Orange is the New Black: Bisexual Erasure

oitnb_cast3

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_larry2
Piper’s reaction as Larry proposes

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.

Piper and Alex, in another flashback
Piper and Alex, in another flashback

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
College senior majoring in English and math, and a literature, film, and TV enthusiast.

Want to write about TV or other art forms?

Create writer account

68 Comments

  1. Bi-blindness is still acceptable.

  2. Hi Rosser
    1

    I think male bisexuality is far less acknowledged in American society than female bisexuality. I would like to see the show acknowledge male bisexuality.

  3. I was pretty puzzled why they never mentioned the word, but they’ve tackled the subject regardless of whether the word was said.

  4. They’ve tackled some pretty controversial stuff so far, so time will tell.

  5. Well the fact that they’re so open about her bisexuality, it doesn’t need a discussion. Essentially, it IS about choosing a person, not an orientation. In some ways this reminds me of Bo in Lost Girl, who is clearly bisexual and goes through various relationships, but never once has to say what she is. This just proves that Americans are still so conservative in they’re thinking that they’re not happy unless everything is labelled.

    • It’s not “conservative” for bisexual people to want to see themselves properly and respectfully represented as a complete and individual sexuality rather than being dismissed as a gay/straight mashup depending on who they’re romantically or sexually involved with at the time. It’s not “conservative” to want to hear the language we use to talk about our orientation and experiences used in the media. My bisexuality is an incredibly important part of who I am. Don’t dismiss it by claiming it’s “not about” an orientation, and don’t act as though the media’s consistent refusal to use the word “bisexual” to describe clearly bisexual characters is somehow an awesome and progressive thing that bi people should be thankful for, because actually all it does is reflect and contribute to our erasure.

  6. Amanda Dominguez-Chio

    I love this show, and I never noticed that the word “bisexual” is avoided. Great job! I enjoyed your discussion 🙂

    • I agree with you, Amanda, I never even noticed that. But now that I have, I’ve also noticed Alex’s tendency to call Piper “straight” for being with Larry, and Larry’s tendency to call Piper gay (“so are you gay now?”) when she’s with Alex. Kind of telling, don’t you think?

  7. Jamie Tracy

    I wonder if it is a conscious decision not to use the word as the show is based on the life of a Connecticut Socialite living on the Upper West Side of NYC. Since many of her experiences are in flashbacks, it makes sense that the early 20-something Piper has no idea what she is doing or if it is her just “having fun”. Her upbringing and background that has been revealed to us does not indicate that she has been exposed to anything we would consider “non-traditional”. Her brother is now on the outskirts of society as well. Possibly the sheltered life they led has pushed them towards experimentation and the quest for identity.

    With Piper in prison, perhaps she does not need to label every experience, person or activity she is surrounded with. Could the show just reflect what Piper was feeling? It seems she has no idea what she is doing at times so how would she now how to define her own sexuality. More important to her is trying to understand love.

    I never felt the need for her sexuality to be defined in the show. I never felt any of the characters sexualities really mattered other than for character dynamics and comedic interactions.

    I feel like being critical of a show and its writers for not making a clear definition of sexuality is a bit unfair. Shouldn’t we be more impressed that it is not a pigeon-holed definition that we force characters into?

    • It seems pretty obvious that you’re not bisexual, and based on that assumption I have to ask why you think it’s remotely relevant that you personally “never felt the need for her sexuality to be defined”. It’s not. And the show is not impressive for refusing to use the word “bisexual” to talk respectfully about Piper’s sexuality. Bisexual people already experience serious erasure; the number of people, both straight and gay, who insist bisexuality doesn’t exist, that we’re just “confused” and need to “pick a side”, is overwhelming. Do you think the show’s treatment of Piper’s sexuality does anything at all to tear down those stereotypes? Do you think it does anything at all to tear down the stereotype that we’re untrustworthy as partners, or that we won’t come out “fully” because we want to cling to the privileges being straight affords people? Do you think it feels in any way good for bisexual viewers to sit down to watch an in-all-other-ways progressive show and see the same tired stereotypes trotted out by characters who refuse to acknowledge bisexuality out loud? I’m a bisexual woman replying to a non-bisexual man who has in one comment propped up the stereotypes of bisexuals just “experimenting” and “having no idea what they’re doing”, and then expected that the show that has clearly led to that interpretation of my sexuality should be “impressive” to me. Try that for unfair.

      • Jamie Tracy

        Hannah-
        I am sorry you took offense to my comments. In no way was I trying to be offensive.
        After reading my post again, it seems pointed.

        As far as me saying, “no idea what she was doing”, I was referring to her life, not sexuality. She was traveling the world following a partner(irrelevant if it is a man or woman) trying to find herself as many of us do as we are growing up. I feel it is not a necessary argument to include her sexuality in these times. The flashbacks in the show are helping define who Piper is and why she struggles with identity issues. It is in prison where she begins to find purpose and an identity that is wholly hers, without the influence of her outside life(upbringing, partners, society). My comment on “experimenting” was written from her perspective based on what we know of her upbringing and the notions she was raised with, not me. Her brother has reacted in the same way but moving to live off the grid independent of society. He is “experimenting” as well.

        As you said, the show is progressive, this is why I thought that her sexuality not being defined was a good thing. The characters we expect to display the conservative American view, Piper’s friends and extended family outside of prison are stereotyping her relationships whereas in the prison, they remain simply relationships.

        You also asked why I thought as a non-bisexual (strange assumption based on one comment) that I thought her sexuality was not relevant to define. It is relevant because I am a fan of the show, that is the only thing that matters. I may not be the target audience but I watch and support the show.

        Lastly, you have put me into a box that you defined without asking questions. It seems you have had that done to you as well and instead of us having a positive interaction you escalated it. I’d be happy to clarify anything I have ever said in these posts or in my articles for you.I hold nothing back and am 100% honest in my life. I was commenting in defense of the show and you took it as a personal attack. I am sorry you felt that way.

        • Wow, I’m sorry that I chose to forego a “positive interaction” with you in favour of expressing anger at reading the usual tired and offensive crap about a deeply important part of myself. Between your “I’m sorry you were offended” apology rather than accepting that your comment *was* offensive, the level of patronisation in the comment I’m currently replying to, and your failure to understand that when bisexual people are roundly condemning the show’s consistent failure to acknowledge their existence, it really doesn’t matter that you as a non-bisexual (and it wasn’t a strange assumption; trust me, your comment screams that this doesn’t affect you personally, but feel free to go ahead and correct me if I’m wrong) feel like it totally isn’t necessary for Piper to define her sexuality, I’m sure I’ve missed out on a real treat there.

          What bisexual person do you think has ever heard a character perform verbal gymnastics to avoid saying the word “”bisexual” and gone “Wow, I’m so relieved they didn’t make an actual reference to my orientation; god knows we don’t need that kind of backwards thinking!”? Piper’s sexuality absolutely *is* labelled in prison (as the writer of the article spent a good chunk of time pointing out) as alternately gay and straight, even though this is inaccurate, erasing, and never highlighted for being the biphobia that it is, and yet you clearly don’t find that unprogressive. I’m not sure how exactly your own articles would enter into this, but please be 100% honest with yourself about why you feel that way. Because this “why all the fuss about labels??” mentality when it comes to sexuality is pretty much always directed at bisexuals, and all that’s actually reinforcing is the belief that our sexuality is not worth defining or creating language for.

          • Jamie Tracy

            Danica-
            I am sorry for derailing the great comments about your article. I enjoyed your article. I will refrain from commenting further to avoid any other distractions.

            Hannah, if you’d like, I’d be happy to continue to speak with you via pm.

  8. Liz Watkins

    I have not seen the show, but I have read the book. Piper almost seems embarrassed by her bisexuality in the novel. She carefully avoids talking about her past with Alex while in prison and emphasizes that is in engaged to a man. I think this is partially that she does not want to fall into certain crowds in prison and avoid the stigma that the bi or lesbian prisoners face. She is a prisoner of her own sexuality, literally and figuratively.

  9. Spencer

    Great and comprehensive article. I also have found the insistence that Piper is identified as either “gay” or “not gay”, rather than anywhere in the middle seems oddly short-sighted and out of place for such a progressive show. Good work!

  10. Fantastic article. I don’t think non-bisexual people understand quite how frustrating it is to have the media steadfastly refuse to say the word “bisexual”. It’s absolutely reflective of the fact that society can’t seem to accept that bisexuality isn’t some vague midway point between gay and straight, but a complete identity in itself. I want to see myself properly represented and not as though my orientation is something embarrassing to be glossed over.

    • Hannah, I understand where you are coming from. Believe me. It just shows how despite the openness and acceptance of homosexuality in most mainstream culture, groups like bisexuals are a long way from being taken seriously as a distinct sexuality. Bisexuals are perceived as simply “experimenting”, “confused”, or even “selfish”. I cannot wait until bisexuality is viewed as a legitimate sexual orientation by mainstream media and society.

  11. Jessica Eve Kennedy

    This is a really well-written and well-informed article. I hope that this issue is addressed in Season 3, for all the reasons you have listed. I find the bisexual erasure that the show perpetuates a really disappointing aspect of an otherwise pretty exciting show, in terms of representation.

  12. Venus Echos

    Danica very well done piece it read so smoothly. Thank you for bringing to our attention the subject of bisexuality. It was a thought in the background as I watched it. I wondered why is this black or white it is apparent Piper has feelings for both Alex and her fiancée. Yet, it was not addressed. Another coupling on the show that reflects this matter is Lorna and Nicky. Lorna receives sexual pleasures and reciprocates them with Nicky yet, she is determined to marry her male “fiancée.” It deals more with the mental issues than the obvious bisexuality. There could also develop a pivotal moment when Tasty falls for Poussey in the future?

  13. “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.”

    Now, since I’ve read some volatile comments above, I’ll try be careful when wording this. If I offend, know that I don’t mean to. I’m just trying to explain this in a different way.

    Larry IS ignorant. Larry doesn’t seem to have much experience with the idea of bisexuality, so it is a foreign topic to him. This is understandable coming from a straight male perspective, especially considering the SES that he comes from. Is this wrong? I see that one could perceive it as wrong, primarily if she/he is bisexual. But ignorance, by itself, isn’t a crime. It’s just not being informed.

    I think a more important issue to discuss concerning Piper’s bisexuality is that she has never told Larry about it. Had she sat down with Larry and explained her orientation early in the relationship, it would have given him the proper perspective to understand her. Instead, she withholds the information. Larry perceives this as a breach of trust. It seems reasonable that he would be angry and skeptical of Piper’s sexuality given these circumstances.

    This is, remember, a television show. The conflict and the different personalities of the characters create a believable story. The fact remains that society still has trouble with bisexual erasure, so the show is mirroring that aspect of our culture. Whether it is right or wrong doesn’t matter for the show’s purpose. What’s important is that articles like this one can flesh out the ideas and expose these problems.

    “Importantly, Cal is the only one to comment that a label might not be necessary.”

    This, I think, is an important point. Labels might not be necessary. We live in a society that is overflowing with labels that divide us into neat little compartments of humanity. If it is important to bisexual people that they be labeled bisexual, then I respect that; however, I think it would be better to examine the idea of sexual labels more thoroughly.

    How many people are completely straight? How many are completely gay? How many fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum? Where do pansexuals, asexuals, and M2F transgendered lesbians fit in this continuum? Do we need all of these labels? Are they that important to fulfilling one’s identity? Does anyone even KNOW what label best fits them? Can these labels change?

    I think Piper is not really sure herself. She never self-identifies as bisexual in the show. Though one might say she is based on assumptions, we cannot put a label on her if she is unwilling to accept that label herself. To do so is unethical and potentially harmful.

    And just one final point about her confusion. It’s hard to deny that Piper’s character is confused about everything. Instead of thinking about her sexuality as being representative of the bisexual community, maybe we should instead see her sexuality as a reflection of her personal issues.

    It’s not that the show is claiming bisexuals are confused about their identities. It’s saying that PIPER is confused about HER identity, and that HER bisexuality is just another manifestation of HER confusion. I don’t think it’s fair to judge a person solely on his/her sexual orientation. Instead, we should examine the other aspects of Piper’s life and use her sexuality to piece together the puzzle of her personality.

    • Larry is ignorant. There is no question about that. But having Larry be the only character to mention bisexuality IS wrong. I’ve read a lot of arguments claiming that various characters should be excused for their ignorance because of their SES, but this begs the question: exactly which socioeconomic status do people think a character should come from in order to have an understanding of bisexuality (and a plethora of other topics that I’ve seen this argument used to defend)? The show features characters from so many different backgrounds. Is there no one who might understand bisexuality? And ignorance can certainly be a crime, but I won’t go into that now.
      This show is not mirroring bisexual erasure in society to prove a point. To do that, the show would have to offer some sort of commentary on bisexual erasure. It doesn’t. It simply continues to erase bisexuality, and that DOES matter. It leads to more people internalizing the notion that bisexuality is not a unique identity in itself, thus perpetuating the bi erasure that is already prevalent in society.
      In a perfect society, where prejudice was nonexistent, labels might not be necessary. Unfortunately, our society isn’t perfect. Labels provide a sense of identity to marginalized people. They can provide a community where people can find support amidst a society that doesn’t understand them. I find that most often, the argument of “why do we need all these labels?” is used by people who don’t want to bother with learning about identities other than their own. You mention the spectrum of sexuality, so you understand that sexuality is not binary; obviously, there are more sexualities than just gay and straight. The identities you mentioned fit perfectly in a non-binary understanding of sexuality: they are labels, and there are people who identify with them. “Do we need all of these labels? Are they that important to fulfilling one’s identity?” Yes. “Does anyone even KNOW what label best fits them?” Yes, people who label themselves do. “Can these labels change?” Yes. That’s the idea of fluid sexuality, which I mentioned in my article.
      I realize that you don’t mean to be offensive, but it’s hard not to take offense at the notion that Piper’s sexuality is a reflection of her personal issues. You say that “HER bisexuality is just another manifestation of HER confusion.” That is one of the toxic ideas that I was attempting to combat with this article. Bisexual people are not “confused.” Any of Piper’s confusion surrounding whether she wants to be with Larry or Alex doesn’t have anything to do with their respective genders or confusion about her sexuality. Piper’s trouble with deciding who she wants to be with is a reflection of her indecisiveness about what she wants out of her life (simply put, travel and adventure with Alex, safe but bland with Larry), but her confusion is NOT about whether she is attracted to either of them. Again, bisexual people are not confused.
      Finally, you are correct in saying that it’s not fair to judge a person solely on their sexual orientation. I’m certainly not doing that with Piper, and most of the criticism I’ve read about her focuses on other aspects of her identity—for example, how she’s a self-proclaimed “emotionally manipulative narcissist.” I’m not judging her on her sexuality; I’m judging the way the show handles it. The writers deftly handle so many different issues, so why can’t they acknowledge the bisexuality of any of the characters?

      • ^^ This pretty well covers everything I want to say, but I feel the need to respond a little further to this:

        “She never self-identifies as bisexual in the show. Though one might say she is based on assumptions, we cannot put a label on her if she is unwilling to accept that label herself. To do so is unethical and potentially harmful.”

        Piper is not a real person (though Piper Kerman, on whom she’s based, explicitly identifies as bisexual). She cannot self-identify and she cannot be willing or unwilling to accept labels. She’s a construct and the writers choose to make her that way. Likewise, the writers choose to make Larry ignorant, choose to have Alex and Nicky buy into the hugely harmful and hurtful notion that bi women are really “straight girls”, choose to have no one ever seriously and respectfully acknowledge that there is a word for Piper’s sexuality and it’s a valid identity. And when a piece of media merely reflects oppressive stereotypes and does nothing at all to highlight them as being wrong, it’s reasonable to assume that the people behind that media also buy into those stereotypes and don’t believe they are wrong. As the comment above points out, all this does is contribute to bisexual erasure. Furthermore, while I could maybe get over it if it was just this one show, it’s not. It’s all of them.

        All three of the people I’ve responded to on here have seemed to feel it’s progressive to not talk about labels but expressed no concern at all about the “straight” and “gay” labels used to talk about Piper by other characters in the show, despite the fact that Piper is neither gay nor straight. Again, the “no labels though” mentality is usually directed at people who express attraction to more than one gender, including when they’re trying to define their own sexuality. It’s certainly never directed at straight people, and, within the LGBTQ+ community, at least, very rarely at gay people. It’s easy to muse about whether labels matter that much really in a context where your own identity is not being questioned and doubted at every turn, and for bi people and others with multisexual identities, we’re doubted pretty much all the time. In a world where we’re flat-out told our sexuality doesn’t exist, that we’re just confused, where particularly young women, who are a huge target audience for this show, who come out as bi, pan or polysexual are told they’re “doing it for attention”, a show like Orange is the New Black can actively help us or actively harm us. By refusing to use the word “bisexual”, it’s doing the latter.

  14. I used to teach in prison, and thus have a morbid fascination with how it’s portrayed in the media. (Seriously – if you’re good at bonding with people and want to have a life-altering experience, give it a whirl. I can no longer relate to many of my colleagues on many issues. That job is the reason.)

  15. Melba Phelps
    0

    I think it would be interesting if the show addressed how prison made women who previously thought they were straight come to terms with their bisexuality.

  16. Guadalupe
    0

    Two words: bi invisibility.

  17. Loving the show just watching the last episode of season 2

  18. It’s got a better record than The L Word or Lip Service.

    But that’s not saying anything.

  19. Danica,

    I liked your article a lot. OINTB is getting such praise in the LGBTQ community (and in other areas, I think it does some good work, like in trans* identity) that I think your analysis about bi-erasure is especially apt. Lots of articles have been written in the past couple of years that give voice to experiences of bisexual people who feel silenced and ignored by the community that they are supposed to have solidarity with. Through that lens, OINTB is just another let down.

    In one episode, Piper explains the Kinsey scale, arguing that people don’t just “turn gay,” but rather fall on a spectrum. Perhaps the writers of the show thought that was clever; but for actual people who strongly connect to identities, like bisexuality, that exist along that spectrum, it feels like a cop out. Bisexual erasure is commonplace on television– it’s “cool,” for women particularly, to experiment with their sexuality, but tv shows very rarely name it as bisexuality, and they usually do not give it a serious or sincere treatment. It reaffirms a popular perception, sometimes even from within the LGBTQ community, that bisexuality is not real. In the same way that hyper-sexualized violence on crime dramas perpetuates a norm of misogyny, the refusal to deal responsibly with bisexuality on this show perpetuates biphobia.

    That irresponsible behavior, in turn, allows OITNB to use Piper’s sexuality for voyeuristic purposes. Because she is blonde, beautiful, white, and “straight-but-has-hot-sex-with-women,” she is a commodity for the show that wants to attract viewers. Making Piper a sexual object also reinforces the stereotypes about bisexuality that sexualizes people who are bisexual, but refuses bisexual people agency over their own identification.

    Piper reminds me a bit of Karen, on Will and Grace, who came out as “going both ways.” Bisexuality was (very) briefly mentioned, when Karen was accused of having a “bisexual vibe.” Karen’s sexuality was really only used for comedic purposes, in the same way that I feel like Piper’s sexuality is really only used for voyeuristic purposes.

    I think your cultural analysis of bisexual erasure on television could be a terrific large-scale project.

  20. vegreen

    Wow, it never really occurred to me that the word “bisexual” was avoided, now it is oh so clear. Nice job, and very nice attention to detail!

  21. Bisexual isn’t a dirty slur, it’s absurd no one mentions it at all. Especially since Piper obviously accepts that about herself.

  22. MeldaBirch
    0

    I love how in the prison, there’s still the fight between good and evil. Goes against a lot of our social stereotypes I guess. Just enjoy watching how people who’ve made mistakes can prove they have a good heart in conditions where being the bad person is a lot easier. Too sucked into the programme I think!

  23. Fans have a bit of time before next season to make noise about it so I hope the bi/queer community does.

  24. Best show ever.

  25. I like your thoughts. This is a good example of the tension between gender binaries. Gender is a part of a person’s identity because it is a factor in someone’s being. Because gender is a factor, so is sexuality and who the person is attracted to. There’s this thought that you are either attracted to sameness or difference. Those two are antonyms and therefore oppose each other; so, the idea that a person could be attracted to both causes that “pick a side” argument. If looked at from the point of view of someone that is bisexual, according to Amber Ault, the homosexuals and heterosexuals are monosexual. The monosexuals “are sexually limited by a pathological preference for intimacy for only one sex.” Bisexuals are fully sexual and everyone else is only “semisexual.” So why are bisexuals a “problem?” Because the binary model is the dominant model. I enjoy your take on this because, even without all of the research that people have already been doing, you came to this same conclusion. Psychologists are not the only ones who realize that this is a problem, and that’s encouraging.

  26. Excellent article that raises a very interesting point. It is simple for me as I once explained to a suburban couple the difference between Homosexual, Lesbian, and Bi-Sexual in the following manner: Homosexuals are males attracted to other males. Lesbians are women attracted to other women and Bi-Sexuals, I have understood as just being horney.

    • Aww, then you’re both incorrect and biphobic as hell, and your sexualising and stereotyping of us helps perpetuate the mistrust and violence we experience. So thanks for that! Really seems like you took this article on board! (And the hyphen in bisexual is utterly unnecessary.)

  27. With OITNB now a favorite for me, I not only found this article interesting but observant as well. While sexual preference of the inmates plays a major roll in the show, it never occurred to me that the “bi-sexual” term or title has only been used once. For whatever reason, I’m sure it isn’t to be intentionally prejudiced or because the writers don’t believe that bi-sexuality is real. Perhaps Piper’s sexuality is to become a more intricate story line later on in the series or maybe the “bi-sexual” issue will be explored more thoroughly. Either way, with OITNB not even into its third season, I think it’s too soon to come to any conclusions just yet. This was, however, a great article!

  28. Thank you for drawing attention to bi-erasure in the media. As a bisexual woman and a fan of OITNB this has always seemed unsettling to me, however I’ve never been able to put my finger on it until now. Hopefully this will be addressed in Season 3!

  29. I can’t help but find it odd that it’s more acceptable for a character (and consequentially fans) to talk about being asexual in media but not being bisexual. I can recall in an episode of Law and Order: SVU, that there was a deceased male-character who was known to engage in sexual relations with both males and females, but was branded as being gay since that was the last gender that he had been in a relationship. I don’t understand why it is so taboo, but your article did help to shed some light on it. I find it to be sad that in media that people still are fighting for some small representation.

  30. Meghan Gallagher

    I think this article is really important. Just because a show like OITNB is incredibly progressive in some ways, doesn’t mean that it is exempt from discrimination and marginalizing language. While acceptance of gay and transgender individuals has become much more widespread, it is still very difficult for the general public to view sexuality as a spectrum. I love OITNB and really hope they take this critique to heart.

  31. LCS

    I don’t think sexuality is necessarily meant to be pinned down to one stigma. You love who you love and I believe that was the reason for not exclaiming whether or not Piper is indeed bisexual or not. Then again, if sexuality didn’t matter, then why proclaim heterosexuality or homosexuality in the show yet not present bisexuality in part? Either present all forms clearly or not reference at all. Wonderful article.

  32. So, I really liked your article– HOWEVER, I am a bisexual person who watches the show and what I see I have to disagree that the show is erasing the bi. In fact, I think it’s doing the complete opposite. See– the media always does this, shows try to not say the word bisexual and portray it as taboo. You know piper’s bisexual, I know Piper is bisexual…but in reality bisexuality continues to go unnoticed and this is how the show is portraying it. The fact that it’s not being said or going unnoticed is making the show that much more real. It makes the show real because in real life people act exactly this way towards bisexuals. The whole: “Is she gay, Is she straight” thing is a thing that happens to people who identify as bisexual on a daily bases; it happened to me. It is one of the struggles of being a person who wholeheartedly identifies as bisexual. I think what the writers are trying to do, is make the audience think. General Thought: “Hmm well she’s not gay and she’s not straight–well what the heck is she. Is there a word for that? Let me google search.” – would hopefully be the result of their TV show formula with the labels. At least I think so. And they fact that the show uses labels shows that a person can be more than just gay or straight or whatever else they may identify as. Piper, is also a good character because she has her own internal struggles with identifying as bisexual and this is how it goes for us. We try to fit in the categories of either gay or straight because people don’t understand how fluid sexuality actually is. You are either one or the other. There is no in-between. So piper is the literal representation of that. That’s why they emphasize it so much on the show. People who clearly ignore bisexuality try to make bisexuals fit into a category. There’s so much more I can go into on why this show actually makes bi more visible but– I don’t want to write a whole article here. Anyway, great argument I can see clearly your reasoning but I will have to agree to disagree!

    • *rubs temples* So what you’re saying is that by reflecting completely the reality of no one ever using the word bisexual because they think there’s no such thing and people can only be gay or straight, the writers are trying to change the reality where no one ever uses the word bisexual because they think there’s no such thing and people can only be gay or straight? Did that… really seem right to you when you wrote it? Do you think that when women are written as one-dimensional sidelined characters, useless damsels in distress, and nagging, uptight bitches, the people writing those women are trying to make their audience think about misogyny? Or do you think they’re just contributing to the deluge of misogyny that already exists? I’ll give you a clue: it’s the second one.

      When media reflects an oppressive reality and doesn’t do anything to challenge it, it isn’t helpful to the people being oppressed by it. This is not a difficult concept. How is it at all helpful to bisexuals to show bisexuality exactly as biphobes already think about it? How can you possibly argue that that’s going to “make the audience think” rather than just reaffirm everything they thought already? I don’t care about media that accurately reflects the reality of people who don’t think bisexuality is a complete and legitimate orientation. I want media that accurately reflects how bisexual people feel about that. I want media that shows how hurtful it is to bi people to be called “really straight” or “half gay”. I want media that shows how incredibly harmful it is to us when bi people are made out to be inherently more up for sex or inherently more likely to cheat. I want media that hits out at people who accuse bisexuals and other multisexuals, particularly multisexual women, of being “attention-seeking”. I want media that treats bisexuality as though it’s real and valid and deserving of a word to describe it. *That* would be progressive. OITNB is just contributing to biphobia.

      And even if the notion that this show is actively trying to make bisexuality visible wasn’t complete bullshit, the idea that the best way to teach an audience to afford bisexual people basic respect is through riddles and guessing games rather than by actually affording bisexual people some basic goddamn respect within the show is utterly laughable.

  33. I think OITNB addresses bisexuality simply by not labeling Piper as one or the other, but constantly insisting that she is in fact, both gay and straight, attracted to both men and women. There isn’t a need to label her further than she’s already labeled herself.

    • Yeah, but that doesn’t address bisexuality though. “Bisexual” does not mean “both gay and straight”. I am not half gay and half straight. I am fully bisexual. Your comment implies that bisexuality is less important as an orientation than either homosexuality or heterosexuality, that the two latter orientations can be shoved together to describe the former, and that the actual word to describe the former is unnecessary. This is as absurd as suggesting that gay and straight people can be described as “half bisexual”. Your comment also ignores that there are genders outside the binary of male and female, and as stated in the article, the bisexual community defines bisexuality as “the attraction to more than one gender”, not “the attraction to both men and women”. So yeah, there absolutely is a need, because calling her “both gay and straight” is both erasing and inaccurate.

  34. i think a lot of it is because a large portion of society is still learning to except homosexuality (and struggling, in a lot of cases) and they see only two options, straight or not straight. it’s not right, but it’s what happens. and not just for bisexuality, but also pansexuality, asexuality, basically anything other than homosexuality gets erased a lot of the time.
    but what’s truly sad is how some of these identities are dealt with even within the LBGTQA+ community. you make a good point with the discussion on the perceived necessity of labels, and i think it’s something a lot more people should consider. but at the same time i agree with your assertion that shows /should/ use labels in order to reaffirm identities for their audience members and foster acceptance within their viewers.

  35. Kristian Wilson

    You say the idea that bisexual individuals have “phases” is “toxic,” which is a fair assessment. But you failed to mention two other harmful stereotypes, both of which the Piper character brings to life: that bisexuals need to be with both sexes (at once) in order to be fulfilled, and that bisexual individuals are incapable of monogamy. While there is no doubt that people of all sexualities struggle with having feelings toward more than one person, it becomes problematic when a bisexual character is portrayed as being forced to choose between heterosexuality and lesbianism. And although Piper’s situation makes her and Larry’s moments of infidelity understandable, in a wider culture that presents bisexual women as insatiable and untrustworthy, OITNB fails to be fair with its handling of Piper.

  36. I love this article, and I think it brings forth a really important topic. Having multiple friends who are bisexual and who often tell me about the negative connotations and ignorant viewpoints people hold towards the term “bisexual,” and knowing that those same friends are huge fans of Orange Is The New Black, I think this is definitely a conversation I can bring to them and get their take on; I would agree that the show should approach bisexuality more frequently, but should avoid letting ignorance from characters like Larry be the only way in which it does so.

  37. I think the important thing to remember is that labels are meant to communicate ideas to other people. Since sexuality is such a fluid thing, it can be difficult for someone to call themselves anything, bisexual, gay straight, because once you do it becomes part of your identity. If it’s something you’re unsure of, you may be hesitant because tomorrow your view of yourself could change. While I don’t agree with the fact that the term is neglected and not really seen as an option for Piper, it contextually makes sense for the world which Piper lives in, this “one or the other” situation. Culturally, the term bisexual has a lot of negative connotations, they’re often seen as overly promiscuous or cheaters, and I think it makes it worse that Piper perpetuates that negative stereotype, which may be why the writers hesitates to use that term to describe her.

  38. sammmtastic

    This is one of the things that really bothers me about OITNB. The writers need to address the fact that Piper may be bisexual rather than constantly asking the question, “Is she straight or is she gay?” Refusing to fully represent bisexuality allows for the continued fetishization of bisexual women.

    Very well written analysis!

  39. Tirhakah

    A similar missing sexual label is that of transexual women. We know that there is a character who has completed her transition and yet the term transexual is hardly brought into the fray on the show. You did address the critique of sexual fluidity but did not do away with it completely. I am inclined to believe that the show wants to avoid using labels to describe how humans are attracted to one another. This is what is complicated about a tv show that tries to implement a more widened scope of diversity. Diversity implies a breaching of the labels and borders that society generates to box people in, to keep people separated from the realities that others face. Perhaps the reality is that labels are hindering. Or perhaps these labels are helpful in galvanizing those who feel alone and completely pushed off to the margins to feel a sense of community and representation especially in the very violent space of American television. It’s a tough one to call because of the many grey areas that exist in people’s individual lives. To assume that a television show can tackle that grey-ness in a way that completely encapsulates reality is kind of a tall order, one that we don’t ask of our more superficial sitcoms that litter our basic television stations.

  40. I’m nearly through watching season 2 of “Orange is the New Black.” I recently attended an LGBTQ diversity training session – not that it was my first exposure to the concepts by any means. It seems to me that the bottom line here is that not everyone uses labels. Not everyone thinks of themselves in singular terms. If one wants to apply labels to someone else’s behaviors or tendencies, they can. Some people haven’t decided where they fit in the sex and gender spectrum – and may not care to be labeled. It is what it is, no matter what labels are applied.
    When it comes to telling a story, sometimes the best way is to demonstrate rather than explain.

  41. Taylor Henderson

    This is and always been a problem in television. The idea of “picking a side” or “just figuring out who they really are” runs rampant and bisexuality is never even considered, one might argue even more so in gay and lesbian television programming.

    I love Orange is the New Black and consider it groundbreaking, especially for something that’s become so mainstream. I did perceive Piper as bisexual pretty early on, but that might just stem from my own bisexuality. I did notice that her sexual preference was put into narrower categories, always referred to as switching teams, and not a single person besides Larry even considered the idea, doing so with contempt. It’s incredibly disheartening to see gay characters dismiss the idea as well, who idealistically should be more open to the fluidity of sexuality. But that’s not the case.

    That being said, it’s incredibly important that bisexuality is acknowledged by characters, and while I love her line about just liking hot people (so accurate), it only perpetuates bi erasure. Attaching the bi label onto Piper could only increase the audiences knowledge of the bisexual identity and make the word much less taboo and much more open to discussion. It’s extremely important to all minority groups to have any kind of representation in media, and the sweeping under the rug of the possibility is very disheartening for people like me. Piper’s sexuality could be revolutionary for public understanding and could help break down the stereotypes (promiscuity, cheaters, etc.) that bi people have to face. Or in Piper’s case, at least make the stereotypes seem more human and motivated.

  42. I think they use language that most of society uses so, in that sense, it is a pretty accurate reflection of the rank and file. The problem is, too few people make the effort to understand sexual orientation and gender.

  43. I would have never guessed that they only uttered the word ‘bi’ once throughout the entire series. It blows my mind and I think you make a compelling argument. Piper isn’t confused. She fell in love with a woman and later fell in love with a man. She is attracted to both sexes and it can be determined that she is bi. Maybe the show needs to catch up and realize that.

  44. Samantha Brandbergh

    Great article! I have never seen the show, but just from people talking about it, I had no idea the main character was bisexual. I feel like shows such as this often contradict themselves, by saying there’s no need to put a label on things, but then use phrases like “not gay/straight anymore,” as you mentioned. Once again, great article and awesome job in pointing out these topics!

  45. very interesting take – it does seem that the term bi-sexual has perhaps lost its relevance as the academic and LGBT community seem more and more to engage with the spectrum of sexuality — at this point the fact the the B in LGBT stands for bisexual seems almost a vestige of binary thinking around sexuality. given that the definition of bisexual as you have it here is being attracted to more than one gender than the prefix bi doesn’t entirely seem to accomplish that purpose. that being said, i think the show handles her sexuality without more than necessary attention given that we understand very early on that she’s been with women and men.

  46. I agree. The fact that her bisexuality is so ignored is a fault that I hope they address in further seasons. The show has proved itself too groundbreaking to be stopped by bi-erasure, surely. If they can have a trans woman actually played by a trans woman, they must be able to have an openly bisexual character.

  47. Nof

    I absolutely love this show — although I have not watched most of season 2 yet. However, you make an incredibly interesting point and one that I did not notice before. This show altogether is a huge step forward, but there is always something that needs to be worked on, tweeked, recognized, etc. Great article! I would definitely like to see if the writers address this issue, as they should.

  48. I agree with your say about not being able to define Piper’s sexuality in theory but it is as confused as the sexuality itself is. I guess they do address the issue.

  49. I’m glad others noticed this too, I could never put my finger on it! It is clear that Piper is a bisexual, but once she leaves Larry, her attraction to men is completely erased and ignored.

  50. BeeYoung
    0

    I am so glad to meet other people who felt the same way about this. I love OitNB, but the complete lack of representation for bisexuals is completely weird for a show that seems to be all about the truth of people and their lives in prison. Over 200 inmates and they are all exclusively gay or straight, or demeaningly- gay for the stay. Yeah freaking right.
    Bi-sexual erasure is a thing. Both straight and gay people have fed into that. Even though they are completely opposed in their attraction, both are still mono-sexual. The myths and slander towards those that choose to be bi or even pan is rampant.
    After all the horrible treatment committed and still being committed against gays – why do people want to perpetuate those same fears and hatred and blindness against bisexuals.
    Utterly ridiculous.

  51. Diego Santoyo
    DSantoyo
    0

    Really cool article and I definitely understand what you mean. This show is one of a kind without a doubt!

  52. I think this is a very valid thing to note about the show. I hold a separate opinion, though. I actually think there’s a possibility that Orange avoids using the word “bisexual” to make a point. Bi erasure and biphobia is so common in our society’s discourse that the way the other characters treat Piper’s sexuality seems to me to be a pretty accurate commentary on the way the world ignores the existence of bisexuality. OITNB makes a point about bi erasure by employing it in its the same way it’s employed in real life. Alex is always referring to Piper as “straight” and Larry is always calling her “gay” with neither of them willing to openly acknowledge the possibility for a middle ground despite the fact that Piper is clearly bisexual. It’s confusing, but personally I think they’re using their characters to convey the stubbornness of our society in accepting the bisexual label.

    • I think if they wanted to address bi erasure, they should have explicitly mentioned bi erasure. I mean, out of all the characters on this show, there could be one to explicitly state the fact that Piper’s bisexuality is not considered at all.

      • I agree that they should seek to discuss bi-erasure more openly. However I also think that this show is written in an extremely deliberate manner and the decisions they make and whether those decisions are “right or wrong” can be a matter of perspective. Personally I find it poignant the way they show everyone trying to put Piper into a “box” that doesn’t describe her, but I can respect if that’s not how everyone sees it.

  53. Thank you for this! You put into words what I noticed in the first few episodes. It’s a really well-written, roundabout article.

  54. Good article. Thank you for your sharing.

Leave a Reply