“Coupling” to Feature a Bisexual Asian American Woman

The cast of the new NBC sitcom Coupling (Price, Harrington, Sofer, Moynihan, Walger, Fersuson)

This fall will mark another “first” for lesbian and bisexual visibility on TV with the introduction of an Asian-American bisexual character on the new NBC sitcom Coupling. Slotted for 9:30pm on Thursdays after Will and Grace, Coupling is a knockoff of a moderately successful British show of the same name (which is itself a knockoff of Friends) about six friends who are involved with each other in various forms.

Here’s how NBC describes the comedy:

“This provocative new comedy series, based on the British hit of the same name, is a hip look at six thirty-somethings living in Chicago who are either involved, formerly involved or looking to become intimately involved with each other. Susan (Emmy winner Rena Sofer, “General Hospital,” NBC’s “Just Shoot Me,” “Ed”) is a beautiful and sexy go-getter with an uninhibited attitude who used to date Patrick (Colin Ferguson, “The Opposite of Sex”), the cocky, good-looking guy of the group. Sally (Sonya Walger, “The Mind of the Married Man”) is Susan’s attractive and unspeakably vain best friend and beauty therapist who is desperate for a man and now dates Patrick. Steve (Jay Harrington, “The Division”) wants to date Susan, but can’t seem to shake his clingy ex-girlfriend Jane (Lindsay Price, “Beverly Hills, 90210”) who is completely in love with Steve and refuses to be dumped by him. Jeff (Christopher Moynihan, “The Fighting Fitzgeralds”) is Steve’s “porn buddy,” who, unknown to his friends, is terrified of sex or the prospect of it. He works in the same office as Susan and had a forgettable fling with her.”

In short, think the Ross-Rachel-Joey triangle times six, with almost all of the conversation revolving around sex and relationships.

Lindsay Price, who plays Jane, is perhaps best known for her role as Janet as Steve’s girlfriend/wife Janet on Beverly Hills 90210, and for her roles on the daytime dramas Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful.

What NBC doesn’t mention in their official description of Coupling, however, is that Price’s character Jane is bisexual-actually, “psychotic, self-absorbed” and bisexual, according to Price’s description of her character in a recent issue of Soap Opera Digest. “There are the boys over here and [Jane] loves all of them,” Price diagramed to Access Hollywood in May, “and these are the girls over here and she wants them too.”

Bisexual women on television are a rarity; in fact, there have only ever been two regular bisexual characters on primetime television — C.J. Lamb on L.A. Law and Sophie on the short-lived sitcom That 80’s Show — so if the show is successful and lasts more than two seasons, Price’s character easily has the potential to become on of the longest-running bisexual characters on television.

But more importantly, Jane will be the first Asian-American lesbian OR bisexual character on network television (Sonja Sohn who plays Det. Greggs on The Wire is half-Korean, but that show is on Showtime and thus not widely accessible to the public). There are almost no regular Asian-American characters on television of any sexual orientation, actually, so Price’s addition to the cast would be noteworthy even if she weren’t playing a bisexual character.

Lindsay Price If the American version of Coupling is faithful to the British version, however, Jane’s bisexuality will primarily serve as fodder for jokes and a platform for sexually-charged conversations that let the sitcom show how “edgy” it is. We won’t actually see Jane date women, just talk about it a lot, especially when she’s trying to seduce a man. She’ll make the occasional comical, half-hearted come-ons to Susan or Sally, there will be the occasional humorous episodes when Jane’s therapist or other female friend is mistaken for her lover, and we’ll get to laugh at Steve, Jeff and Patrick’s attempts to understand bisexuality and explain why they’re so attracted to the idea of two women together.

But there’s no danger of Jane actually dating a woman, not the way she regularly dates men.

Partly this is a reflection of the limitations of the show, which focuses on the relationships between the six friends — in order for Jane to actually have a relationship with a woman and stay within the show’s parameters, it would have to be with Susan or Sally, both of whom are straight.

But it is also consistent with the overall portrayal of bisexual women in Western Culture, who are really Bisexual Straight Women insteadwhile they may be attracted to women and occasionally have sex with them, they almost never have serious relationships with women, since ultimately what they really need/want is a man. Both Sophie on That 80’s Show and Karen Walker on Will and Grace are examples of this: although they both talk about being attracted to women a lot and occasionally hit on them, they never really do anything about it. C.J. on L.A. Law had been in serious relationships with women in the past, but she wasn’t allowed to actually have a relationship with a woman on the series.

The only exception to this so far on U.S. Television is Lena on the daytime drama All My Children, a woman who formerly had relationships only with men and is now in love with Bianca (although their relationship has fallen victim to other kinds of stereotypes, namely an overly-chaste portrayal).

“Self-absorbed” and “psychotic” are also words that could be used to described Sophie, Karen, and most bisexual women in film, making Jane just one more in a long line of obsessive, unbalanced bisexual characters in American entertainment.

So while Jane will be a ground-breaking character simply because she is Asian-American and one of the few bisexual characters on American television, she is also likely to embody the same stereotypes that have characterized so many bisexual characters before her. Lesbian and bisexual Asian-American viewers will probably be willing to overlook this, and understandably so, since they have had no representation on network television until now.

But if NBC truly wants to describe Couplings as “provocative,” they’ll need to do better than just using Jane’s bisexuality as a turn-on for men. If the confines of the show make that impossible, then at least let’s call her what she is: not bisexual, just another Bisexual Straight Woman.

November 2003 Update: Coupling was canceled by NBC after only 5 episodes, due to dismal ratings; Jane’s bisexuality on those few shows that aired was depicted exactly as expected — as a tool to manipulate straight men.