Bi Erasure in Disney’s Live Action Mulan

Growing up, I watched the 1998 Disney classic Mulan a lot. Mostly because it was my sister’s favourite Disney movie, but over time, I began to gain appreciation for it as well. The animation is truly stunning, the songs are incredibly fun, the subject matter is impressively brave, and come on guys, for a cartoon character, Li Shang is pretty hot.

So when I heard that Disney was going to make a live action adaption of Mulan, I was really excited. I felt that the Chinese setting would lend itself to some truly stunning visuals and Disney always takes advantage of that, and the story is a very important one that should be told again. Along the way, a few things sprung up to try and deter my excitement: there was speculation that the film would be whitewashed, but I had faith in Disney to prove that speculation wrong, and fortunately enough, they did. There was the announcement that the amazing songs, the songs that I grew up with and loved, would not be in the film, but you know what, I understood that choice. It was a different adaption, and it does need to be taken in a different direction to be a successful film.

But the third time’s the charm, because it only just now came to my attention that Li Shang will not be included in the live action adaption. Instead, he will be replaced by another character named Chen Honghui.

Now why would this bother me so much? After all, from everything we can tell so far, Chen Honghui will play a very similar role to Shang, being Mulan’s love interest, and it’s not really like Shang was all that integral to the plot of the original that he absolutely needs to be repeated. And, yes, I have fond memories of singing along to I’ll Make a Man Out of You and realizing that Shang is actually kind of hot, but since there’s not going to be any songs in the film, I already know that that experience won’t be repeated anyway. So why get upset? Why does it matter?

Well, it matters because of the speculated reason that Disney has for replacing Shang.

Let’s get this straight right off the bat: Disney has not officially released an explanation for replacing Shang, but there has been speculation, and from where I am, it does look bad. Because, you see, since the original movie’s release in 1998, Shang has somewhat gained a reputation (especially amongst the LGBT+ crowd) for being Disney’s first bisexual character, mostly because he may or may not have started developing feelings for Mulan when he thought she was a man. Whether or not Shang is intended to be interpreted as bisexual by the writers is difficult to say, as no actual statement has been made by Disney at any point, but does that really matter? So long as the audience keeps believing that it’s true, and there is evidence in the film to support it, then for all intents and purposes, Shang is Disney’s first bisexual character. Which is awesome.

And I know what you’re thinking: that’s an awfully big leap to make, implying that Shang is being replaced because he was interpreted as bisexual. There could have been a million reasons for the choice, because his character was much more than just a speculated sexual orientation. Except Disney has said very little about this Chen Honghui fellow besides the fact that he will serve as Mulan’s adversary up until the point where he realizes that she’s a woman.

Okay, first off, correct me if I’m wrong (I don’t understand you weird people attracted to a single gender), but isn’t disliking someone up until you realize you can fuck them kind of skeezy? And secondly, that makes the replacement of Shang look really bad. Because as far as we know at this point, Chen Honghui will be the exact same character as Shang, with two alterations: his name (unimportant) and the question of whether or not he developed feelings for Mulan when he thought that she was a man (hugely important). It takes away the possible interpretation that Shang could be bisexual. It reassures the biphobic audience that, don’t worry, there’s no gay stuff going on here. Just heterosexual dude-bros doing their heterosexual dude-bro thing right up until, oh look, a woman! Better drop all that aggressive testosterone and turn it into lady-pleasing testosterone.

And as I have implied earlier in this article, I want to have the most faith in Disney possible. Their most recent film, the live action adaption of Beauty and the Beast, featured their first openly gay character, and I was all gung-ho about supporting them for it. But Shang is a bigger and more important character than Lefou. It is more significant for little boys growing up bisexual to watch a film where there is a man who is represented as masculine and desirable, and yet he is still bisexual, and that doesn’t take away from his ability to find love and help save China. Lefou was a tiny step forward for Disney, but replacing Shang with a character who we are assured is 100%, totally heterosexual is a giant leap back.

And maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. At this point, production for the live action adaption of Mulan is still in its early stages, and most of what I’m going off of here is speculation. But let’s just hope that Disney proves me wrong and gives me a film with both a badass female warrior and her openly bisexual boyfriend.

A Story of Doubt – Being Bisexual, Self-Conscious, and Ready to Embrace Who I Am

The internet is my unpaid therapist, and I will exploit that to the best of my ability. Partly because it feels good to vent – to scream into the void, it sometimes feels like. Partly because I like the idea that my experience is somebody else’s experience, and maybe that somebody else will stumble upon this and relate, or maybe somebody who knows that somebody else will stumble upon this and better understand what they’re going through. Either way, what do I have to lose with honesty?

And I’m not saying that my experience is every bisexual’s experience – that would be an extremely reductive statement to make, and we’re all different people, all dealing with a similar circumstance in our own unique way. But maybe my experience has been felt by other bisexual people before. Or maybe my experience contains echoes of other issues that I’m not aware of, and you can find other ways to relate to it. Who knows what the power of words are?

But my point is, this particular scream into the void is regarding my status as a bisexual woman. I’ve known that I was bisexual ever since I was about ten years old, when I started to become aware of the fact that I noticed girls just as much as I noticed guys. When I first realized it, I thought I was being pretty accepting of the idea. I mean, I didn’t tell anyone, not at the age of ten, but still, from that point forward I lived with that understanding of myself, I didn’t really think about it all that much or question the hows or whys.

In elementary school, I developed little crushes on multiple different people. The boy who struck me as different and maybe a little bit better than the rest. The girl who defended me from bullies. They never really progressed all that far, but still, I had them and I never doubted them.

High school was much the same – I continued developing crushes on people that never really went anywhere, because I was a Strong Independent Woman who had my grades to focus on and a novel that I was working on. Before high school graduation, I only really had two crushes that were seriously note-worthy – one on a male friend, the other on a girl in one of my classes. And although my adolescent years was the time that I started to become bombarded with insecurities, I never really doubted who I was in that regard. I became aware that some people might not be able to love me because they came to my status as bisexual with preconceived notions, sure, but it didn’t matter because that was what I was. I never forgot that.

It was only after high school graduation, when I entered university, that that all changed. Because the thing is, the transition from teenager to young adult was very hard on me. I lost most of my friends, and had difficulties making new ones. I was shipped off to another town, to attend a school that I somehow doubted was the right fit for me. And more and more, I was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that there were certain milestones in a person’s life that I was supposed to reach yet that I just hadn’t. I should have had a serious relationship by now, I should be into drinking and partying, I should have made that one big mistake that fucks up my life for a couple of months but then I get back on the horse and everything’s a-okay. Drowning in a sea of regret and confusion, I became depressed and incredibly, almost cripplingly self-conscious.

Let me try to explain to you how self-conscious I got, because this is a big part of the story: I had difficulties talking to people because I felt like I had nothing to say that was of value. I felt like my life was a waste, and that I had barely lived it at all. I felt like I hadn’t touched anyone or done anything, and nobody would miss me if I just went away for good. My point is, I got low, and when you get that low and you simultaneously have a barrage of media telling you that there’s something else that’s wrong with you, you tend to be kind of susceptible to it.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the negative stigma regarding being bisexual that I gave into. It wasn’t the idea that we’re all whores (I could combat that opinion with my own lived experience), or that we’re all going to hell (I still don’t even know if I believe in hell), or that we’re undeserving of love (maybe that was true for me, but there were a lot of contributing factors around that). No, the belief system that affected me the most was the simple assertion that we don’t exist. That all bisexual people are wrong and greedy, that we can and should just pick one gender or the other. I felt like I was committing some cosmic violation by being bisexual, so I tried to be something else. There was a period of time where I tried being straight, tried going back to factory settings, but that all fell apart when I came to terms with the fact that I was living a lie. So if I wasn’t straight, then therefore I was a lesbian, right? I talked like a lesbian, thought like a lesbian, even tried to assert that I was a lesbian to a certain extent, but just like pretending to be straight, it always felt like a lie. It felt wrong in a spiritual, gut-level sort of way, different than the way that being bisexual felt wrong. Being bisexual felt wrong because I was told it was. Being straight or a lesbian felt wrong because I was neither.

But I wanted to be one or the other. Being straight looked easier for obvious reasons, but being a lesbian looked easier too because at least I saw them. When I watched movies or TV growing up that included LGBT+ characters, they were always gay or lesbian. Never bisexual. They were whole, they were complete, they didn’t have to worry about being taken seriously as a member of the LGBT+ community because no matter who they ended up with in the end, their partner would always reflect the fact that they didn’t belong in the heterosexual world. And if they ever got married, they wouldn’t have to deal with people saying the sorts of things that bisexual people have to deal with: “So you’re a non-practicing bisexual?” “So you’re straight/lesbian now?” “Do you ever miss being with insert-other-gender-here?”

Now, I’m not saying that being a lesbian is easier than being bisexual – truth be told, I don’t know for sure which experience is easier, as I’ve only lived the one, and at the end of the day, it isn’t a competition. I’m just trying to explain my thoughts and my perspective.

And the strange thing is, when you start trying to tell yourself that you’re one thing, it sort of throws everything into doubt. Sure, I could remember having crushes on boys back before high school graduation, but were those really crushes? Heteronormativity is a bitch, so maybe I was just trying to tell myself that I was bisexual? Yes, being bisexual felt more natural to me, but how much could I trust that really? And besides, after high school graduation, the only crushes and relationships I’ve had have been really unhealthy, distorted and ugly versions wherein I choose who to flirt with based solely off of who’s flirting with me, rather than because I’m actually attracted to them. And therefore, the fact that I haven’t been attracted to the boys I flirt with must be because I’m not attracted to boys, right? It never even crossed my mind that, maybe, it was because I had really low self-esteem, and therefore I only gave the time of day to whoever validated me as an attractive individual, regardless of what I thought about them.

This has been the limbo that I’ve been living in for almost four years now – uncertain, self-conscious, and trying to force myself to fit a narrative that I don’t belong in. But the other day, I went to an event hosted by my school’s LGBT+ club, and while I was there, I was listening to one of my friends joke around with one of the club’s leaders – a girl who I haven’t spoken to very often. They kept referring to this girl’s partner, and after a while, I became aware of the fact that they were using male pronouns to refer to him. That was when it struck me – one of the club’s leaders, a girl who is welcome in this space and taken seriously as a member of the LGBT+ community here, is either a bisexual or pansexual woman. Up until that point, I don’t think it had really occurred to me what I was thinking, but it struck me then how really fucked up it is that I’m trying to make myself one thing when I’m not, and when there’s nothing wrong with who I am. I don’t have to ‘choose’. I just need to start taking myself more seriously.

So here I am: a new arrival on the long, uphill road to self-esteem. I don’t know how difficult it’s gonna be, but I imagine pretty darn difficult. I have a lot that I need to address about myself, and a lot of things that I’ve been saying that I need to start believing. Because I can say, surface-level, that there’s nothing wrong with being bisexual, but that doesn’t mean that I believe it right down to my stubborn, hard, little core. I can say that this is who I am and the world is the one at fault for trying to convince me that that’s wrong, but I am the one who needs to be convinced of that, first and foremost. And I’m ready to make myself.

And if there’s anything that I want you, the reader, to take away from my story, it’s this: there’s nothing wrong with being who you are. Whether you be a fabulous bisexual like me or something else entirely, you’re okay, and you need to tell yourself that you’re okay. You need to believe it. You can read all the inspirational crap on the internet you want, you can try to tell the people in your life that it’s true, but you need it to sink in. Because that’s the only way that you can be settled in this weird little life you’ve been given.

3 Subtle Ways That Bisexual People are Regularly Excluded

So, I’m not going to lie: I like being bisexual. If I could choose my sexual orientation, this would probably be the one I would choose. I like that I was forced from a young age to exist between the lines – to see things from outside of the binary. There are many people, after all, who never think to question the binary because they’ve never had any reason to. They’re either straight or gay, either male or female, they see things in terms of either good or evil and black or white, but when you’re a person who falls outside of those terms (whether you be bisexual, pansexual, intersex, gender non-conforming, or even just a jerk who means well), then suddenly you’re forced to question why it is that people tend to see things as either one thing or another. Society rarely considers the murky middle regions, and I’m proud to say that I have firmly taken residence in those regions.

But there are some parts of being bisexual that are less than fun, and one of those is when someone doesn’t mean to be exclusive, but they are. This often goes back to what I was saying about the binary – most people see things either one way or another, and they just don’t realize that doing that ignores the infinite options in between. They aren’t trying to be offensive, and they don’t mean any harm in it, they just aren’t used to thinking outside the binary.

So to illustrate this, I’ve collected a list of three statements I’ve heard often from people who aren’t trying to ignore the existence of bisexuals, but end up doing so by default.

1. “Oh, insert-public-figure’s-name-here is dating/married to someone of the same gender? I didn’t know they were gay!”

This one I only take issue with when the above mentioned information is really all you have to go on: when all you know is that insert-public-figure’s-name-here is dating someone of the same gender, and the immediate assumption is that that must mean they’re gay.

I saw this a lot with Kristen Stewart recently, when there was speculation on the internet that she might be dating a woman, and most of what I heard jumped immediately to this conclusion. “I didn’t know she was gay!” or “Of course Kristen Stewart is a lesbian! I should have known!” was everywhere. Yet, the fact that she wasn’t outed yet meant that nobody knew if that was the case. All that they knew was that she might be involved with a woman. And if Kristen Stewart was/is involved with a woman, then that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s a lesbian. After all, her being bisexual or pansexual was equally as plausible in that scenario, but I never once heard anyone say “I didn’t know Kristen Stewart was bisexual!”

While I doubt that anyone was actively trying to be harmful, the immediate assumption that a person must be completely homosexual in order to be dating someone of the same gender erases the experiences of those who aren’t.

Better ways that you can phrase this sentiment include “Oh, insert-public-figure’s-name-here is dating someone of the same gender? I didn’t realize they were part of the queer community!”

2. “She’s so hot, I’m going to go lesbian for her!”

I remember hearing this statement a lot around the emergence of Ruby Rose as a public figure.

The sentiment that you’re trying to get across when you say that is: that woman is so physically attractive that I, as a straight woman, would actually consider having some sort of romantic or sexual relationship with her. And that is a perfectly fine sentiment. I understand better than most that sexuality is not as simple as it seems: a person can identify one way all their lives and then suddenly identify differently well into their adult lives, and there is nothing wrong with that.

But the problem with the wording in this statement is not only that is misunderstand what being queer is (you don’t just go lesbian because you saw a hot girl and now suddenly, your lifetime of being attracted to men is forgotten), but it reduces sexuality to a very one-or-the-other, binary system. You’re not saying “yes, I’m still attracted to men, but that woman makes me think that I’m not entirely as straight as I thought”. What you’re saying is that sexuality is either straight or gay, and this woman is somehow so hot that you started playing for the other team all of a sudden.

It ignores the possibility that a person can be attracted to men, and also be attracted to women. Because if you legitimately find this woman attractive, then the only thing you can be is a lesbian.

Better ways that you can phrase this sentiment include “That wo/man is so hot. I’d date him/her.”

3. “Oh, so you married a woman? Does that mean you’re straight now?” or “I had an ex ‘go straight’ on me”

I’m lumping these two together because they basically express the same sentiment: in both cases, it’s assuming that a bisexual person who enters into a long-term relationship with someone of one gender is now exclusively attracted to that gender.

First of all – that just isn’t how the world works. Straight women who have been happily married for years are still able to find men who aren’t their husbands attractive, and nobody bats an eye at that. It’s normal, it’s to be expected. “I’m married, but I’m not dead”, older people will jokingly say when they see an attractive person. Well, it’s the same thing for bisexual people. Even if they’re completely in love with someone and can’t see themselves ever being with anyone else, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t bisexual anymore.

And, secondly, this kind of plays into a very harmful stereotype about bisexual people: that we’re all either confused or faking our sexuality for some reason. Bisexuality isn’t real, it isn’t possible to actually be attracted to more than one gender, and someday we’ll all learn that when we find the right person and just become straight (spoiler alert: we won’t).

Better ways that you can phrase this sentiment include “Congratulations on getting married! I’m so happy for you!” or “Yeah, my ex is dating Jim now. I hope he treats her well.”

~

As I mentioned before, all of these statements are fairly common, and if you’ve said something like this before, I’m not here to judge you or say that you’re wrong. The only thing that I’m trying to do is point out the ways in which these statements erases the experiences of bisexual people, and hopefully, help you to think a little bit more outside the binary by pointing out that these experiences exist. We’ve all done or said things that we didn’t realize were harmful or exclusive at the time, and that doesn’t mean that we’re evil people. All that it means is that we keep trying to better ourselves and learn more about other experiences.

 

The Faulty Queer Representation in Gotham

So I’ve been watching Gotham lately.

Let’s get one thing straight (tee hee) before I begin – I am not watching this show because of its promises to represent a wide range of people and sexual orientations. I am watching this show because I am a huge Batman geek, and I’m just so sadly amused by the prospect of seeing tiny baby Brucie when he was still all shy and awkward around girls.

Because if I was watching this show specifically for its representation of sexual orientations, I don’t think I’d be enjoying it as much as I am.

The first two seasons were somewhat limited in their definition of ‘sexual representation’, because they only ever featured bisexual women. Not bisexual men. Not young bisexual girls (despite the fact that they totally could explore young Selina Kyle’s bisexuality – but, no, it never gets a mention in the show). Just over-eighteen, totally hot girls who make out with each other without ever really speaking, and then run off to their more serious relationships with men. Even as a bisexual woman myself, I am disappointed by their definition of ‘representation’.

But then season three rolled around, and they did something that promised change.

Drum roll please.

Season three of Gotham introduced a bisexual male character!

I think.

You see, it’s never really really been made clear what Oswald Cobblepot’s sexual orientation is. I’m assuming that he’s supposed to be bisexual only because his character is based on the Penguin from the Batman comic books, TV shows, movies, and video games, and previous incarnations of his character has shown an interest in women before. As far as I know, this is the first time that Oswald has been revealed to have an interest in men as well. So I think he’s bisexual.

But, really, who the hell knows?

Because, yes, Oswald’s non-heterosexual orientation has only just been revealed in the show, but even still, they haven’t had him or anyone around him actually say that he isn’t heterosexual. The only reason that we know he isn’t is because he has confessed to having romantic feelings for another man. He never told anyone that he’s gay or bisexual, nobody around him expressed any surprise at discovering that he has feelings for another man (despite the fact that this is the first time that he’s expressed romantic feelings for anyone at all), and even weirder, the conflict between these two men seems to be that Edward (the one who Oswald has feelings for) is straight, and yet nobody is outright saying that this is the conflict. Which is weird, because there have been many opportunities for him or the people around him to state as much.

For example, when Edward learned that Oswald has feelings for him, he could have taken the opportunity to say something along the lines of, “but I’m not into men”, but he didn’t. Instead, he just seemed completely unaware that this was even a possibility at first, and then vaguely disturbed when it finally sunk in, and all of this without ever actually giving a reason for him to feel this way besides what the audience can fill in for themselves.

The writers of Gotham seem to be trying to treat the relationship between Oswald and Edward the same way that they would any relationship between a straight couple, which is a nice idea. I understand where it’s coming from, I do – it’s the same argument that many people take toward the fact that J.K. Rowling never textually stated that Dumbledore is gay. “It was never necessary to mention,” some people say, “because gay people aren’t special or different from straight people. They’re just people.”

Which is true. Gay people are just people. And writing queer characters who seem to be in denial about the fact that their relationships are at all different from heterosexual relationships is most certainly better than writing queer characters who only represent stereotypes around queer people. But at the same time, real life queer people are aware that they’re queer.

When I, as a bisexual woman, start to have feelings for a heterosexual woman, I’m totally aware that that’s the conflict between us. I don’t think that simply getting rid of her boyfriend will suddenly earn her a spot in my arms. If I decide to confess my feelings to her (which, honestly, I rarely would if I knew that she was straight), I would do so entirely within the context that she naturally does not feel attraction toward people of my gender. I might even use words like ‘straight’ and ‘bisexual’.

And even outside of that context, as much as being bisexual is not something that defines me, it isn’t something that I just completely ignore either. Sometimes I or my friends will make jokes about it, or play around with the stereotypes around it, or, hell, even just mention it! While I don’t know if there are many opportunities for the writers of Gotham to have Oswald play around with the stereotypes around being a bisexual or gay man, the fact that they absolutely refuse to have him even just say the word does strike me as a little odd and not truly reflective of the true queer experience.

Because as much as I know that Gotham does not exist in our reality, the reality in which is does exist does not seem to harbour a society all too different from our own. I would assume that the same prejudices and difficulties that queer people face in our world exist there as well, and the fact that Edward, Barbara, Butch, Tabatha, and Oswald’s bitter maid all receive the news of his crush just the same as they would if he was expressing attraction to a woman just doesn’t seem likely. It seems like the writers’ attempts to represent queer characters without actually having to discuss any of the issues that queer people face.

Which, don’t get me wrong – not every story featuring queer characters has to be an in-depth exploration of how difficult it can be to be a queer person, but the least that the writers can do is faithfully represent how this person would go through the world.

At the end of the day, I’m still going to watch Gotham. Like I said, I’m not watching it for the queer representation – I’m watching it because baby Ozzy and baby Eddie are just so adorable! All that I hope is that the writers learn and improve with time.