as a plot point. In the 2018 season of Bachelor In Paradise, contestant Megan Marx’s openness about her queerness was also deliberately used to bait viewers. Advertisements for BIP teased Marx kissing a mystery long-haired brunette, baiting viewers to believe the series would have its first same-sex kiss, only to reveal when the show aired that Marx was kissing a man. Marx took to Instagram to respond, writing: “I too was disappointed that my sexuality was used as leverage when the truth (the fact that I’m a sexual minority at all!) is always the most respectful option.”

Biphobia is not the same as homophobia. While the two definitely share common struggles, there are some key differences. In a 2020 interview with CBS News, Dr Nora Madison, a media professor at Chestnut Hill College explained: “The most common stereotype is that bisexuals cannot be fully satisfied with only one partner because half of their desires must then obviously be denied.”

Owing to their perceived adjacency to heterosexuality, bisexuals are also often labelled as untrustworthy, indecisive, and disingenuous by both straight and queer people. This mistrust feeds into the stereotype that bisexual people are sex-obsessed, insecure, immoral, and even liars — and each of these stereotypes influences the way bisexual people are represented in the media.

For example, the idea that bisexual people are more likely to be unfaithful in a relationship owing to their attraction to other genders is one popular way biphobia manifests in media. In the case of both Liam and Brooke, this anxiety is too clear, as their storylines were edited in a way that reassured viewers they would be faithful to their prospective love interests, despite having been with people of the same sex in the past.

Towards the end of their TV wedding, Liam’s bride Georgia tells him: “Honestly, I so believe that whatever like, things that you did before, it all led you to be here today and the person that you are, so as long as you choose to be with me and we are the people that we need to be for each other, it doesn’t bother me.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but scratch the surface and the biphobic anxiety isn’t difficult to see. The fact that she felt the need at all to say “as long as you choose to be with me” speaks to the conditionality people’s bisexuality is often met with. It also echoes the conditionality with which Nick responded when Brooke came out on The Bachelor saying: “It doesn’t bother me. At least Brooke knows what she wants now”.

Not only do these kinds of statements imply that being with a bisexual person is conditional upon dismissing their past, they both infer that bisexuality is not a whole sexuality in itself and that bisexuals are only bisexual until they settle down with a person of a certain gender — at which point, they are whatever sexuality aligns with the gender identity of their current partner. But that isn’t how bisexuality works. Bi women are not straight when they’re with men and lesbians when they’re with women — they’re bisexual, period. Liam is not straight because he is married to Georgia. Brooke is not straight when she’s dating a man.

These kind of portrayals often also involve the fetishisation of bisexual women — something demonstrated all too well in the way Megan Marx’s bisexuality was leveraged in advertisements for Bachelor In Paradise. Not only was the advertisement blatant queer baiting, misleading queer viewers into believing they would be represented, the way the advertisement teased the kiss as both sexy and scandalous played into the biphobic trope of women’s and femme’s bisexuality existing for the titillation of others. The spectacle is not there to educate or represent, but to tantalise and shock.

Because it’s not the spectacle of bisexuality, it’s a spectacle of biphobia for the entertainment of those willing to permit it. By creating a spectacle around how a bisexual person disrupts these series’ doctrines of heteronormativity and simultaneously invalidating it with seemingly innocuous “well, as long as you’re with me” statements, shows such as MAFs and the Bachelor keep biphobic and homophobic viewers appeased while getting to pat themselves on the back for LGBT+ inclusion.

It is this exploitation of bisexuality’s perceived precariousness that makes biphobia in media look different from homophobia. It’s a uniquely insidious tokenism that sees bisexuality often portrayed as a sworded, uncertain past that the person will happily renounce for the safety and benefits of heteronormativity. Bisexuals are presented in popular media as poster children for the possibility that LGBT+ folk will return to “normality”, rather than to represent the complex bisexual experience.

Liam, Brooke, and Megan have all spoken out against the way their sexuality has been handled in these shows, yet it continues to happen. Watching Liam’s fellow castmates’ looks of shock when he was outed was not good television — it was traumatic.

According to a 2017 study, bisexuals experience more mental health risks, including having the highest risk of suicide, than cis gay men and cis lesbian women. None of this happens in a vacuum. Normalising biphobia in media — even in reality TV — directly affects the wellbeing and safety of bisexual people.

To put it simply, bisexuals deserve better than to see our sexuality so consistently used as a dramatic plot point in reality television. Because in reality, those portrayals hurt us far more than they entertain you.

Merryana Salem (she|they) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher, researcher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they gush about LGBT rep in media. Either way, she hopes you ate something nice today.