When Season I of the acclaimed Netflix original series Orange is the New Black (OITNB) concluded in 2013, the bisexual community sounded off on the fact that, despite there being more than one character with attractions to more than one gender on the show, the term "bisexual" was never used even once. Needless to say, we all had our bi-dar up when Season II premiered on Friday, June 6, 2014.
I must admit, I shouted at the TV when I heard the word "bi" uttered in the second episode this season, spoken by protagonist Piper Chapman's (Taylor Schilling) ex-fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs). Said shout was more surprise than a cheer of happiness, however, considering that the context pertains to Larry's continued questioning of whether Piper might actually be a lesbian after all -- "or bi? I don't know anymore," he says. Considering that upon completion of the season I realized this was the one and only time the term was used, I was left wishing it almost hadn't been in the show at all. Such a throwaway line was likely forgotten by most viewers by episode three and the way in which it's used doesn't put being bi in a positive light by any means.
When I reached out to the greater bisexual community, I realized many of my compatriots had similar feelings. Bisexual activist and author, Loraine Hutchins, remarked that OITNB "falls short in terms of really openly grappling with the complexities of bi identity." Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler expanded on this thought, saying, "It's not that I need the Pipers of the small screen to identify as bisexual. They can claim, or not claim, whatever identity pleases them. I probably just chafe at the continued reluctance to show personally embraced bisexual identities, especially when there is an opportunity here to do so. She came into the prison 'liking hot men and hot women.' Really? Even then we can't go there?"
Not all bisexual viewers see an avoidance of the term "bisexual" as a negative. Angel Cornelia McLay offered the following:
"The imperfections in how the characters deal with their sexualities don't have anything to do with problematic writing and everything to do with the characters themselves. Writers aren't usually as interested in pushing agendas as they are in staying true to their characters. That also means, of course, that Piper might never explicitly identify herself as 'bisexual,' and I think that's a point that tends to fly right over the heads of many bi viewers/activists who are trying to analyze how this or that show deals with bisexuality."
In several ways, I think this point is particularly apropos when comparing OITNB Seasons I and II -- in the first, Piper was really the central protagonist who we were invested in more than most of the other characters, putting her and her sexuality front and center; OITNB Season II has pulled back the curtain to reveal the backgrounds of even more characters, serving up solid, intense, multifaceted stories that give the audience a glimpse of sexual experiences (among others) across a wide spectrum. One such character that comes to mind in this vein is Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), known for being engaged and planning her wedding to a cisgender man from behind the razor wire.
Steve Douthat noted:
"In Season I, we see [Morello] as an engaged woman who has sexual relationships with women inside the prison. Despite her behavior, though, I feel like the other prisoners label Morello as straight. She even sees herself as straight and when she realizes that her behavior isn't matching her identity, rather than altering her identity, she changes her behavior, ending her physical relationship with Nicky [Nichols (Natasha Lyonne)]. Her primary relationship defines her sexuality, which is an issue we bisexuals can struggle with both internally and externally."
The complicated nature of sexuality, bi or otherwise, especially in a prison scenario, was made clear in one particular scene when characters Flaca Gonzales (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero) start kissing, both searching for companionship on Valentine's Day. These characters reveal a wider range of sexuality in this moment that plays into the concept of "situational homosexuality or bisexuality" -- Gonzales and Ramos try to be sexual in a situation where heterosexuality is not in the cards, but they can't get into it because they both lean towards the heterosexual side of the spectrum. Compared with other inmates who have no trouble having sexual encounters with other female inmates, despite how they might label themselves, this scene really shows the fluidity and variety of sexualities as portrayed in a prison microcosm.
"It felt like it was taking on the notion that all women locked up 'play gay during the stay,'" Schmitz Bechteler explained. "I think this moment was trying to say, 'Put away those stereotypes here, viewer. You really can't and shouldn't assume things about killing time and finding connections in correctional facilities.'"
Helen Acosta added, "We all live together in a world that is full of monosexuals, nonmonosexuals, asexuals and people across the gender spectrum. Having us all represented in one show is lovely."
As the story arcs of Season II progressed, it became clear to some viewers, myself included, that specific terminology was of little importance compared to the plethora of barriers OITNB breaks as a series whole.
"To me, it's more a real women's show than anything," activist John Clark said. "When do we ever see actual women on TV? It's about far more than how many times the B word is used. The T word is. That's f***ing huge. That's impact." Without a doubt, the visibility that actress Laverne Cox has achieved through the role of Sophia Burset on OITNB is to be celebrated by all constituents of the LGBT+ community and beyond. The many shapes and sizes of the actors and actresses portraying prisoners, COs, administrators and the like has also been rightfully praised across the blogosphere and greater media -- here's a show where nearly every viewer can find someone they relate to on-screen.
Hutchins agreed with Clark, saying, "I think it is one of the best current representations of women and men together in a multicultural environment...Even though it continues to earn criticism for not putting an accurate enough light on racism and class privilege in prison or in our society as a whole, I think it does a pretty good job of showing the interconnections of oppressions and how confusing the contradictions are."
To be sure. As someone who has spent the last five years corresponding with a woman potentially wrongfully incarcerated in the Texas criminal justice system since 2002, I can assure you that OITNB does an incredible job maintaining accuracy portraying the scenarios that take place on-screen. My friend Elizabeth has described the lack of resources she and her fellow inmates must live with on a day-to-day basis; from making a bar of soap the size of half a playing card last two weeks, to having phone and commissary privileges taken away based on a lie you cannot defend yourself against; from being barred from taking classes to better yourself, to getting tossed in SHU for 15 days after a fight provoked by someone who called you a terrible slur; the stories Elizabeth has told make me realize just how much most people do not know about the prison system in the United States -- which happens to have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
It is my hope that, as more people watch OITNB, a greater spotlight will be cast on this aspect of both federal and state governments, and a stronger call for change will come out of it.
Maybe that's just wishful thinking on the part of this activist, but a girl can dream.
Fans of the show will have to wait until 2015 to see where OITNB goes from here, but I'm confident it's only going to continue to get better and better. Who knows, maybe the entire word "bisexual" might even make it into a script or two!
A version of this blog post originally appeared in Bi Magazine.