Oh, and Bi the Way: How Brooklyn Nine-Nine Centres LGBT+ Narratives in its Comedy, and Manages to Get it Right

I would like to begin with a disclaimer. I know our fabulous staff writers Hayley Paskevich and Shaun Alexander recently wrote about their favourite moments from television series Brooklyn Nine-Nine. However, when a previous Flip Screen prompt got me thinking about comedies, there was no way I couldn’t pen my own piece about what is one of my favourite comedy series of all time.

Aside from making me laugh embarrassingly loudly every week and creating a cast of characters with which I have unabashedly fallen in love, what I love about Brooklyn Nine-Nine is its refusal to shy away from serious issues. With only about twenty minutes of airtime per episode, the show somehow manages to do justice to each of the tough topics it chooses to tackle.

Using comedy or irony to unpack social issues is not new. After all, satire dates all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians, if not before. Indeed, as long as there have been sentient humans, they have probably poked fun at the bad stuff. There have been countless explorations of this topic, positing real, academic socio-political arguments on why comedy has become such a vehicle for social critique. I am not going to try and imitate or summarise them here. From my own standpoint, I simply think it is a fundamental part of the human condition to laugh in the face of adversity.

For anyone who has somehow missed the memo, Brooklyn Nine-Nine brings this type of humour in spades. It has never avoided mixing serious topics – including police brutality and racism – with comedy. But if you really, really don’t know, then here’s the basics: Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a workplace sitcom following the lives of a team of cops working in Brooklyn’s 99th precinct. In theory, the show chronicles the ups and downs in their careers and personal lives. In reality, however, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is so much more than that. It is a powerhouse of strong, genuinely funny (often side-splittingly so) comedy featuring a group of sublime actors (including Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, and Melissa Fumero); it is a show that lauds diversity and finds its strength in its character work. Over five complete seasons, with a sixth ongoing, the audience has gotten to know the show’s small band of characters. Through some exceptional writing, we have fallen in love with them, becoming deeply invested in their trials and tribulations. Indeed, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a vocal and dedicated fanbase, one that was instrumental in bringing the show back from the brink when, after season five, Fox Broadcasting Company announced that it would be renewing the show.

Happily, NBC picked Brooklyn Nine-Nine up and it is back to its usual tricks of making us laugh and tackling big issues through the medium of comedy. Sexuality has always been one such issue at the forefront of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s storylines. Captain Ray Holt (Braugher) talks frequently about what it was like to be an openly gay black man in the force. His relationship with his husband Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson, currently of The Good Place) is frequently explored on screen and is depicted as a healthy, loving marriage. Always, the other characters are accepting and supportive of the relationship and Captain Holt maintains a good relationship with all of his colleagues, including Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) – a tough-talking, tough-acting, leather-wearing cop who wants to make it clear that she is not to be messed with. Throughout the show’s run, many jokes have been made in regards to Rosa’s private nature and her tough exterior, although her soft centre has shone through on more than one occasion. This deft balance of characterisation, coupled with Beatriz’s delivery, had fans latching onto Rosa’s character almost immediately. She is badass but still well-rounded; the kind of female character we need to see more.

Little did I know when I began watching the show in 2013 just how important Rosa would become to me.

Rosa’s journey throughout the series has been one that has seen her grapple with challenges in both her personal and professional lives, including a jail spell when she is wrongfully convicted along with fellow cop Jake Peralta (Samberg). However, as the audience has grown to know Rosa, one theme has emerged time and again with fans: a repeated and widely-held perception that Rosa might be bisexual.

The evidence to support this was not only present for Rosa, but also for Jake. Both characters have made overt reference to attraction towards more than one gender, and fans picked up on it immediately.

However, when actress Stephanie Beatriz herself came out as bisexual on Twitter in 2016, the game very much changed for me and countless other bisexual and LGBT+ fans. It was clear that some social media chatter about Rosa being bi had already made its way back to the show, but this was another thing entirely. Almost from the outset, Beatriz was very vocal about bisexuality and about the sad state of bisexual representation. Slowly, the show started to drop more and more hints. Gradually, we all became more excited for what felt like an inevitability.

To those who are not LGBT+, it might not seem like much, but for the rest of us it was like the Holy Grail. A bisexual coming out story told in part by a bisexual Latina woman. Admittedly, it isn’t the first time it has happened: bisexual actress Sara Ramirez was a strong driving force in Grey’s Anatomy’s Callie Torres bi identity. Even so, a repeat performance of this scale has felt long overdue. In representation terms, it means a lot. Really, how often do straight people sit around and wait for straight stories, told by straight writers, actors, and directors? Not at all often, is the rather obvious answer.

And even if it was a lush oasis of representation out there – which, by the way, it’s not (in the above GLAAD summary, you can see that  857 regular characters in primetime shows, 75 were LGBT+) – there are painfully few LGBT+ stories told by LGBT+ people. That is not to say that straight people can or should not tell our storiest simply means that most non-straight people can tell when our on-screen narratives have not been sensitivity checked by members of the LGBT+ community. While the imbalance between cis-gendered, heterosexual characters and LGBT+ characters is so unfairly skewed, the call for more authentic narratives driven by marginalised communities remains important.

Furthermore, the risk with using comedy to explore serious social or political issues, is of course that there is a thin – albeit very, very visible – line between deconstructing an issue with humour, and simply laughing at someone else’s suffering and strife. This too is often to do with who is telling the joke. Punching down is never advisable or acceptable, and there are certainly a good number of comedians who need to bear this in mind. Punching laterally and punching up through comedy, however, often lead to some of the best discussions around social issues. More and more, we are seeing people of colour, members of the LGBT+ community, and disabled folks (to name a few marginalised groups) be given platforms to make comedy around the issues they face. At the very least, check out Francesca Martinez or Joe Lycett to see what I mean.

And so when, in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’’s season, Rosa finally did come out as bisexual it was with the show’s effective mix of comedy and sensitivity. Partly, this is simply in-keeping with the show’s usual tone, excepting only a few jokes which, for me, completely missed the mark. But I would argue that Beatriz’s influence on Rosa’s arc was not only tangible but invaluable. Telling bisexual stories, whether through comedy or not, should always involve bisexual voices. Our experiences are unique from those of straight, gay, or lesbian people. Our experiences are diverse even amongst ourselves, but there is unity amongst our stories too. And the adversity that so many of us experience was portrayed incredibly by Beatriz and the rest of the Brooklyn Nine-Nine team.

For me Rosa’s coming out arc was raw and painful and very close to home. Rosa’s story was – and remains – exactly my story. Across two episodes Rosa comes out to her colleagues and her family. Like me, her friends were mostly accepting. But also like me, not everything proved an easy ride.

In a way that I can relate to almost too well, (I mean, really, did a Fox writer actually follow me around a few years ago?) Rosa hesitates to speak to her parents about her identity because she had only just grown close to them, and she did not want to jeopardise the relationship by coming out.

This worry is justified. The Nine-Nine take her announcement well. One colleague – Charles Boyle – had recently found out about Rosa’s bisexuality, and a recurring thread across the show is his inability to keep secrets.

As Rosa makes her announcement to the team, the audience sees a flashback of Boyle bidding Rosa goodbye at a previous time. ‘Bye Rosa’, he says before pausing, mouth agape, and amending to ‘I mean, not bi Rosa, but bye’. He waves goodbye in demonstration while Rosa gives him her trademark mean stare. Boyle then says ‘I mean. See ya. I mean, have fun having sex with men, just banging dudes left and right’. Back in the present, a resigned-looking Boyle announces: ‘I just stopped saying “bye” altogether’.

This scene alone proves that it is possible to make LGBT+ comedy authentic and funny, without ever once having to skirt the line of being offensive or controversial. As with everything about Rosa’s storyline, I feel almost certain that Beatriz’s influence was paramount. Bisexual women telling tasteful jokes about bisexual women is important, but in sadly short supply.

There has often been a backlash against those who state that poor taste jokes about marginalised communities are wrong and out of line. Look to jokes made by Louis CK as just one example. Similarly, when British politician Boris Johnson made a joke about women who wear burqas, comedy stalwart Rowan Atkinson immediately penned a public defence about ‘the freedom to make jokes about religion’. For every outcry about sexism, racism, ableism, or homophobia in comedy, there are as many voices calling legitimate concern or criticism ‘censorship, with comedians and fans alike rushing to defend what they see as their right to tell jokes about whatever they want. People seem to assume that those of us in marginalised communities do not want to laugh or see ourselves in comedy. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, LGBT+ fans are crying out for more comedy in which we can see ourselves portrayed. Light-hearted LGBT+ romcoms in particular are hard to come by, although Love, Simon did a fantastic job with this last year, even if it was more romance than comedy.

The reason that Rosa’s storyline struck a chord is because it was a clever and sensitive mix of comedy, paired with hard-hitting emotional scenes. Strong, smart comedy can take on serious matters and come out on top he problem is that the above-mentioned examples from CK or Atkinson are neither strong nor smart. If the subject of the joke isn’t laughing too, you’re doing something wrong. As a bisexual woman I laughed at the humorous way in which Jake Peralta and Charles Boyle were accidentally subsumed into Rosa’s coming out story, and I cried very real tears when Rosa’s parents did not accept her.

Even the adversity Rosa faces feels authentic, once again revealing Beatriz’s influence in scenes such as a Diaz family game night. Jake is present, because of course he is, in a deft balancing act of humour meeting high emotional stakes.

At one point, Rosa’s father tells her that she will end up with a man ‘because this is just a phase’. I wonder how many bi women like Rosa have heard some configuration of that statement. Then, when Rosa picks the prompt ‘wedding’ for her round of Pictionary, she draws two women holding hands and surrounded by love hearts. Her mother’s guesses are: friends, sisters, business partners, and co-owners of a chocolate shop. She even guesses George Clooney, via the logic of the prompts “women” and “love” as she concludes that all women love George Clooney. Any LGBT+ woman will tell you that the complete invisibility of female romantic love and attraction is a common part of being sapphic, and almost all of them will laugh at this joke. In the remaining minutes of the episode, comedy is once again mixed with the serious side of coming out: Rosa asks for her parents’ acceptance and support but does not receive it. (Again, I ask: who from Fox followed me around?!)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not the only comedy handling less-than funny topics alongside humour right now. Two with bisexual characters that come to mind are Crazy Ex-Girlfriend which talks about mental health, and The Good Place which teaches almost as much philosophy as my A-Level professors di but makes it funnier and more relevant to today’s real-world issues.

As I said before, comedy and social commentary always have and always will go hand-in-hand: we need look no further than shows such as Saturday Night Live or Have I Got News For You? to see that. But what we are just beginning to see, and need desperately to see more, is comedy about marginalised groups being spearheaded by members of the communities concerned.

Along with Rosa, Stephanie Beatriz remains a heroine of mine. She continually advocates for bisexual representation and nowhere is this more obvious than in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s season five episodes 99 and Game Night. Importantly, she presses for the word bisexual to be put out there, front and centre in a narrative. We also see Rosa unapologetically debunking bisexual stereotypes and myths. After persistent examples of bisexual erasure in the media, simply hearing the word on screen in a positive context is a huge step forward.

Even when it gets serious, Brooklyn-Nine Nine is a comedy that always leaves me feeling warm and comforted inside – kind of like a big, fluffy blanket. This could not be better highlighted than by concluding the same way Captain Holt did when the team rallied around Rosa following her difficult conversation with her parents:

‘Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.’

For me that is precisely what Rosa’s coming out arc, and Beatriz’s activism have done.