Trigger warning: this article contains mentions of/references to suicide.
Perhaps you weren’t aware, but towards the end of September it was Bisexual Awareness Week, and over on Bitch Flicks, they celebrated this with an entire week of themed essays on bisexual representation and/or erasure in film and TV. The website promoted a call for writers to submit articles on the subject, along with a list of suggested films and TV shows for contributors to consider. Noting that Person of Interest was not included in the list, I knew that this was too good an opportunity to pass up – even though the deadline was only 35 hours away. And so I hurriedly wrote and submitted a piece that argued for the show’s inclusion in the discussion.
Amongst its many complexities, Person of Interest manages to portray a number of queer characters who are just as fully realised and nuanced as their straight counterparts. Fans of the show have embraced this representation, but outside of a select group of viewers, discussion of LGBTQ+ representation in pop culture very rarely acknowledges the CBS show’s contributions. Where it does get mentioned is in the occasional passing reference to the Bury Your Gays trope, which has received unprecedented media attention since Spring of this year, thanks to some high-profile recent examples, which I have previously referenced here on this website. I’ve mentioned before on Twitter that I’m uncomfortable with the show being referenced in this way by writers who have never watched it, but obviously I cannot actually do anything about that. What I can do, however, is highlight how Person of Interest succeeds in its LGBTQ+ portrayals. At the same time, I’m not pretending that it didn’t use the BYG trope. It’s a terrible trope, and I wish that the media I love and consume didn’t use it. Perhaps if Person of Interest existed in a vacuum, and there wasn’t a troubling history of disproportionate LGBTQ+ character deaths in media, then killing off a queer character on this show might not be so damaging. Sadly, that is not the case, and so we must hold all media to account if they perpetuate the pattern. Nonetheless, as stated, it is still important to applaud and celebrate positive examples of queer representation, and to raise the profile of media that provides a platform for this representation.
Person of Interest‘s Sameen Shaw (played by Sarah Shahi) is important representation for so many intersecting identity constituents; she is a queer woman of colour with a mental illness, and the show’s narrative never treats her as anything less than an equal to the other protagonists. She is simply different to other people, not inferior to them.
She also fits a different queer character trope that I have begun to observe, which I have dubbed ‘Revive The Bi’. There are a number of bisexual characters in recent TV shows who have been killed and subsequently resurrected, or temporarily ‘fake-killed’ in a case of intentional narrative misdirection. Often, as with Bury Your Gays, it is an act committed by writers simply for shock value. Arrow‘s Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) was killed in the season three premiere, a development that was met with scepticism from fans and critics alike, particularly as the fallout of her death made the death itself appear increasingly needless as the season progressed. It seemed the show’s producers ultimately recognised their misstep (or rather: the devoted built-in audience that the character drew in), as they subsequently resurrected Sara in a mystical ceremony on the next season and hired Lotz for their new spin-off show, Legends of Tomorrow.
Jaime Murray’s HG Wells on Warehouse 13 sacrificed herself to save her friends, and ultimately returned thanks to some narrative shenanigans.
Lost Girl‘s Tamsin died at the end of the third season, and then was reincarnated – a handy side-effect of being a Valkyrie (though, unfortunately, she was later killed off permanently after some particularly troubling story developments).
Fans of Orphan Black had to wait almost a full year for confirmation that Delphine was indeed still alive; she had been shot in the final moments of the third season’s finale, and left to bleed out in a parking garage. Season four of the show progressed with few mentions of her, as though she had been forgotten about, with only her ex-girlfriend, Cosima, expressing any real concern for her whereabouts or safety. Though fans of course knew that without a body there was still hope, the show delivered a heart-wrenching double-bluff late in the season when Cosima was informed, without prelude, that Delphine was dead. It turned out to not be true, and the two were eventually reunited, though under rather life-threatening circumstances for Cosima. It transpired that Delphine had been rescued in the parking garage, had undergone surgery to save her life, and was since living in hiding on a remote island. As you do.
As for Sameen Shaw, between the 11th episode of season four, and the fourth episode of season five, she was largely MIA. Due to Shahi’s pregnancy during the fourth season’s production, the writers sought a way to keep her character out of the narrative until the actress was ready to return to work. True to the character, her departure was ushered with a heroic last stand, in a highly inventive episode filled with high-stakes action. Shaw was shot a number of times, and last seen with a gun pointed at her head as she laid on the floor, her lips formed in a defiant smile. A final gunshot rang out, leaving the question of her fate hanging in the air. It was not until two episodes later that audiences learnt that she was still alive, and her team-mates did not receive confirmation until much later in the season. Narratively speaking, Shaw was revived. In many ways, however, this trope is just as damaging as its cousin; suggestion of queer death, whether real or not, is still harmful for many queer viewers. Indeed, Shaw is even shown committing suicide in her return episode. Though it occurred only in a virtual reality simulation, and not in actuality, it was nonetheless an image loaded with additional emotional turmoil for queer viewers who are all too familiar with stories of suicide within their community.
I mention all of this now because I didn’t get the chance to touch on any of it in the article that I wrote for Bitch Flicks. I almost reached the recommended word limit by summarising how Shaw’s relationship with Root (Amy Acker) developed throughout their four seasons on the show, and how that relationship’s existence was initially unplanned but instead inspired by the two actresses’ chemistry, and a talented writing team that chose to capitalise on it rather than ignore it. Of course, I also acknowledged that Shaw’s status as a bisexual woman is not dependent on her relationships, and that she is her own person in her own right. The character is an inspiration to many female fans, queer or straight, and that is because she is a complex, fully-rounded woman. As per my own words:
Root provided action, excitement, and unpredictability — elements that sustained Shaw. Yet, at the same time, it is important to remember that queer people are not defined solely by their relationships, and Shaw certainly has enough personality to go around. She’s often terse, frequently blunt, and exercises a moral flexibility, but she also has a strong sense of wrong and right; she is highly capable, protective, intelligent, and heroic. She ended the series as a one-woman team, accompanied solely by her dog, Bear. She is a victor, a fighter, and a survivor. She is a queer, neurodivergent, woman of color, and she was allowed to be all of these things without ever being judged or punished for them.
As for the rest of the article, you can read the whole thing over at their website (‘Person of Interest’s Sameen Shaw Stamps Her Place in TV’s Bisexual Landscape). Be aware that it contains spoilers for all five seasons of the show. As I was writing to a tight deadline (5am in my timezone, which had me up writing and feeling like a zombie until 4am), I couldn’t take much time to proofread. As such, I’ve noticed that there are a number of paragraphs in which I swung between past and present tense with alarming ease. It’s frustrating for me to see, but it shouldn’t take away from the overall message of the piece.
It’s my hope that by highlighting the positive aspects of queer representation on Person of Interest, we can present a more balanced analysis of its depictions. Mainstream references to LGBTQ+ presence on the show invariably focuses on the bad, without acknowledging the good, and there is certainly much good to be aware of. Most importantly, we must continue to hold media-makers to account for the damaging tropes that they perpetuate in their writing, and support the works of those valuable creatives who recognise the responsibility they have in representing members of at-risk communities, be they allies or – even more importantly – members of those very same communities.