Paramount's Heathers remake switches the classic social hierarchy seen in most high school television shows by making minority students the school bullies, instead of the victims. Unlike the original Heathers, which casts thin, white women in the title roles, version 2.0 includes a plus-size, body-positive Heather, a genderqueer Heather, and a Black, lesbian Heather — and the choice has everyone scratching their heads.
Turning minority students into vindictive bullies seemed like a misstep, and after the first episode dropped on Paramount it's clear that it was, especially for Heather McNamara. The Black, "lesbian" Heather is ridiculed in the very first episode when Veronica and Heather Duke catch her making out with a male teacher in a gas station parking lot.
“Heather Chandler is going to shit herself skinny when she finds out our Black, lesbian friend is actually only Black,” Heather Duke says, as they snap photos to later blackmail their friend.
In doing that, and later having Heather Duke tell Heather McNamara that she isn't "actually a member of the LGBTQQIA community," the Heathers remake completely skips over the possibility that Heather McNamara could be bisexual and adds itself to an ever-growing list of television shows that pretend bisexuality doesn't exist.
The official term for moments like these is "bisexual erasure," and it's just what it sounds like. These shows are erasing bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation. We see it in Buffy The Vampire Slayer when Willow — who had a loving relationship with a man for three seasons — starts dating a woman in season 4 and is labeled a lesbian for the rest of the series. It also pops up in the first season of Orange Is The New Black when Piper describes herself as "a former lesbian," in Sex In The City when Carrie Bradshaw says, "I'm not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it's just a layover on the way to Gaytown," and in countless other shows.
"It’s mind boggling to me that there would be characters who show interest in multiple genders, and the concept of bisexuality is never thought of in the script," says bisexual activist Eliel Cruz. "It's not shocking, exactly, because we've seen it so many times before. It's just disappointing."
Bisexual erasure has real-life consequences for the bi+ people who watch these shows. (Bi+ is an umbrella term that includes queer, pansexual, and all other not-monosexual orientations.) Bi+ people make up the majority of the LGBTQ+ community, yet they're hardly represented on screen. Of the 329 regular and recurring LGBTQ+ characters on television in 2017, 93 were bisexual+, according to GLAAD's annual Where We Are On TV report. While that's a decent percentage (28%), bi+ representation is about more than just having characters who are attracted to more than one gender. It's also about how shows treat those characters, and whether or not they actually name the character's bisexuality.
"Representation is important because it allows bisexual youth to see themselves and see what they’re able to be," Cruz says. "When bisexual characters don't exist, it can be isolating. And when we have damaging representations, that feeds into stereotypes."
Shows like Heathers ignore the possibility of bisexuality completely, but many more shows also contribute to bi erasure by refusing to call their sexually fluid characters bisexual. Sara Lance on Arrow, and later Legends Of Tomorrow, has sexual and romantic relationships with men and women, but the producers of the show actively avoid calling her bisexual. "We actually specifically avoid using the term ‘bisexual.’ We didn’t want to label her at all. Let her be her own person," producer Marc Guggenheim told Comicbook.com in 2014.
That would be all good and jolly if bisexual people were all over your TV screens, but since they aren't, Cruz says that showrunners have a responsibility to create that representation.
"Saying things like 'we don't like labels' is rooted in biphobia," he says. "The only time anyone says that is when it's a character on the bisexual spectrum. And when we don’t label them, there’s a lot of weird claiming of characters." Gay and lesbian people will take a character who has showed interest in multiple genders and claim them as gay or lesbian, he says, and that once again erases bisexuality as a real identity.
Many straight and gay/lesbian people believe bisexual people can't actually be interested in multiple genders. Some people believe this so wholeheartedly that they refuse to date bisexual people, thinking that bisexual women will eventually turn straight and bisexual men will turn gay. It's a big problem that television hasn't done much to combat.
When there are bisexual characters on TV, Cruz says they are disproportionately portrayed by women who often fall into negative stereotypes like being manipulative, devious, or overly sexualized."These shows are sexualizing bi+ women for the benefit of straight male viewers," he says. "In the real world that ends up leading to violence." Bi+ women experience significantly higher rates of sexual assault and partner violence than either straight or lesbian women.
It also means there's a lack of representation for bisexual men overall. "That's disappointing for me as a bi man," Cruz says. "There's just generally an absence. We don't exist."
Of course, there has been some improvement since Willow's bisexuality was erased on Buffy in the early 2000s. We now have characters like Rosa Diaz on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, who came out as bisexual in the latest season and even some bi+ men, like Jane's boyfriend Adam on Jane The Virgin. These shows are doing bisexuality right by actually calling their characters bisexual and making them real people who live full lives.
It's encouraging, but it's still not enough. As long as shows like Heathers continue to ignore bisexual people entirely, bi+ individuals will continue to hear that their identity isn't valid. They deserve better, and so does Heather McNamara.
Heathers was originally slated to run March 7, but has been delayed due to gun violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.