Bethany says… – Straight-Washing the Hellblazer: Why It Matters

The American network NBC’s new comic book adaptation “Constantine” isn’t due on American television screens until October but decisions made about the main character, supernatural detective and con man John Constantine, are already causing serious online debate. Constantine, also known as “Hellblazer”, is a DC comic book character, famous for being a trench-coat wearing, chain-smoking, reluctant-evil-fighter who deals with the ugly side of a fictional universe in which magic is a thing. He is also now famous for not being bisexual.

At a Q&A during a press tour at the Television Critics Association’s, Constantine’s executive producer, Daniel Cerone, responded to a question about Constantine’s sexuality, saying “there are no immediate plans” and, going further, denied that the character’s sexuality was even an important trait. He did, however, scoff at the idea they would completely deny Constantine’s identity as a smoker, stating “within that framework [of network television] we’re going to be very honest to the character”. Maybe Constantine is a better smoker than he is a bisexual but that is a decision made by the show’s creative team, not a reflection of external reality. Since Constantine spends most of his time fighting demons and getting the crap kicked out of him, no one seems to be expecting his sexuality to be a massive deal but it would be refreshing and interesting to see a character who deals with a queer identity in passing, rather than as a big character arc. It would also be an authentic creative decision, considering Hellblazer’s history of social and political commentary.

The John Constantine from the comic books, the Hellblazer many know and love, is canonically well-travelled in bed. As mainstream news organisations are quick to point out, Constantine never calls himself bisexual. But he has slept with and been romantically involved with both men and women, although the relationships haven’t always been smooth. (His lovers mostly get possessed or end up hating him. Constantine’s life sucks a lot.)

The decision to make Constantine straight in the show has angered many, sparking online debate about the importance of bisexual representation, especially for male bisexuals. Does it matter that Constantine is being straight-washed? One of the biggest hurdles for the bisexual community is its “invisibility”. There are too few bisexual people in our pop culture and, of those that are out and visible, far too few are men.  Bisexuality and pansexuality are already erased every day in real life, in straight and queer contexts. Bisexual and pansexual people are told they’re greedy or inherently unfaithful. They’re told that it’s all “a phase” (a stock phrase apparently borrowed from homophobia) and when bi or pan people do settle down with someone, it’s assumed they’ve abandoned bisexuality for being straight or gay or, even worse, that they were never bisexual at all. When it comes to television and film, it seems bisexuals are either completely non-existent or 100% evil. It’s practically tradition in science fiction to make evil versions of characters bisexual to underline just how depraved they are. Supernatural isn’t even coy about it: their resident bisexual is the literal King of Hell. Why not expand our bisexual viewing options outside of “nobody” or “mass-murdering demons”?

In a world where bisexual representation continues to lag behind, straight-washing already queer characters seems like salt rubbed in the wounds of the bisexual community. Yes, there are questions about Constantine’s identity but when speaking about fictional characters it’s important to remember that every action and word is a decision by the creator. Constantine’s comic writers made a decision to have him sexually and romantically involved with multiple genders – a decision made, no less, in the fearful and homophobic atmosphere of the 1980s. Now, the creators of NBC’s new show have made a decision to make him straight. That decision matters. It continues to send the message that bisexual or pansexual characters are not welcome on even late-night “edgy” tv shows. After all, Constantine is due to replace NBC’s Dracula (a show involving cannibalism, mass murder and really weird sex) and shares a channel with Hannibal, a show about a goddamn serial killer who murders people and then feeds them to his friends while making cannibal puns in a sexy Danish accent. Is bisexuality so obscene that it can’t even share screen space with cannibals?

The bisexual state of the union is starting to sound like this: no, you don’t exist. New characters aren’t written as bisexual, even when it would make sense for them to be so. Now, a character who has every reason to be bisexual, including already being bisexual, is being brought to television. There are “no immediate plans” for even a passing reference to Constantine’s sexuality being anything other than 100% straight.

Every creative act is a decision. The bisexual and pansexual communities will remain invisible so long as writers, producers and creators continue to make decisions that do not just exclude bisexuality but actively erase it from being.

[Bethany Garry]

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