Did you hear the news? Fox canceled Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
“Maureen got a new man?”
I first saw Maureen Johnson at a protest. Her protest. A performance in an underground parking structure in the dregs of NYC. She rode in on an easy-rider motorcycle. White leather jacket, black leather pants, stiletto boots that could break hearts and ankles with similar ease. As she climbed the makeshift stage she whipped off her helmet, releasing a wave of dark curly hair, and a red-lipped smirk. Her cheekbones could’ve cut glass. The crowd was cheering for her, she was cheering for her. I knew she was going to be important.
Stephanie Beatriz is accepting Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s award for Outstanding Comedy Series at the 29th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles. She portrays the character Rosa Diaz, a sharp tongued, nonchalant, Latina detective, who is hailed as a bad ass, and doesn’t sacrifice what makes her a woman. She is a real person, playing a real person.
“I would like to thank this entire room of people for supporting our show, which features a bisexual character who came out this season, played by me, a bisexual actress.” She says the words easily, but the possibility to say them on that stage was hard won.
This all happens a mere 28 days before Fox announces the cancellation.
Maureen didn’t appear until an hour into RENT. Not really. Oh sure, she’s woven into the exposition. Her protest posters are in the background of the antagonist, Benny’s first scene. Her voice – high pitched and childish, is heard as garbled tones on the other side of the protagonist’s phone call. ‘Maureen needs me to come help with her protest.’ The same protagonist, Mark, who we learned she dumped for a woman, Joanne.
Maureen is a serial cheater. A perversion walking. Mark and Joanne’s first encounter is entirely centered around how manipulative and unfaithful Maureen is. This bisexual woman, who can’t choose just one, so she has to have both genders at once, both genders all the time. They call their relationships with her “The Tango Maureen,” because what else besides the over-sexualized, over-complicated tango could represent this woman? What other dance could embody the same drama that she does? I’d like to see the foxtrot do that.
But Maureen herself, the real Maureen, doesn’t show until the story is half over.
Stephanie Beatriz’s voice is much higher than her character’s. I am struck by how real she is. How real the support for her, for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is. It dawns on me that Stephanie Beatriz was selected out of her costars, selected from the two other strong women who are on stage with her, to accept this award, to have the microphone in front of her. To say who she is, who she loves.
“For us to showcase this character, who is a core member of the ensemble, who is not going anywhere, who is happy, who has friends, a chosen family that she loves, who is successful in her life is something I never saw growing up on television. I never thought a happy ending could be for me.”
When I first met Maureen, I identified with her. Before I understood the word ‘bisexual,’ before I knew that I could embody characteristics of both men and women and love them equally, before I realized that my affection for girls was more complicated than just an appreciation. “Girl’s are so beautiful,” I would say, “I love them.” I already knew that I was attracted to boys. I knew I was allowed to be. I didn’t understand that I could love both.
Maureen understood that. Maureen lived that.
But I was still scared to be Maureen.
“I never thought a happy ending could be for me.” Vito Russo said something similar in his work, The Celluloid Closet. Vito was gay, not bisexual, but each group experiences much of the same push back. We don’t see ourselves represented in film, be it in movies or television, or commercials for laundry soap. When we do, it’s as a joke, a sassy side character, a sexual deviant, a drama queen. We are always something ‘other’, something strange, something the rest of the cast pities or tolerates.
When I see bisexuals on the screen, I don’t get attached, because happy endings are rarely in the cards. If the bisexual isn’t killed physically, they die in another way. Maybe not on camera, maybe we just know they’ll die from disease after the protagonists get their happy ending. Maybe we watch their relationships crumble and their hearts break. Maybe they are poor and hurting or living with some kind of disorder or addiction. It doesn’t matter what it is. We’ve been trained, as assumedly heterosexual film audiences, to have surface affection for these non-hetero, non-normative, characters. Just enough to watch them in the film, but not enough for them to survive and thrive. When we never see our on-screen representations thrive, why would we expect to in real life?
Maureen was never the main character, never the likeable character. She wasn’t the main antagonist – Benny took that role when he decided to tear down the homeless and underprivileged community of artists, when he became “yuppie scum.” Who wouldn’t hate that guy? Maureen’s continuous challenging and calling out of Benny might have been her most redeeming quality. She had a lot to redeem herself for, though.
Everyone in RENT was a victim to something: AIDS, poverty, sexism, infidelity, addiction, lost love, etc. etc. etc.. No one brought the entirety of their misery upon themselves – except Maureen. Her thirst for drama and attention made her distasteful. She was what I feared to be known as: a drama queen. That’s the first thing she’s called in the film. “How is the drama queen?” And who could argue with that assessment? She ripped apart her relationships, one after the other, because she couldn’t help but flirt with every person who made eye contact with her. She dressed to sexualize herself, in leather, rubber, blacks and reds, low cut tank tops held together by safety pins, stiletto heels, always. She lived for attention and not much else.
So why did I love her the most?
Rosa Diaz is a revolutionary character. Not only is she bisexual, she’s a woman of color. She is loyal. She isn’t dramatic, quite the opposite. She’s a badass without sacrificing her femininity. She’s empathetic, sex positive, private, straightforward. She defies the toxic tropes of the bisexual. She has to go through the struggle of coming out to a family that disapproves of her because of who she loves. When they turn their backs on her she finds renewed strength and support through in the other members of the ensemble. Never before have I seen a bisexual woman defy all of the tropes surrounding her sexual orientation, all of the tropes surrounding her gender, and simply exist as a whole, healthy, funny, and successful person.
“I am playing someone who is out, who is bi, and who is going to succeed.”
When I first saw Maureen Johnson, I fell in love with her. I knew she was important. I knew she was my favorite character. I knew she would matter to me after the movie was over. She wasn’t a likeable character. She wasn’t a nice person. She wasn’t any of the things I wanted to be in my life save for three qualities: she was a woman, she loved who she loved, and she wasn’t dead. She was someone I could be, someone I wanted to be. When she smiled and swung her hair over her shoulder, I knew that I shared something with this woman. We would never be friends in real life, but I knew that I had a then unnamed bond with her, that would last beyond end credits.
Now, when I see the movie again, I understand how heterosexually she is viewed, how quietly she is villainized, and that bond is stronger. More complex. Now it has a name: Bisexuality.
Vito Russo wrote about ‘gay sensibility’ in The Celluloid Closet. He said:
[It] is largely a product of oppression, of the necessity to hide so well for so long. […] It was gay sensibility that, for example, often enabled some lesbians and gay men to see at very early ages–even before they knew the words for what they were–something on the screen that they knew related to their lives in some way, without being able to put a finger on it. […] It said, ‘This has something to do with your life,’ and it was a voice that could not be ignored, even though the pieces did not fall into place until years later.
This is what I encountered with Maureen, when I was eleven and had no words for the connection I was feeling. It’s what I encountered with Rosa when I was twenty-one, and knew how to define the term ‘bisexual’ and define myself by it. Vito may have called it gay sensibility, but I think it belongs to any of the LGBTQIA groups. When we don’t see characters like us identified on the screen, we find ways to secretly identify them anyways. We know the secret glance, the certain feeling, that denotes the presence of our community.
When I heard that Fox was cancelling Brooklyn Nine-Nine part of me understood. According to The Wrap, the show was tied with two others – The Mick and Last Man on Earth – for the 13th highest rated scripted program out of Fox’s 20 shows. The figures were close to three million viewers for each show, but that wasn’t enough for Fox. Part of me understood that. But part of me wondered if it was because of Rosa Diaz. She’s certainly not the only representation of a minority on the show, but she added to a picture that Fox didn’t support. I felt the loss of her, the loss of a happy bisexual ending.
It’s been announced that NBC has picked up the show, so Rosa is not lost, after all. But the sense of mourning still lingers. I exist in an era where members of the LGBTQIA community are still not commonly accepted, in entertainment or society. While NBC is being heralded, Fox has escaped the investigative questions of “why?” People are celebrating the survival of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and they should. But in that celebration, they forget that it is only one of three shows Fox cancelled, which had LGBT characters in their main cast – Ben, a transgender child (The Mick); Erica and Gail, a lesbian couple (Last Man on Earth). The victory of one renewal is tremendous, but it is not the end of the struggle for recognition for bisexual characters.