For the last few months, I have been trying to pinpoint what exactly it is about Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black that makes me uncomfortable. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Orange Is the New Black is a show that debuted on Netflix over the summer. It portrays Piper, a white, upper middle class woman who is incarcerated for drug running for a drug ring almost ten years prior to when the show takes place. She enters Litchfield, a women’s correctional facility, learns how prison culture works, and eventually negotiates her relationship with Alex, her ex-girlfriend who convinced her to carry the drugs during their relationship. Before and during imprisonment, Piper is in a relationship with Larry, who does not quite understand the changes Piper undergoes while doing time. Orange Is the New Black also focuses on individual characters who are incarcerated, exploring their backgrounds along with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality–the show’s inclusion of a transgender character played by a transgender person deserves an entire post on its own. The show has received critical acclaim, though several critiques point to the problematic treatment of class, race, and sexuality. Because class has been covered by other critiques, I think sexuality is a productive location to instigate a discussion. But first, some more contextualization for this post.
At the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting this year, I attended a panel on problems encountered in the field by researchers invested in feminist methodologies. Multiple panel members conducted their research with incarcerated women, and at the end of the panel, one remarked that her interlocutors occasionally engaged in serious relationships with other women, though they did not consider themselves to be lesbians or bisexual. The researchers briefly discussed these relationships as being more meaningful to their interlocutors than their relationships with men, but expressed slight confusion over their interlocutors’ commitments to a heterosexual identity. The women were clearly invested in their relationships with other women. Why weren’t they lesbians?
Orange Is the New Black (spoiler alert!) presents Piper in a similar frame. Piper discusses her sexuality, albeit briefly, at numerous points throughout the season and characterizes her self as bisexual. Her relationship with Alex was and is important to her, as is her relationship with Larry. However, the other characters refuse to accept her fluidity. Nicky, one of the inmates, sympathizes with Alex over Piper being a “straight girl.” Healy, one of the correctional officers, is willing to be somewhat supportive of her so long as she projects a heteronormative persona and maintains her relationship with Larry; however, as soon as she is accused of engaging in homoerotic activity with Alex, he immediately frames her as a lesbian and withdraws his support. Even Larry can’t conceptualize Piper. When he hears of her relationship with Alex in prison, he wonders: “So, what, is she gay now?” Piper can only be one or the other.
While the conversation at the AAA meeting is reminiscent of how sexuality is depicted on Orange Is the New Black and may speak to a broader discussion on sexuality, gender, and incarceration, I think Piper’s representation on Orange Is the New Black is indicative of pervasive biphobia in media portrayals. I appreciate Orange Is the New Black’s inclusion of queer characters, but the problematic erasure of aspects of their identities is concerning. The complicated fluidity so apparent in interlocutors discussed in the AAA session does not translate to television, or at least they do not in Orange Is the New Black. Wentworth, an Australian women’s prison drama, reframes the sexual tension between the female prison governor and a female inmate in terms of power dynamics irrelevant to sexual orientation; the female governor, who is engaged to a man, is not forcefully dichotomized. Why is this an issue in Orange Is the New Black? The show depicts the complicated intersectional aspects of identities in numerous ways. Why doesn’t this complexity extend to sexuality?
Orange Is the New Black presents a number of themes I find to be troubling, from class depictions to sexual assault to its overall treatment of incarceration. The show is not perfect, but it aptly demonstrates that these various flaws are worthwhile points of discussion. For all its issues, Orange Is the New Black has held its viewers’ attention. However, Jenji Kohan would do well to note critiques and take a hard look at how the show considers sexual fluidity in addition to the various social issues that arise throughout the series.