This summer as a young woman who belongs to the lgbtq+ community, I decided that it had finally come time for me to delve into Litchfield Prison and watch Orange is the New Black. Revered for its portrayal of lgbtq+ women, issues of race, and the corrupt nature of the prison system- it really did deliver for me. For any readers who may be new to the series, or unsure what it’s about here’s a brief synopsis I’ve written.
Based on the novel by Piper Kerman of her own experiences in women’s prison, OITNB follows Piper Chapman as she turns herself in to Litchfield prison on drug charges. In her 20s Piper’s ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause, ran a international drug smuggling operation that eventually goes south. The warrant for Piper’s arrest is due to those charges, so she and her fiance, Larry, decide its in her best interest to turn herself in before she’s arrested. Season 1 follows Piper’s life as she adjusts to life inside the prison and soon the story expands to encompass other women and their lives before and currently in the prison.
So let’s talk about the distinct words mentioned in that synopsis I provided you. Did you get that? Piper had an ex-girlfriend and a male fiance.
The question I’ve been asking myself since season 1 (and I’m on season 3 right now) is why does Orange is the New Black treat Piper as if Bisexuality doesn’t exist?
Let’s start with how the show opens. Piper is already in prison but allows the show to back track into how she got there. We move from prison to innercity New York and into the domestic life of Piper and Larry. They’re in love, planning their upcoming wedding, and they are a bit quirky but in a sense that provides more backing to the fact that they love each other. There is never a vibe that Piper feels heterosexually pressured into being with Larry. She’s not trying to please her parents by marrying him. She’s not pretending here. Piper is in love with Larry. End of story. Now once it’s discussed more at length, Piper’s past with Alex is brought up and for highly educated people, Piper’s fiance and her best friend (Polly) are kind of…slightly…homophobic about her past relationship.
When you hear homophobic, most people jump to yelling, screaming, violence- but there is a more subtle form of homophobia at play here. Piper’s old feelings about Alex are invalidated because frankly they can’t believe she ever felt anything for a woman when she’s getting married to a man. They turn up their noses, they treat her like it was a poor mistake in judgement, or that it was just her doing what young people do and it meant nothing. Now once we arrive in prison and it becomes clear over the course of season 1, Alex is in prison with her. We see over a series of flashbacks through all seasons just how intimate Piper’s relationship with Alex was. It clearly defies all of the accusations of her friends and family that ‘it was just a phase’. (the oldest response to bisexuality in the book)
But what’s even more frustrating is hearing the phrase “She used to be lesbian” or “She’s gay now”- OITNB has used all of these phrases and more throughout its time. Understandably for other characters there is a sense of poor education, and a lack of care about correct terms which I get, they just label girls into girls as lesbians. But guys…Piper Chapman is NOT a lesbian.
You’re telling me a woman who tried so hard to keep up her relationship with her fiance while in prison, until ultimately they broke up because of her feelings for Alex returning, and then when she’s on furlough she tries to have sex with and is clearly clinging to the sense of home he instilled in her…is lesbian?
I am a bisexual woman. I fall in love with men. I fall in love with women. Not at the same time. Not all at once.
If Piper were a lesbian she would have an out once in prison, to never have to have sex with Larry ever again. So why does she initiate it when she’s home for furlough? Yes Piper is acting out for attention, but no lesbian wants to have sex with a man. That’s common sense.
I understand sexuality is fluid and can change over time, but this isn’t over time. This is back and forth. I see all of these articles and pages “top ten tv bisexuals” Piper is in but Piper also fits into the sad category of “is bisexual but never says it out loud”.
Piper says, I like hot girls and I like hot guys
Piper says, Gay is a spectrum
Piper is number 44 on the list of Bisexual & Lesbian characters
Even this article mentions that other people are frustrated by the lack of bisexual phrasing in OITNB
I think you get the point.
We have an issue when it comes to bisexuality. No one wants to say it or label it. The characters are either straight or gay pertaining to who they’re in love with. That’s just not true. Bisexuality isn’t gay or straight, or 50/50 half and half. It’s a spectrum. I see a common trope of women starting in love with a man and then falling for a woman and suddenly she was gay. But the relationship with the man was loving, it was mutual, it had actual substance. Just like Piper’s with Larry.
We deserve characters to label themselves as bisexual. We deserve them having coming out stories and being un-apologetically themselves. I want Piper to OWN her sexuality. I want her to make a big fuss and claim a nickname for her sexuality, a phrase, a term. I want it to be something she’s proud of. There’s no need to conflict with her current relationships but as a bisexual viewer, I know she’s bi.
I mentioned before about the education level of other members of the prison and how they may not know the term for bisexual. That’s completely valid but it does not apply to Piper. For a character who spends her time often spouting off random knowledge, who would probably win jeopardy, she’s frankly uneducated about sexuality. OITNB overall treats it like there’s just gay and straight. Which is so much further from the truth.
Then to add onto this I began watching behind the scenes videos, interviews, because well I’m a TV nerd do we really need to ask why? I fell in love with the cast and I love the advocacy of the entire group and they really understand the impact they have on television. It’s beautiful. But there’s a twinge inside of me every time I hear Taylor Schilling asked about lesbian sex scenes, and Piper’s lesbian sexuality. Even the cast is under the guise that Piper is straight up gay. I would have liked some back up in my beliefs of Piper’s sexuality but it’s just not there.
It’s irresponsible to make a show be the standard of progressive and to mark on all of these issues and normalize same sex relationships on tv but to fail when discussions of sexuality comes forward. Representation matters, and we deserve representation. Maybe OITNB has missed the mark, missed the opportunity, to define Piper’s sexuality as bi. But that doesn’t mean they can avoid it completely. Bring in another bisexual character. Making Piper claim her sexuality does nothing to her current relationship. It doesn’t threaten it. It doesn’t invalidate it. It simply means that her previous relationship with Larry was true, and her one with Alex was as well.
It’s also frustrating knowing that OITNB isn’t on network TV, so the writers have less constrictions in terms of being afraid of backlash or having to censor themselves for a timeslot. There’s no reason for the erasure of bisexuality and what it encompasses.
Bisexuality isn’t Voldemort. It isn’t the sexuality who must not be named. It’s real. It’s valid. It’s here. I advise creators to get on board and stop polluting media with tropes and interchanging us with lesbians and straight girls who kissed a girl once at a party. We are here. We deserve characters who will actually say the label, and be unafraid of what lays out for them. It’s all about loving and who we love, and we need to see more love and let other members of LGBTQ+ know that who they love is valid.
Piper could have been one of those great characters that did so.
oh and the purple flowers in her poster art reminds me of the bisexual pride flag which is blue purple and pink respectively.
tea: orange bubble milk tea from Quickly