I’ve had a thing for Sandra Oh since my parents took my sister and me to see Sideways in 2004. I remember watching her use her motorcycle helmet to hit a man before hopping on her bike, yelling “fuckface,” and driving away. She’s straight in that movie, but she also has kind of a biker aesthetic that gives her a queer appeal. So when a friend described the first season of the BBC America show Killing Eve as “gay” — and I learned the show starred Sandra Oh — that was enough to get me hooked.
As it turned out, Killing Eve — the second season of which premieres this Sunday — is certainly a queer show, but Eve herself (played by Oh) doesn’t really reveal her sexuality during the first season; she might even still be questioning it herself. That’s partly because sexual desire is hardly Eve’s driving motivation. During the first episode, she’s called into work on a Saturday to learn about a peculiar assassination. Eve becomes obsessed with the assassin’s artful methods — so obsessed, in fact, that she forgets about dinner, and later that evening, forgets to have sex with her husband 30 seconds after suggesting it.
This obsession — with an assassin whom she hasn’t ever seen — is the beginning of the “love story” that drives the series. We soon learn that the killer is a porcelain-skinned young Russian woman who calls herself Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Villanelle and Eve’s actual physical encounters are fleeting, but the two are always trying to find each other. Villanelle, after catching a glimpse of Eve in a bathroom, seeks out other curly-haired older women to satisfy her sexual urges until she can get the real thing. Unlike Eve, Villanelle is very aware of and attentive to her physical needs; she thrives off of sex, couture, sweets, champagne, and seeing the life drain from the eyes of her victims.
The uniquely weird and layered relationship between these two women was enough to keep me captivated, even as it seemed less and less likely that it would culminate with a gay sex scene. But as the season progressed, something else bothered me — something that I probably would have noticed right away if I hadn’t been so seduced by the show’s casting and writing. Villanelle is bisexual, and for all the nuance we see around femininity and desire, Villanelle’s bisexuality is portrayed in a way that is both tired and damaging. Her need for sex with multiple genders is tied to her depraved and insatiable appetite, which she is only able to feed because of her total lack of a moral compass.
Villanelle’s sexual desire is very much linked to her need to kill.
Amoral, deeply disturbed bisexual characters have become so common that GLAAD has repeatedly noted the trope in its “Where We Are on TV” surveys. Other leading bisexual characters who are way too comfortable with manipulation and murder include Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), who does both these things to gain the presidency on Netflix’s House of Cards, and Annalise Keating (Viola Davis), who goes far beyond her duties as a defense lawyer when it comes to protecting known killers on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. All three characters are obsessed with control; they are pathological liars, they are unfaithful, and, without giving away too much, they’re all at best blasé if their “loved” ones end up dead. Given the growing — but still small — number of bisexual characters onscreen, viewers might not be able to avoid internalizing the idea that bisexual lust and bloodlust go hand in hand.
Annalise, Frank, and Villanelle not only embody these characteristics to a T they are such well-known and prominent characters that they have the potential to become iconic. Together they create a kind of new archetype for sociopathic bisexual characters. Their sexuality is explicit, not implied — setting them apart from many queer villains past. Not only are they amoral but they arrogantly prescribe different sets of rules for themselves — think of Frank Underwood justifying puppy murder to the camera in the first scene of House of Cards. They are unable to control their appetite — for food (Villanelle is obsessed with sweets, Annalise drinks vodka and can’t get enough ice cream, Frank eats ribs for breakfast), sex, or control. I don’t personally know any bi people (or anyone in general) who see themselves this way.
But this trope lives on in Villanelle, whose sexual desire is very much linked to her need to kill. She mutilates the genitals of more than one of her victims out of sheer sadism. Before doing this, she tells one such victim in detail what she believes will happen to him once he’s dead:
Your eyes will just empty. Your soul goes in. People think your soul or your personality or whatever leaves the body when you die; I swear it just goes further in. It falls so far in it just becomes so small that it can’t control your body anymore. It’s just in there, tiny forever.
This haunting and strange bit of dialogue stuck with me for days. But I wish it weren’t coming from the mouth of a character who has by now become too familiar.
Killing Eve’s bisexual representation is especially disappointing given creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s usual resistance to falling into traps and clichés when it comes to women and sex.
Eve herself is a great example of a woman whose sexual proclivities are both unique and hard to pin down. Sometimes it seems like Eve’s obsession with murder might be a kind of kink that she shares with Villanelle. In one scene, she twists a knife into her own leg, trying to understand how a small puncture wound could bleed someone to death. When her husband walks in on her, she initiates a conversation about how each of them would murder the other.
“Sexy?” she asks. “Very,” he says.
But throughout the series, whenever Oh has an opportunity to actually get laid, whether with a man or a woman, she doesn’t take it. Her focus is elsewhere. It’s refreshing to see people like this portrayed on TV, when so many of the characters we see onscreen are primarily driven by their sexual needs, which can obscure the fact that sex is simply less important to some people than it is to others. Shows speak to the variety of people in the world when they include main characters with other priorities.
Waller-Bridge had already made a fan of me with her Amazon series Fleabag. Like Eve, the eponymous main character of Fleabag is deeply strange in a way that goes far beyond the “quirkiness” usually allotted to “complex” female leads. Fleabag, played by Waller-Bridge, has a totally unique (though hetero) relationship with her sexuality. She sleeps around, but not out of a quest for pleasure, empowerment, or validation — her motives are harder to pin down. Waller-Bridge has a great capacity for writing women who relate to sex in a way that viewers need neither judge nor celebrate; they’re simply real and interesting. (I would hope that Waller-Bridge would find a way to bring more of this unique flavor to Villanelle in the second season, but a new head writer will be overseeing the show’s next chapter.)
The sexually manipulative bi character is not so unique, though there are bi characters who aren’t as completely diabolical as the Villanelles and the Underwoods we see onscreen. Piper Chapman from Orange Is the New Black and Sarah Pfefferman from Transparent, for example, both also cheat and lie constantly, but they seem like people you might actually have met. Even Petra Solano of Jane the Virgin, who has also done her share of cheating, lying, and crimes, actually becomes more relatable when she comes out as bi (at least to me, a bisexual). I enjoyed watching how, after maintaining a smooth, manipulative, and somewhat steely persona with the men she’s dated throughout the seasons, she becomes suddenly awkward and tongue-tied around JR (Rosario Dawson), the first woman she ever sleeps with.
This is also not to say that bisexuals are by any means the only kind of queer to have been portrayed as mentally sick, or as villains. These bisexual sociopaths share a legacy with the many “lesbian psychos” and “killer queens” that came before (and neither have these tropes died out completely). In some cases, the psycho onscreen could be either. In Black Swan (2010), for example, we don’t know if Nina (Natalie Portman) — a ballerina who willingly gives up both food and her own sanity to dance the lead in Swan Lake — is gay or bi, but we do know that she is so out of her mind that she hallucinates an entire sex scene in which her rival, Lily, goes down on her and suddenly transforms into Nina’s own doppelgänger while she’s doing it.
Similarly, in the 2012 James Bond flick Skyfall, the film’s male villain, Silva (Javier Bardem) flirts with Bond (Daniel Craig), opening his shirt and caressing his chest while he’s tied to a chair. Craig said of this scene: “Someone suggested that Silva may be gay. And I’m like, I think he’ll fuck anything.” Craig ties an appetite for evil to an appetite for sex with many genders (and, possibly, species).
Bond villains have been portrayed with homoerotic undertones and overtones for decades — and so have many other classic film villains. But that’s partly because the Bond franchise began at a time when film censors required that homosexuality be portrayed negatively or not at all. This meant that even queer filmmakers had to either make their queer characters villainous or rely on stereotypes, rather than explicit romantic relationships, to make them recognizable to audiences. Until the ’70s, the medical establishment officially considered homosexuality to be a form of mental sickness, thus gay characters were portrayed as such.
It’s as if filmmakers today have seen so many villains who are coded as gay that writers have continued to repeat the trope, even though rules like the Hays Code are now defunct. The latest queer villains onscreen tend to embody stereotypes perpetuated by both gay and straight people about bisexuals’ disloyalty and insatiable sexual appetites.
TV writers can exploit these stereotypes to use bisexuality as a new kind of plot device. They might take a character, like Annalise Keating or Frank Underwood, whom we assumed was straight and then reveal their bisexuality — usually a couple seasons in — to add a new dimension to the character. Too often, bisexuality is a trait ascribed to power-hungry pathological liars, and rarely to characters who are easy to relate to.
It’s as if filmmakers today have seen so many villains who are coded as gay that writers have continued to repeat the trope, even though rules like the Hays Code are now defunct.
There are a few television creators — most often bi women themselves — who are working against this trend. Desiree Akhavan, for example, plays Leila in her Hulu series The Bisexual. When the show begins, Leila is dealing with a much more ordinary struggle: a breakup with her girlfriend of 10 years. This breakup will eventually lead to a kind of second coming out. After spending her adult life identifying as a lesbian, for the first time, Leila is admitting to herself — and the world — that she’s actually bi.
Leila is often caught between an intense self-consciousness and a desire to say exactly what’s on her mind. In one scene, she shows her straight male roommate her ample armpit hair, wondering how men will like it. In another, she complains that his lover’s sex noises distracted her and made it too difficult to masturbate. And when she finally does go to bed with a man for the first time, she starts laughing as soon as he’s inside her, shocked and amused at how similar this feels to sex with women.
Then there’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City, which just ended its five-season run last week. Though Glazer has previously expressed distaste for the word “bisexual” — “The definition is so futile,” she told Flare in 2016 — the show is inarguably queer, showing both Ilana and, this most recent season, Abbi sleeping with both men and women. Akhavan, on the other hand, has embraced the bisexual label enough that it’s in the title of her show, although she’s said many times that she chose “The Bisexual” partly because of her need to understand her own embarrassment over the word. When I had the chance to interview Akhavan for Studio 360, she talked about why she refuses to give in to that embarrassment:
I think you’re saying you’re part of a club when you’re queer or pansexual. People really are relishing, you know, the vagueness of queer, which, you know, I...I appreciate it. I use that word as well, but I think the specificity of bisexual’s important because the more you use a word, the more you can destigmatize it.
Labels or not, Ilana, Abbi, and Leila are all characters who date and sleep with both men and women — and who are flawed and weird but also very real and fun enough that many viewers would happily be friends with them. But Broad City just aired its last episode. The Bisexual may or may not get a second season. Villanelle and Leila both came to our televisions last year; it’s almost as though, for a human, relatable bi character to appear onscreen, there needed to be another bi serial killer to even things out.
All that said, if a TV show has a bisexual woman in it, I’m more likely to watch it, no matter how evil she is. And I really do love many of the characters I’ve mentioned here. I think it’s hilarious to watch Annalise Keating cruelly brushing off her male and female lovers one moment, covering up a murder the next, and then shuffling and squinting her way down to the kitchen in the middle of the night, unable to control her desire for another bite of ice cream straight from the box. There’s kind of a dark loveliness about Villanelle and Eve’s mutual attraction; Villanelle, a killer, is obsessed with Eve for a reason many of us can relate to: Oh’s highly obsession-worthy hair, which is only now receiving proper recognition. And Eve, who works to solve murders, is obsessed with Villanelle because of her skill with a knife.
The trailers for the second season airing tonight haven’t told us much; Eve and Villanelle are still obsessed with one another, and Villanelle is still a killer. I don’t see how Villanelle could ever become a more positive bi character, but perhaps Eve will come out as bi this season too — that could complicate the show’s overall portrayal of bisexuality.
Either way, for bisexuals like me, it’s hard not to have problematic faves when such a large portion of bisexual representation on TV is still deeply problematic. That’s why I hope for a day when there’s a greater plurality of Leilas, Abbis, and Ilanas onscreen; then I’ll be able to appreciate the next bisexual serial killer as an individual character, rather than seeing her as part of a tired trope. ●
Hannah Harris Green is an independent writer and reporter interested in gender, sexuality and global inequality.