Game of Thrones nerds like me fell in love with Prince Oberyn of Dorn pretty much as soon as he appeared onscreen at the start of this season. The Red Viper is a likable character for a bunch of reasons — his accent, his air of quiet menace, the fact that he may prove responsible for Tyrion’s continued existence — but even for non-Game of Thrones fans, he’s interesting from a critical point of view for one reason in particular: his exuberant bisexuality. This is a man who spends all his spare time in a local brothel, fucking both men and women with gusto and abandon. For all that Game of Thrones is a strange place to find progressive portrayals, Oberyn is that rarest of TV characters: a man whole falls right smack bang in the middle of the Kinsey scale.
The lack of bisexuals on TV certainly isn’t a new phenomenon — it’s been commented on a great deal over the last few years, and for all that great strides have been made in the visibility and realistic depiction of LGBT characters on film and in TV, the B still lags behind the L and the G. (The T, sadly, is even further back.) If we do see bisexual characters, they’re almost inevitably female, and all too often they’re identikit temptress/femme fatale types who exist for the temptation of straight men (Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct is the classic archetype). Male bisexuals are almost nonexistent.
All this serves to reinforce an archaic idea of human sexuality as a binary of exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual, which is pretty depressing, since people have known for millennia that this doesn’t reflect reality (and even in our polarized Judeo-Christian society, it’s a good three generations since Alfred Kinsey came up with his scale). Society seems to have a relatively easy time accepting that people are either exclusively straight or exclusively gay, perhaps because it makes it relatively easy to view sexuality as a stable binary. You like the opposite sex or you like the same sex, and that’s it. Binary oppositions are easy to understand and fit into a neat, structuralist worldview.
The very existence of bisexuality blows up this binary, which is perhaps why bisexual erasure has long been a problem in both straight and LGBT communities. By its nature, bisexuality presents sexual orientation as fluid, its manifestation dependent as much on the person you’re attracted to as on their gender. This immediately destabilizes the idea of sexuality as something static and non-changing, thus presenting a challenge to the whole idea of sexual identity. It’s perhaps for this reason that straight communities tend to present bisexuals as gay men or women who also like straight sex, and gay communities present them as straight people who occasionally dabble in gay sex.
This view also permeates film and TV — where bi characters do appear, they tend to skew toward either the gay or straight end of the scale, with an air of tokenism hanging over their relationships that fall outside this range. (The ever-reliable TV Tropes has an entire page on this phenomenon.) You can see this at play in, say, Queer as Folk or The L Word, where pretty much everyone is gay, even the bisexuals. In shows with largely straight characters, bisexuals exist to sort of spice things up a bit, but at the end of the day they’re straight people with a penchant for dabbling.
As this suggests, there’s also frequently a sense that bisexuality represents a certain level of depravity and/or decadence, with bisexuals’ voraciousness presented as evidence of their moral degradation. Genuine, swing-both-way bisexuals are rarely sympathetic characters: again, Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct character comes to mind, but there’s also Dennis Hopper’s terrifying Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Mad Men‘s Lee Garner Jr., House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood, and pretty much the entire cast of True Blood. (The nexus of bisexuality and vampirism is a whole different topic, by the way, and probably worth an essay all of its own.)
All this, it should go without saying, is a load of reactionary — yet largely unquestioned — horseshit. It’s perfectly possible to be attracted to men and women without it being evidence of an all-consuming sexual appetite that, if given the chance, will extend itself to Judge Holden-esque depths of perversion. Which brings us back to Prince Oberyn. He’s not entirely free of stereotypes — he’s certainly sexually voracious, and there’s a definite air of decadence about the way he sets up shop in a local whorehouse. But equally, he’s not a villain (at least, he hasn’t proven himself to be so yet), and he’s also entirely undiscriminating in his choice of partners. As the actor who plays him, Pedro Pascal, says here, “The Red Viper enjoys life. He does not discriminate in his pleasures. This is the way he understands life, to live it to its fullest.”
And, y’know, good for him. It’s a shame that it requires a fantasy world to provide us with a genuine bisexual character, but it’s better than nothing. Hopefully the existence (and popularity) of Prince Oberyn will convince other producers that it’s possible to depict a bisexual character, without their preferences being indicative of any sort of deeper psychological malaise. As the Red Viper himself says, “When it comes to love… I don’t choose sides.” And why should he have to?