No Cause for Alarm: Male Bisexuality on Television

Matt Czuchry as Cary Agos in CBS's The Good Wife.
Hiding a secret about his sexuality? Or contemplating massive paperwork? Matt Czuchry as Cary Agos in CBS’s The Good Wife

GLAAD’s recently released “Where Are We On TV” report, which forecasts the expected presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters in primetime scripted television, has me contemplating a pair of puzzling scenes in the first two episodes of the new season of CBS’s The Good Wife. In the Oct. 4th premiere, Matt Czuchry’s Cary Agos, the youngest of the partners at the law firm Lockhart-Agos (hey, that’s his name!), spends the episode awkwardly trying to strike up a rapport with some new junior attorneys, finally succeeding to connect with one played by Phillip Shinn (identified so far only as Dirk).

Bored spending time with the firm’s more geriatric partners and often portrayed as struggling to connect with friends and coworkers, Cary offers to aid Dirk’s efforts in distinguishing himself to the firm board by proposing a new billing system. The end of the episode sees Cary approaching Dirk in a dark, otherwise empty office to offer sympathy and future support after the board rejects Dirk’s ideas. The moment feels intimate, and Dirk NoLastName places his hand over Cary’s in what anyone who has ever watched a television show understands as the appropriately tentative romantic advance one makes to a coworker late at night in an otherwise empty office. Cary’s reaction, a visceral, full-body withdrawal and incoherent repetition of the word “no” suggests a kind of shell-shocked horror. The following episode sees Dirk lingering in Cary’s office after a meeting to apologize and then offer a somewhat baffling reassurance from a man recently seen hitting on another man. “I just want you to know,” Dirk tells Cary, “I’m not gay.”

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It should be surprising that Cary, previously only shown romantically and sexually interested in women, would react this way. Cary has always been portrayed as a good guy trying to do the right thing. Of the women he has previously been paired with, his most important relationship, as friends, colleagues, and occasional lovers, was with Archie Panjabi’s sexually fluid private investigator Kalinda Sharma. When Kalinda was written off the show last year, it left both a hole in Cary’s personal life and eliminated one of the more interesting LGBT characters of color on broadcast television (and caused a ton of gossip about who exactly couldn’t get along with whom on the set of The Good Wife).

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Cary’s reaction is not only unbelievable given his age and what we know about him, but also because, as critic Tara Ariano of Previously TV points out, he is so cute it’s difficult to believe he hasn’t been hit on by people of every gender and orientation. A statement I emphatically agree with because I have eyes. Instead, Ariano, and those critics that didn’t ignore the scene entirely, suggested that Cary’s reaction might be setting up a future sexual harassment story line.

Cary was reacting with alarm to what he saw as nefarious intentions. TVline‘s Michael Slezak posited the two scenes as a mystery to be solved, with a readers poll that included the options that Cary is “straight and getting set up for a harassment suit,” “gay/bi/questioning,” and “the show is merely playing mind games with the audience.” At last count, the sexual harassment suit option was slightly edging out “gay/bi/ questioning.” And that makes sense, because as the GLAAD report confirms, portrayals of bisexuality and sexual fluidity, especially among male characters, still come loaded with the expectation that manipulation and deceit are part of the package.

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...well he's up to SOMETHING. Martin Wallström as Tyrell Wellick on USA's Mr. Robot
…well he’s up to SOMETHING. Martin Wallström as Tyrell Wellick on USA’s Mr. Robot

While the GLAAD annual report was full of positive trends, some of the detailed breakdowns made it clear that some gains are more significant than others.The report reveals that going into the 2015-16 season, representations of LGBT characters have overall increased across broadcast, cable, and streaming services. On prime time broadcast television, 3.9% of regular characters (35 in total) are LGBT characters, up from 3.3% last year. This more closely coincides with estimates of how many people self-identify as LGBT in the United States, according to a recent Gallup poll. Across all platforms, there are more women and minority characters. However, trans characters, particularly trans men, are still vanishingly rare and completely absent from broadcast television.

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After transgender characters, bisexual male characters were consistently the lowest percentage of LGBT characters represented, and the report notes that the depiction of bisexual men was particularly likely to exemplify negative tropes that suggested bisexual people were untrustworthy, manipulative, or unimportant beyond their presence as trouble-making plot devices. GLAAD media strategist and bisexual advocate Alexandra Bolles is quoted in the report as saying, “Though bisexual people make up the majority of the LGBT community, they are less likely than their gay and lesbian peers to be out to the people they love, because their identity is constantly misconstrued as either a form of confusion, a lie, or a contrived and hypersexualized means to an end.”

Stephen Moyer's Milus Corbett on FX's The Bastard Executioner
Who is he looking at? Stephen Moyer’s Milus Corbett on FX’s The Bastard Executioner

It says something that the default assumption is that Cary is a straight man just because we’ve never seen him paired with another man before and that it feels so unlikely that The Good Wife might take him into bisexual or sexually fluid territory. After all, he’s a good, principled character in a dressed-up procedural on the broadcast network with the stodgiest reputation.

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Bisexual male characters, including the ones that the GLAAD report complained about, are more likely to appear on cable and in shows that function as genre soap operas, like Cyrus Henstridge on E’s The Royals, Tyrell Wellick on USA’s Mr. Robot, and Milus Corbett on FX’s The Bastard Executioner, all of whom wield their sexuality as a tool or a weapon depending on the circumstances. In the Ryan Murphy horror soap Scream Queens, when a gay male character hits on an assumed straight male character, the action is cast as predatory, with Glen Powell’s Chad castigating Nick Jonas’s Boone for molesting him in his sleep.

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Plotting crimes against straight men. Nick Jonas's Boone on FOX's Scream Queens
Plotting crimes against straight men. Nick Jonas’s Boone on FOX’s Scream Queens

Many of the great dramas of the last decade have played with the idea that we all have secrets, not just from one another, but from ourselves about ourselves. Over and over, characters from the rapidly fading Great Golden Age of Anti-Hero Television try to change who they are, only to discover they barely know themselves. As we edge towards a greater breadth and depth of representation on prime time, it would be exciting to see characters who understand that they don’t know everything about each others sexuality, or even their own, without it being cause for alarm.