Orange isn’t the new Purple

BCN 125 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 125, June 2014

Bi representation or bi erasure – which one are we getting in Orange Is The New Black?

Spoiler warnings for those who don’t want to know what happens in a TV show before they watch it: this may tell you too much about Season 1. Also discussing a scene from season 2 episode 2 but no major season 2 spoilers included.

When I started watching Orange is The New Black I had no idea that there were any bi characters in the show. My decision was mostly based on great things I had read about Laverne Cox. So, you probably imagine my surprise when in the first 30 seconds of episode one, the main character (Piper) is clearly established as bisexual via some quote enjoyable shower/bath scenes. I was so happy! “A canonically bi protagonist clearly established as bi within the first minute of the first episode, what a rare treat!” I thought.

However, as I kept watching my enthusiasm started fading. All the way throughout season 1 not one of the characters uses the word bisexual. Piper is either described as straight, or as lesbian.

I think there is an option of reading Piper as fighting internalised biphobia. At some point she does mention the Kinsey scale, at another she says “I like hot girls. And I like hot boys. I like hot people. What can I say? I’m shallow.”(series 1, episode 10) thus acknowledging her attraction to people of more than one gender. But at no point does she use the b-word.  And having had to work through some internalised biphobia myself I can see some of my own struggles in how Piper only kind of acknowledges her attraction to more than one gender. So if I can see myself in the character, surely that would count as representation, right?

Not really. Or at least not good representation. In my opinion, all of the above would be completely fine if we had a lot of diverse bisexual characters in media. I see no problem with not all of them using the b-word or even talking about their sexuality at all. However, the reality is that there are very few bisexual characters in popular media who do identify as bi and whose bisexuality is not portrayed as a problem. Having the main character being described as either lesbian or straight depending on who she is actively having sex with at that time does not count as bi representation in any meaningful way, even if I can read her as bisexual. The option of her being bi is not even briefly entertained by any of the characters (at least in season 1) and the show fails to represent bisexuality as a valid identity option. If that is not bi erasure, I don’t know what is.

I hoped something would change in season 2, maybe someone would use the b-word… And someone did. Piper’s ex-fiance while talking to his father:
Larry “She cheated. She lied. Why am I holding on? Prison changed her. It changes people.”
Dad: “I heard that”
Larry:  “I mean, 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.” (Series 2, Episode 2)

This was the only time the b-word has been used in the entire series by now. It is used in the context of discussing Piper’s cheating on his fiancé and the whole conversation frames her as someone who cannot be trusted. She is not around her man and she turns lesbian again. Or bi. But who cares the point is, she isn’t straight like her fiancé would prefer her to be. It is not about Piper self-identifying as bi, or even as some other character noticing that she may be bi. No, the b-word is only ever used in the context of discussing Piper’s infidelity. Even though it is not directly said that it is her bisexuality that causes the infidelity, it is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem. From what I can see it is not much better than erasing her possible bisexuality altogether in terms of representation.

And you know what? I love the show. The amount and complexity of different characters’ stories is just fantastic. Especially the kinds of characters who usually do not get a lot of representation in mainstream media. The stories of Piper’s fellow inmates are fascinating, and all of the characters are portrayed as complex human beings, which is a rare treat given that they are mostly women (both cis and trans), and a lot of them are women of colour.

The only thing that disappoints me is that even though the show gets so many things right, it does not manage to get this one thing right.

But I have to say, overall it is a very good show, even though it fails at bisexual representation. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, just go and watch it right now.