The Case of the Missing Bisexual: The Scarcity and Representation of Bisexual Heroines
By Lindsay Dial (2021)
In recent years, the romance industry has expanded its offerings to become more diverse and extend its representation beyond white, cisgender, heterosexual, abled protagonists (Alter). The primary source of LGBTQ representation in mainstream romance, while limited, has been in the form of M/M romance (Grimaldi). Certain members of the LGBTQ community have been continually underrepresented, such as bisexuals; bisexual women in particular seem to be underrepresented in romance offerings, despite being around 33% of the LGBTQ community as of 2014 (Movement Advancement Project, 1). While 9% of romance readers were bisexual in 2017 (and most likely at least some of this percentage consists of bisexual women, as women are the majority of romance readers), this does not appear to be reflected in the protagonists of the literature that readers consume (Romance Writers of America). Publisher catalogs, individual books, and discussions of LGBTQ representation help illustrate the scope of the issue and its significance to the industry and broader community. The topic of this paper is the scarcity and representation of bisexual heroines in the 21st-century romance industry, from 2000 through 2019. I argue that bisexual heroines have been vastly underrepresented in the romance genre compared to readership and population demographics, coinciding with historical patterns of low diversity within the romance industry and broader societal prejudice; however, bisexual heroines have seen a significant growth in positive portrayals in romance since the 2010s, representing an important step for diversity for the greater romance industry as well as a crucial source of representation for bisexual readers of romance novels.
The Scarcity of Bisexual Heroines
Before the frequency of bisexual heroines in romance can be examined, it is important to address complicating factors in the search for bisexual characters. The first is that the word “bisexual” itself does not appear all that often; additionally, just as in real life, a character may have had relationships with multiple genders, but not be bisexual (Ochs). In one example of this, author Robyn Ochs recounted an experience in which an author she recommended for a conference panel on bisexual characters in fiction said, “I don’t write about bisexuals, I write about straight women who become lesbians” (Ochs). Cataloging systems have codes for gay and lesbian fiction, including in romance, but no such code for bisexual fiction (Grimaldi). Romances in particular are often viewed by the gender of the protagonists rather than their sexuality. They are straight or they are gay; they are M/F or F/F (or other combinations); but we cannot know from that categorization where bisexuals fit in, only that the protagonists in those stories are attracted to people of the given gender.
Romance readers have noted the apparent dearth of bisexual heroines compared to bisexual heroes within the genre. In one article on Book Riot, author Jessica Pryde opens with this statement: “There are so many bi/pan men in romance. Give me more girls” (Pryde, “Earth-Based Cis-Het Romance”). She continues on to discuss the limited availability of bi heroines in “Earth-based” (as opposed to sci-fi/fantasy, “where sexual- and gender-fluidity can be made commonplace or at least more front-and-center”) cis-het romance, noting that “bisexual representation in romance skews overwhelmingly male presenting, and sits primarily in M/M romance” (Pryde, “Earth-Based Cis-Het Romance”). Another Book Riot writer, Amanda Diehl, also expresses her frustration with bisexual erasure, saying, “I also find it difficult to find bisexual rep within heroines in romance. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems more common with heroes in gay romances” (Diehl). Evidently, at least a part of the romance audience considers this imbalance a noticeable issue.
To examine the veracity of these perceptions, we must look at data on the literature. One insightful source is the Bi-bliography, a profile on the book cataloging site LibraryThing run by librarian Kerri Price and described as “a regularly-updated database of bisexual books” (Price). The database includes fiction and nonfiction of all genres featuring bisexual characters and stories; dates of publication for fiction in the collection range from 1835 to 2018 (Price). Naturally, the collection does not contain every bisexual-centric work of literature ever written, and judgments about definitions of bisexuality and romance fiction are subjective; the collection is therefore not a perfect overview, but still provides a basic insight into various statistics and trends. The database features an elaborate tagging system, which allows filtering by a wide variety of concepts; most useful for our purposes are the “MC: Cisgender Bisexual Woman” and “MC: Cisgender Bisexual Man” tags (MC stands for “main character”; trans characters represent an extremely small proportion of the literature, so I chose to examine cisgender characters for ease of analysis.). Across all collections, consisting of 1,613 works, the “MC: Cisgender Bisexual Woman” tag has 503 results and the “MC: Cisgender Bisexual Man” has 497 (Price). Within the 21st century, these numbers are 388 and 392 respectively (Price). Outside of romance, then, the database shows a relatively even balance between the genders. Within romance, however, the ratio is much different: men instead have 254 results, and women have only 97 (242 and 93 in the 21st century) (Price). While not all of these texts are genre romance per the RWA’s definition (i.e. where the central plot revolves around the love story and has a Happily Ever After), a large portion certainly are, showing a large disparity in representation by gender (Romance Writers of America).
The representation of bisexual heroines within the database appears to have increased over time. Within the 93 results for bisexual women in 21st-century romance, only one book prior to 2010 could be considered genre romance under the RWA’s definition (Price). Even the selection of the early 2010s is questionable, with many of the featured texts blurring the line between erotica and erotic romance with uncertain categorizations. The years from 2010 to 2013 display single-digit numbers of texts, with only a portion of them qualifying as genre romance (Price). From 2014 onwards, however, the number increases; 11 works are featured from 2014, with 22 from 2015 and 21 from 2016, many of which are certainly genre romance novels (Price).
To see if this chronological trend and the general underrepresentation of bisexual heroines holds true outside of the Bi-bliography, I examined the catalogs of several publishing houses, both major industry figures and smaller groups focused on LGBTQ literature. The first major publisher I investigated was HarperCollins, one of the largest English-language publishing companies; its online catalog also hosts the Avon Publications catalog, of which it is the current parent company (HarperCollins, “Avon Books”). Using their filtering system, I estimated that there were around 6,000 novels in their romance catalog published between 2000 and the end of 2019; their site will only display a maximum of 1,008 works, so some math and estimation was required (HarperCollins, “Romance”). A variety of filter combinations ultimately delivered only a handful of works with bisexual heroines: only 3 were clearly romance under the RWA’s definition, all from 2019 (HarperCollins, “Romance”). Going through romances in their Avon collection found around 1200 romance novels between 2000 and 2019, only 1 of which featured a bisexual heroine (HarperCollins, “Avon Romance”). However, neither of these results are fully accurate, due to HarperCollins’ convoluted and inadequate categorization system. For example, Avon publishes works by Cat Sebastian, one of which (A Duke in Disguise, 2019) features a bisexual heroine; however, it does not come up in any LGBTQ-related tag or a search for “bisexual” (HarperCollins, “A Duke in Disguise”; Goodreads, “A Duke in Disguise”). The site features a vast number of duplicate tags with different results, and clearly does not categorize all its books correctly (HarperCollins, “Romance”). Poor categorization systems like this are, at best, a failure to properly utilize the available technology to assist readers, and at worst, a reflection of a general disdain towards readers, in this case particularly minorities seeking to see themselves represented. Without issues in the categorization, however, the difference in the number of bisexual heroines would likely not be incredibly significant; there would still only be a handful of examples in a catalog of 6,000 romance novels.
Harlequin Enterprises, formerly a competitor of HarperCollins but now one of its imprints, maintains a separate website from HarperCollins with a different filtering system (Harlequin, “About Us”). They feature a specific bisexual category, which has 9 distinct books from before 2020, dating back to 2012 (Harlequin, “Bisexual”). All had an ebook format, but not all were published in paperback; the 1 book featuring a bisexual heroine, published in 2019, had both (Harlequin, “Bisexual”). Harlequin published approximately 7,900 romance ebooks from 2005 to 2019, and 7,580 paperbacks from 2000 to 2019 (Harlequin, “Romance”). Bisexual heroines are therefore not only underrepresented in the entire catalog, but also within the bisexual category, where men make up the majority of bisexual characters.
Outside of major publishing houses, smaller independent publishers, such as the successful but now-defunct Ellora’s Cave, have often taken up less mainstream subgenres of romance. Some, including Riptide Publishing, Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, and NineStar Press, have focused on publishing LGBTQ literature specifically. However, these publishers still struggle to represent bisexual heroines; many still lean heavily towards M/M romance (Jones), and even among F/F-focused publishers, bisexual heroines are difficult to find. The online catalogs of these publishers also often suffer from sorting limitations like those described for HarperCollins above. Riptide Publishing’s catalog in particular was too difficult to examine within the scope of this project due to an extremely limited filtering system; however, their catalog, as well as the broader issue of online catalog categorization from romance publishers, present areas of possible further inquiry.
Bold Strokes Books, an LGBTQ publisher founded in 2004, has only 5 F/F books labeled as romance under their bisexual tag, only 1 of which was published before 2020 (specifically in 2015) (Bold Strokes Books, “About Us”; Bold Strokes Books, “Bisexual | Collections”). This is compared to their catalog of around 860 books under lesbian romance published between 2004 and 2019 (Bold Strokes Books, “Romance Books”). Much like HarperCollins, their categorization system is obscure and insufficient; the bisexual category is difficult to find on their site, and some books, such as The Fling (2012), are not tagged as bisexual, despite the author herself describing it as such (Bold Strokes Books, “The Fling”; Weatherspoon (@RdotSpoon)). Bella Books, a publisher and distributor of fiction about “women-loving-women”, only has 2 books from before 2020 (specifically 2015 and 2019) that turn up in a search for “bisexual” in their romance category, compared to around 1100 books in their romance catalog from 2000 to 2019 (Bella Books, “About Us”; Bella Books, “Bisexual”; Bella Books, “Romance Titles”). Finally, NineStar Press, an LGBTQ romance-focused publisher founded in 2015, has 21 books from before 2020 with bisexual women categorized as romance, compared to around 320 romance books from 2015 to 2019 (Harstone; NineStar Press, “Bisexual”; NineStar Press, “Romance”). We can therefore see that even among LGBTQ-focused publishers, bisexual women never make up more than 7% of the catalog at their highest rates of frequency, despite representing around 33% of the LGBTQ community in real life (Movement Advancement Project, 1). Additionally, all the bisexual heroine-led books found in these catalogs were published after 2010, mostly from 2015 onward; this supports the assertion that representation of bisexual women increased significantly during the 2010s.
Representation Across the Years
The representation of bisexual heroines that does exist spans a wide variety of possibilities for their stories and relationships. Karin Kallmaker’s dramatic, emotional F/F romance Maybe Next Time, published in 2003, is one of the few examples of genre romance with a bi heroine prior to the 2010s that I could identify, found via the Bi-bliography database (Price). While the love interest, Jorie, is bisexual, the way her sexuality is presented is complicated. Her sexuality is not mentioned in the book’s description, and given that the author is described as “exclusively devoted to lesbian fiction” (emphasis mine), readers may inadvertently assume beforehand that she is not bisexual (Goodreads, “Maybe Next Time”). The narrative is exclusively told through the point of view of the lesbian protagonist, Bree, preventing readers from seeing Jorie’s thoughts (Kallmaker). The novel features views of bisexuals as confused and the idea that bi women leave lesbians for men, including statements such as “Lila and Jorie weren’t lesbians, and Bree wasn’t going to make that mistake again” (Kallmaker). Reading the novel makes it seem as though this is the narrator’s opinion that she eventually overcomes, not the author’s, but the lack of Jorie’s perspective makes it harder to discern (Kallmaker). One final complicating aspect is that Jorie herself appears to be discovering and coming to terms with her attraction to women over the course of the story, a not-uncommon theme in F/F romance with bisexual women as well as in the broader genre of queer romance historically (Kallmaker; Barot, 395–7).
Almost 10 years later, Rebekah Weatherspoon’s F/F erotic romance The Fling (2012) also deals with a heroine coming into her bisexuality, but from her own perspective. Annie, the protagonist, gets to have her own point of view, and her bisexuality is hinted at by the book’s description, although left vague (Weatherspoon, The Fling; Goodreads, “The Fling”). Like Maybe Next Time, The Fling toes the line of infidelity on the part of the bisexual character, which comes uncomfortably close to real-life stereotypes painting bisexuals as untrustworthy and more likely to cheat (Goodreads, “The Fling”; Israel and Mohr, 122). The book does seem to avoid fully crossing it, however, and the result is a successful love story from an author who is herself pansexual (Goodreads, “The Fling”; Grimaldi).
Even more varied stories can be easily seen moving into 2015 and beyond. The Girl Next Door by Amy Jo Cousins, one of two books published in 2015 that I examined, is an M/F romance from the hero’s point of view (Goodreads, “The Girl Next Door”). While the bisexual heroine, Steph, doesn’t get to tell her own story, she is explicitly identified as bisexual in the book’s description, which a number of books shy away from (Goodreads, “The Girl Next Door”). The book also features an M/M/F sex scene involving the protagonists, and while M/M/F menage romances are not uncommon, the novel is primarily centered around the hero-heroine relationship rather than the menage (Goodreads, “The Girl Next Door”). The menage scene is particularly notable because the hero is straight, just comfortable with his sexuality, and more importantly, it shows that a bisexual heroine can want to have threesomes without involving both men and women in them (Goodreads, “The Girl Next Door”). Bisexuals are already stereotyped as non-monogamous and highly sexual; for bisexual women in particular, this often manifests as fetishization from men who want to have sex with two women at once or watch two women have sex (Israel and Mohr, 123; Gonzalez). Steph therefore still embraces her sexuality and desire for sex, but subverts societal expectations about bi women’s sexuality and desires (Goodreads, “The Girl Next Door”).
The other 2015 novel, She Whom I Love by Tess Bowery, is an F/F/M romance that features two bisexual women (Goodreads, “She Whom I Love”). In fact, the two heroines experience their sexuality in different ways, with one being primarily (if not only) being attracted to women romantically and multiple genders sexually (Goodreads, “She Whom I Love”). Their sexualities are relatively clear both from the book’s description and from its cover, and all three characters share point of view (Bowery; Goodreads, “She Whom I Love”).
Roan Parrish’s Small Change, published in 2017, is an M/F romance where the bisexual heroine, Ginger, does have the main point of view (Parrish; Amazon). While her sexuality features nowhere in the book’s description, reviewers point out that it is an important aspect of her character, and is very well-received (Amazon). Amazon user Skye Kilaen wrote, “As a bi woman who’s married to a man, I really appreciated how Ginger’s queer identity and her connection to the queer community are always central for her though she’s in a M/F relationship” (Amazon). Another reviewer described Ginger as “one of the first female M/F romance novel MCs that [they] felt so connected to”, continuing on to say, “…as a bisexual-id’ing woman whose life partner is a man, this kind of rep is priceless and I love it” (Amazon). Rebekah Weatherspoon’s 2019 novel Xeni is similar to Small Change in its presentation: sexuality is not addressed in the description, while the heroine Xeni does get point of view (Weatherspoon; Goodreads, “Xeni”). Xeni features the additional element of a bisexual hero, giving readers a story with not one but two bisexual leads in what otherwise appears as a “heterosexual” relationship (Goodreads, “Xeni”). One Goodreads reviewer emphasized this aspect of their relationship, saying, “I loved reading about two bisexual characters in a relationship together and the comfort that understanding brought them”, and emphasized Xeni’s identity as a source of happiness as a reader: “Seeing a black bisexual woman being loved so sweetly and openly will always make me smile!” (Goodreads, “Xeni”).
We can see from these novels that bisexual heroines are not always immediately visible, with the common absence of the word “bisexual”, which may be a good or bad sign. Possible explanations include wanting to hide the characters’ sexuality for marketing or other purposes, or, on the other hand, that there is no pressure to mention or delineate the characters’ sexuality in the description, because multi-gender attraction should be seen as a normal part of any type of romance. I cannot prove within the scope of this project exactly how using metadata to identify a character as bisexual affects a novel’s popularity; however, the use of metadata to identify characters of marginalized identities and its impact upon romance novel sales presents an interesting area of possible further inquiry. While still vastly underrepresented, existing works show that bisexual women from all walks of life can see themselves represented in romance fiction, and that there is hope for the future within the genre.
What Does It All Mean?
Although there has been growth in the representation of bisexual heroines and other members of the LGBTQ community, M/M romance still dominates the market, and publishers claim that diverse literature in general won’t sell (Alter; Jones). In 2015, Angela James, the then-editorial director of Carina Press (a digital-first imprint under Harlequin) said of their limited LGBTQ diversity, “We focus on what’s popular,” and that “the other titles [aside from M/M romance] are so niche that they don’t really fall into what we sell” (Jones). Cindy Hwang, an editorial director at Berkley (a Penguin Random House imprint), echoed similar sentiments in 2018, saying, “We hear that readers want more diversity, but it’s still the case that the most popular books are the least diverse” (Alter). This demonstrates one significant reason why bisexual heroines (and LGBTQ representation in general) are so scarce among publications from major publishers in particular: publishers allege that they are too niche or not worth it due to supposed lower popularity.
However, some evidence suggests a possible demand for stories featuring bisexual heroines, such as calls for more of them like the ones referenced earlier by Jessica Pryde and Amanda Diehl, as well as the litany of positive reviews (by no means a minority) for books that do have them. Some publishers, primarily smaller LGBTQ-focused ones, noted reader requests for more diversity from at least 2012, if not earlier (Naughton); as of June 2015, Riptide Publishing, for one, was “actively soliciting books with polyamorous, transgender, bisexual, and genderqueer main characters” (Jones). And multiple authors have repeatedly argued against the idea that diverse books are unpopular; at the 2015 RWA conference, romance author Alisha Rai, who has written multiple books featuring bisexual heroines, said of the issue: “It’s not true that diverse books don’t sell; [publishers] don’t know how to sell diverse books” (Northington; Pryde, “Still in Search”). In 2018, Alyssa Cole, a romance author with some bi heroines among her books who is bisexual herself, said, “In my mind, there is room for everyone, which is why I think that the lack of inclusive romance in traditional publishing is an issue. Because there are readers for pretty much anything you could publish” (Cole; Velasco). And the same year, Cat Sebastian, another bisexual romance author writing bi heroines, wrote:
There seems to be a huge and growing interest in romances — historical, contemporary, paranormal, and every subgenre — that tell the stories of people who were previously erased. Part of this, no doubt, is that people within marginalized groups are using their money to support the stories that reflect their own lives, but we’re also seeing a broader interest doesn’t depend on shared identity (Sebastian, “Romance, Compassion, and Inclusivity; Sebastian (@CatSWrites)) (emphasis mine).
The arguments from major publishers against publishing diverse fiction, then, face some opposition from both industry professionals and romance consumers, suggesting that there may indeed potentially be an audience for these books. Furthermore, the representation of bisexual women in romance fiction is an important issue beyond book sales. A 2017 study on intersectionality in LGBTQ fiction opened with a discussion on the importance of representation in literature, saying, “Literature reflects society. It helps us understand which ideas and groups are accepted and which are excluded. Omission of certain cultures from the mainstream literature position them as undervalued in society and reifies the marginalization of those cultures to members of the dominant culture” (Sandy et al., 432). This point has been continually addressed by authors of romance fiction, including Cat Sebastian and Talia Hibbert, yet another bisexual author who features bi heroines in romance, who said of the issue in 2019, “Romance is obviously a genre that relies on happy endings. Who does and doesn’t deserve a happy ending and what they have to do to get there is a very controversial topic in our society” (Hibbert; Lenker). Piper Huguley, another author, discussed similar ideas at the 2015 RWA conference: “Fiction helps people see the humanity in others, regardless of culture or sexual orientation” (Northington).
The need for positive representation in the popular romance industry continues to be significant even as legal rights for the LGBTQ community in many Western countries have improved, because negativity about bisexuals and discrimination against them still persists (Hunte). Bisexuals are associated with immorality and untrustworthiness, assumed to be promiscuous and non-monogamous, and accused of confusion or lying about their sexuality (Israel and Mohr, 121–2). At the beginning of the 21st century, bisexuals were seen as undesirable romantic and sexual partners by both straight and gay individuals, and by 2016, that view still persisted: one survey of American adults found that 47% would not date a bisexual person, and 19% more were undecided (Israel and Mohr, 124–5; Mereish et al., 717; Squires). Bisexual women have been underrepresented in other forms of media, such as television, and along with lesbian characters, have been disproportionately killed off in these programs (GLAAD, “2016–2017”, 3, 24–25; GLAAD, “2018–2019”, 26). The origins of queer romance novels in pulp fiction also demonstrate a long-standing tradition of unhappy endings (Barot, 389–392). And overall, bisexual people have been found to be at higher risk for poor mental health, poverty, and sexual and intimate partner violence than both straight and gay people; bisexual women in particular “are the most vulnerable to rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking” (Mereish et al., 716; Movement Advancement Project, 2; Shearing). The real world has told and continues to tell bisexual women that they are unwanted; relationships for bisexual women are more dangerous than for straight and lesbian women. When bisexual women are hard to find in romance, the one genre that is supposed to guarantee a happily ever after in a romantic relationship, this simply reinforces the perception that love and romance are not things bisexual women get to have, in real life or in fiction.
Although the mainstream publishing industry has made claims otherwise, some evidence suggests a potential demand from romance readers for the representation of bisexual heroines; the representation of these heroines is also crucial for creating positive depictions of bisexual women in media. As demonstrated by data from publisher catalogs and databases, they have been overwhelmingly and disproportionately historically underrepresented in 21st-century genre romance, but have seen an increase in frequency over the course of the 2010s. The positive and diverse portrayals of them that do exist and the ever-increasing trend towards diversity in the genre show a glimmer of hope for the future of bisexual heroines in genre romance.
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