Bisexuality and Doctor Who


“Take that how you like,” she says. I had only just seen Clara’s swan song, Face the Raven, and an exchange between Rigsy and Clara about Jane Austen caught my attention. It feels like something I wish to address. This is not the first time Doctor Who has had Clara express, or have involvement with, bisexuality.

Previously, in The Magician’s Apprentice, Clara also made a comment about Jane Austen, expressing similar sentiments, this time calling her a “phenomenal kisser.”

One of her echoes, Oswin Oswald, from Asylum of the Daleks, also expressed bisexual tendencies when speaking to Rory:

Oswin: So, anyway, I’m Oswin. What do I call you?
Rory: Er, I can’t remember. Er, Rory

This continues with:

Oswin: Lovely name, Rory. First boy I ever fancied was called Rory.
Rory: Okay.
Oswin: Actually, she was called Nina. I was going through a phase.


Oswin: Just flirting to keep you cheerful.
Daleks: Exterminate. Exterminate.
Rory: Er, okay, any time you want to start flirting again is fine by me.


Oswin: Hey there, beakie boy.
Rory: If it’s a straight choice, I prefer Nina.
Oswin: Loving this. The nose and the chin.

And finally:

Oswin: You two could fence. There’s a door behind you. In there, quickly. Okay, you’re safe for now. Pop your shirt off, quick as you like.
Rory: Why?
Oswin: Does there have to be a reason?

Oswin’s representation exhibits a particular problem within the media of bisexual representation. According to Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner, “Hot, Sexy Bi Babes”:

We started out with a quote from Mark Simpson, who wrote, “Female bisexuality is today much more socially acceptable than male bisexuality, and in fact frequently positively encouraged, by both many voyeuristic men and an equally voyeuristic pop culture.” I would now like to look a bit deeper into this “encouragement” and to question whether it is really so positive.

Simpson, of course, is right. Female bisexuality is truly encouraged by voyeuristic men, as well as by voyeuristic (male-dominated) media. Spelling out media presumptions, Simpson writes that as opposed to male bisexuality, female bisexuality is considered “almost universal! It’s as natural and as true as it is wonderful and real and…hot!” And indeed, its seems that the main context in which female bisexuality appears in mainstream media is that of “hotness.”

Rather than looking at the superficial level of “acceptance,” I’d like to look at media representations of female bisexuality in an attempt to show the ways in which it is depicted, and the terms under which it is allowed to appear in mainstream culture. Rather than accepted, female bisexuality is “encouraged” on the sole grounds that it is palatable to straight men. Bisexual women are presented in hypersexualized contexts, as sexual objects for the hegemonic cis straight male gaze, while directly or covertly  appealing to a quasi-pornographic fantasy of a (two females and one male) threesome, and while also reassuring us that these women are not really bisexual, but are simply behaving so for the satisfaction of the presumed male spectator.

The following section, “Media” states the following:

Running an online search for “bisexual celebrities” yields several lists such as “11 Famous Bisexual Babes,” “The 30 Sexist Bisexual Celebrities [PHOTOS]” or “Hollywood’s Bisexual Leading Ladies [PHOTOS]” right on the first page. As the titles seem to suggest, these magazine items contain lists of female bisexual celebrities alongside pictures containing varying degrees of  revealing cloths and sexual postures. The texts, in the same vein, present those bisexual women as delectable objects for the cis straight male gaze and sexual appetites, often under the thin guise of “supporting” bisexuality, and always reassuring us that these women are not actually bisexual.

COED Magazine, in what seems to be a stroke of grim irony, has assembled it’s list of “The 30 Sexist Bisexual Celebrities [PHOTOS]” in honor of International Bi Visibility Day. Eschewing any political meanings attached to this day, the only bi visibility that counts here is that catering to the eye of the cis straight male reader. The list contains thirty pictures of bisexual celebrities who all appear in a sexualized context, shown in seductive or sexual positions, beckoning to the viewer, or looking invitingly. In fact, in only six of the thirty pictures, the women in question can be said to be fully clothed. One particular telling picture shows American TV personality twins Erica and Victoria Mongeon photographed together, hugging each other and looking at the camera, in a way suspiciously echoing the accompanying text of the item: “To quote Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake, ‘it’s ok to put us in a three-way’ with any of these ladies.” Another telling sentence appears before this one, stating that the writer has “argued ad nauseum with many friends about whether or not someone can be a ‘true’ bisexual.” How reassuring for the straight viewers, who mustn’t feel threatened, but aroused, by these women’s bisexuality.

Likewise, The Frisky‘s “11 Famous Bisexual Babes” contains eleven photos of famous bisexual women in revealing photos. The text follows suit, using such terms as “the occasional girl-on-girl action,” “lady-loving,” “a lover of lady parts,” and, of course, “bisexual babes.” In addition, just like at COED, the text at the same time reassures us that bisexuality doesn’t really exist and that these women are only out as bisexual to satisfy the cis straight male viewer’s tastes. A telling example: “Tila Tequila has spent her career trying really hard to make us believe she is, in fact, bisexual. …[…] Whatever, Tequila.”

In general, it seems as though various publications use female bisexuality as a really great excuse for posting pictures of “hot” woman, in a way equating female bisexuality with hypersexualization. News of women coming out as bisexual are often treated in similar ways.

The Sun, in an item about Gillian Anderson’s coming out as bi, sees fit to mention that Anderson was “voted the sexiest woman in the world in 1996.” At that same time, it also reassures that she couldn’t really be bisexual by writing that she “started experimenting with girls after moving to the United States from London as a teenager” (emphasis mine), and that, “despite [her] enjoying many lesbian flings, they were ‘the exception, not the rule.’ ” Of course, in a “traditional” vein, the item is accompanied by photos of Anderson in revealing dress and suggestive postures.

One Star Plus headline screams “Sofia Vergara & Sharon Stone to Get and Heavy as Bisexual Lovers.” The item is accompanied by-you guessed it-a revealing photo of Sofia Vergara. The texts of the item also follows the same route, stating that “Sexy Columbian actress Sofia Vergara and Sharon Stone are set to heat up the big screen as bisexual lovers in a new comedy.” It also includes as source quote, according to which “Sharon thinks it’s going to be a lot of fun playing the lover of one of the hottest actresses out there. The scenes with be steamy!” (all emphases mine). As per usual, the text also reassures us that the women in question aren’t really bisexual, since they are only acting in a (“sexy!”) movie.

As we can see, bisexual women are only allowed to appear in mainstream media when they follow certain conditions:

  • They must be considered conventionally “sexy.”
  • They must appear in a sexualized context, including suggestive texts and photos.
  • They mustn’t be thought to be “true” bisexuals, but presented as women who perform bisexuality for men.

Female bisexuality is thus co-opted into the hegemonic male gaze, which in turn produces female bisexuality on it’s own (patriarchal, phallocentic) terms.

The fact that these women are bisexual, and that some of them have spoken in ways that suggest a fondness of threesomes or casual sex, is only used here to exasperate these effects of the male gaze. In “Pleasure Under Patriarchy,” MacKinnon argues that, in the hegemonic male imagination, women are allowed to want sex, as long as what they want reflects men’s wishes: “[T]he object is allowed to desire, if she desires to be an object.” Further, she argues, “Anything women have claimed as their own-motherhood, athletics, traditional men’s jobs, lesbianism, feminism-is made specifically sexy, dangerous, provocative, punished, made men’s in pornography.”

What this means for bisexual women is that their desires are appropriated and transformed by the mainstream media, into the cis straight male gaze. In this case, it doesn’t really matter what a bisexual woman wants herself, as long as what she wants can be taken to comply with straight men’s presumed desires. What she truly wants doesn’t matter at all, since she is only there to be sexualized and objectified.

As covered in Feminist’s  Women as Reward (see Feminist Frequency’s Women as Reward post), Amy Pond was initially debuted, in The Eleventh Hour, as quite sexualized, wearing a short skirt (just like Oswin Oswald was depicted in Asylum of the Daleks), and as a kissogram who goes to parties and “kiss people” (emphasis mine) which may suggest she doesn’t only kiss males at these parties, but possibly females as well. But we are not lead to believe Amy is bisexual, or that Oswin is either, because she was going through a “phase.”

Further hints of bisexuality for Clara can be found, also in a “fun” context, within Deep Breath. For example, the clip above, meant to poke fun at Strax, actually is more a precursor to the following two scenes:

It is quite interesting I think, that Madame Vastra stating that she was “there” during the time of the Dinosaurs earlier in the episode, making Vastra also quite old as well, perfectly aligning with Vastra’s accusation that Clara is, in fact, ageist. Clara’s proclamation of not having the “slightest interest in pretty young men” and that “if there was anybody who could flirt with a mountain range, she’s probably standing in front of you right now!” could also exhibit suggestiveness between both Clara and Vastra, quite subtly. The next segment I will look at is the following:

Continued by:

Vastra: Now, why destroy the victims so completely? It’s difficult, it draws attention. What advantage is to be gained?
Jenny: Well, tell us, then.
Vastra: Concealment, perhaps.
Jenny: Concealment?
Vastra: It’s a fanciful theory, but it fits the facts. By destroying the body so completely, you conceal what is missing from it.
Jenny: Missing from the body?
Clara: Madame Vastra!
Vastra: Clara, excellent. Pop your clothes on that chair there.
Clara: Look.
Vastra: Advertisements, yes. So many. It’s a distressing modern trend.
Clara: No, look. Look.
Jenny: Ma’am?
Vastra: The game is afoot. We’re going to need a lot of tea.

Of course, I already covered the depictions of Madame Vastra and Jenny being an improper way to display an acceptable lesbian couple (A Good Man Goes to War, The Snowmen, The Crimson Horror). However, in this scene, we note that first Madame Vastra is trying to take advantage of her wife, Jenny, for fun and amusement. Just as had been done earlier in the episode:

When Clara enters the room, Vastra is noted for saying, “Clara, excellent. Pop your clothes on the chair there.” This is the same sort of “encouragement” of bisexuality Eisner is referred to addressing in the above section. It is rather problematic. At least one media outlet noticed Vastra’s behavior in this story, as the Hyperable brief review of Deep Breath states:

On the other hand, Vastra seems to have acquired a crush on Clara out of nowhere, and she seems to want Jenny just to stand there and look pretty instead of actively helping her puzzle out what is going on.

I’d like to conclude with another outlet which covered The Magician’s Apprentice, Whovian Feminism‘s review, the writer states the following on Clara’s expressed bisexuality in context:

The other interesting moment occurred when Clara mentions offhandedly that Jane Austen is a great kisser, the implication being that Clara herself kissed Jane Austen and is possibly bisexual.

Which is great. But — and I can already see the hate mail and the accusations I’m nitpicking — it’s not enough. It’s easy for a character to make an offhanded comment, but it’s hard to show them in an actual non-heterosexual relationship.

This is particularly true with bisexual characters. Bisexuality is too often portrayed as a quirky or sexy character trait rather than being represented as a valid identity. We’ve all seen the tropes before: girls kissing girls “for fun” at parties for boy’s titillation, or characters like Oswin Oswald describing bisexuality as a “phase.”

And too often bisexual characters have their bisexuality added in as an extra detail, almost as a “fun fact,” while they are shown in exclusively heterosexual relationships. Despite Moffat’s tweet stating that River Song is bisexual, she was never portrayed in a relationship with anyone besides the Doctor. And Clara has never been shown in a relationship with anyone besides Danny. She also hasn’t been shown having a serious crush on anybody besides the Eleventh Doctor.

If Moffat was serious about representing Clara as a bisexual woman, it would’ve been easy enough to do. Last season Danny Pink could’ve been Danielle Pink. Perhaps Zawe Ashton and Samuel Anderson could’ve swapped roles. Or perhaps there could be a relationship coming up for Clara this season. Until then, don’t expect to find me cheering this as a victory for bisexual representation. It’s nice, but it’s hardly progress.




2 thoughts on “Bisexuality and Doctor Who

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Stargate Atlantis: Season 5 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Stargate Atlantis: Season 2 | The Progressive Democrat

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