Orange is the New Black: Bisexual Erasure
The hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black (OITNB) is undeniably one of the most groundbreaking shows in recent history. Featuring a diverse, predominantly female cast, the dramedy follows the lives of inmates at the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility, a minimum security women’s prison. One of the most remarkable aspects of the show is that it allows viewers to connect to characters with whom they might, at first glance, seem to have nothing in common. Series creator Jenji Kohan refers to protagonist Piper Chapman as a “gateway drug” into Litchfield, someone with whom viewers may identify and who illuminates that anyone is one bad decision away from being in her shoes.
Piper is the picture of yuppie domestic bliss: she’s engaged to a man she loves, owns a soap-making company with her best friend, buys organic food, and enjoys the occasional lemon juice cleanse. Her life is uprooted when she is sentenced to fifteen months in prison for a ten-year old drug offense from her post-college days. During this time, she carries drug money across international borders while she is involved in a passionate romance with her girlfriend, international drug trafficker Alex Vause. Ten years later, Piper provides our introduction to Litchfield, but the show becomes about the stories of all the women with whom she serves time, bringing light to a host of issues often overlooked by television, including some of the many forms of systemic oppression, the need for prison and justice reform, race relations, and the struggle for the rights of transgender people, to name a few.
Amidst all of these positive qualities, however, there remains a major flaw in the writing of OITNB: bisexual erasure. Stonewall, a U.K.-based lesbian, gay, and bisexual charity, defines bisexual people as those who “are attracted to more than one gender.” Bisexual erasure, then, is the tendency to ignore bisexuality, sometimes to the point of denying its existence. A classic example is the idea that a person who identifies as bisexual is just confused and unable to confront the idea of homosexuality.
Piper Chapman is bisexual, yet the show treats the word “bisexual” as taboo. In 26 episodes, the word “bi” is uttered one time. On a show that does so well with normalizing the ideas of both homosexuality and being transgender, its unwillingness to acknowledge bisexuality seems purposeful.
Piper is not a character who is unable to come to terms with her sexuality. She admits on multiple occasions that she is in love with Larry (her fiancé) and Alex. To say that Piper is simply “confused” or unable to consider the possibility that she is gay is to completely dismiss the obvious love she has for Larry at the start of the show and her love for Alex in the past and present.
Although Piper Chapman is a separate entity from Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir upon which the show is based, they commit the same crime while in a relationship with a woman and are engaged to a man at the time of their incarceration. Given that similarity, the fact that the real-life Piper, who identified as a lesbian before meeting her husband, now identifies as bisexual seems to be evidence enough that Piper Chapman shares that identity.
In flashbacks, we see the development of Piper’s intense romance with Alex Vause. The flashbacks tell us that Alex is the first woman Piper sleeps with, but on a later occasion, Piper’s best friend references the “types of girls” Piper dates, indicating that after her relationship with Alex, Piper dates other women. Capacity to be attracted to one gender? Check. Later in life, Piper gets engaged to her boyfriend, Larry. Through both the flashbacks and their interactions in the visitor’s room, it is clear that Piper is in love with Larry, at least at the beginning of her prison sentence. Capacity to form an attraction to someone of another gender? Check. In addition, Piper tells her best friend in a flashback, “I like hot girls. I like hot guys. I like hot people. What can I say, I’m shallow.” Despite the fact that she states that she is attracted to men and women, the show refuses to validate her sexuality with the use of the word “bisexual.”
When Larry asks Piper’s brother, Cal, “So what, is she gay now?” Cal responds, “I’m gonna go ahead and guess that one of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything.” Though Cal indicates that labels are unnecessary, it seems odd that Larry, who seems so desperate to label Piper, doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of her bisexuality until a scene in the second season, in which he tells his father, “She was not a lesbian anymore, not with me. You know? Then she’s in prison, what, a few weeks? Bam! A lesbian again. Or bi? I don’t even know.” The only mention of bisexuality being in a statement as ignorant as this one is a practically negligible step up from not mentioning it at all, especially given that Larry doesn’t even grant the idea much consideration.
Importantly, Cal is the only one to comment that a label might not be necessary. With the exception of this moment, the show incessantly labels Piper: in the pilot, she claims that she’s “not a lesbian anymore,” an idea that she repeats in other episodes. Fellow inmate Nicky Nichols calls Piper, at various times, a “straight girl” and gay. Alex also laments in a flashback, “Rule number one: don’t ever fall in love with a straight girl,” after Piper breaks up with her. Clearly the show is making no effort to avoid labels, so the question of why it avoids labeling bisexuality remains unanswered.
One could argue that the show is attempting to highlight the fact that sexuality is fluid. While it would be groundbreaking for a show to acknowledge this fact, Piper’s sexuality is not the context in which it makes sense. The idea of fluid sexuality certainly has its place on the show, perhaps in its handling of the “gay for the stay” trope. The sexuality of some of the inmates who presumably identify as heterosexual before coming to prison but experiment with women while incarcerated would be a more appropriate exploration of the fluidity of sexuality, which is the idea that one’s sexuality can change over time, although these cases could be yet another instance of bi erasure. Piper does not stop being attracted to women when she is with Larry, nor does she stop being attracted to men when she is with Alex. To discuss Piper in terms of fluid sexuality would be to say that bisexual people go through “straight phases” and “gay phases,” a false claim which serves only to perpetuate a toxic stereotype.
Cal’s criticism of Larry’s need to “say that a person is exactly anything” could easily be used as an argument as to why the OITNB writers don’t feel the need to label Piper as bisexual. While some people prefer to avoid labels, a vast number of people do label their sexuality. For viewers of OITNB who identify as bisexual, the show does not provide the reaffirming representation that it could. Comments by Piper saying that she’s “not gay anymore,” or is “not fully like that,” and comments from others calling her, at various times, either straight or gay, only serve to further the negative stereotypes of bisexuality, contributing to a culture that does not recognize that bisexuality is an identity separate from homo- and heterosexuality. For a show as progressive as OITNB, this is a glaring blight on its record. With season three in the works, there is still hope that OITNB can address its bi erasure. Better late than never.
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