Representation in Orange is the New Black

It’s likely that you’ve heard of Orange is the New Black, a Netflix original show which recently put up its second season. There are some exciting storytelling possibilities with shows like this, which I may look at in the future, but for now let’s look at the diversity in this particular show, because diversity is one of the things which makes it so popular.

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Image: Orange is the New Black poster

There are a few things that make Orange is the New Black special. First of all, lesbians!

No, really, lesbians. Because this is television, even on the internet, and bisexuals don’t exist. Lesbians exist, people who sleep with women only while in prison exist, people who don’t like labels and “aren’t exactly anything” exist. But bisexuals do not exist. (Neither, by the way, do pansexuals or asexuals.) I believe that the word “bisexual” is used all of once in two seasons.

To be clear, I am not saying there is anything wrong with any of the identities that are shown. There’s nothing wrong with not liking labels, or feeling like you aren’t “exactly anything”. But labels do exist for a reason, and its not just to make things easier on others: there are a lot of people who find it helps to label themselves, and it is often easier to find a community when you have a label. And for some people, labels like “bisexual” replace old labels like “weird”, “wrong”, or “broken”.

I’m also not objecting to the way the main character is treated by others. I don’t mind her husband saying “so you’re a lesbian now?” or her girlfriend saying “never date a straight girl”. These are things that really happen, so having them in the show isn’t erasure—it’s representation. These are things that real people say to other real people in real life. It may suck, but it definitely happens. What I am objecting to is the fact that the character herself never even considers labeling herself as bisexual.  The notion that someone could be attracted to people of more than one gender is treated as being so radical and new that there isn’t a word for it. I understand that for some people this notion is radical and new, but the main character, Piper, has been fairly confident in her interest in multiple genders since college, and has mentioned the Kinsey Scale. Given the tendency to erase bisexuality, it would be nice if even one person on the show openly identified as bisexual—or, heck, even considered it.

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Image: Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling on Orange is the New Black.

There is also the fact that Piper Kerman, on whom the show is based, identifies as bisexual. She makes it clear that the character in the show is not her, but still, for me, it makes the erasure even worse. How are we supposed to work past the idea that you must be attracted to one gender or the other if it is always presented as a revolutionary notion? And how will people learn that, actually, bisexuality is a thing, if they never see people in media identify as bisexual?

Orange is the New Black also includes, among its cast of characters, a transsexual woman named Sophia. Sophia is played by Laverne Cox, and gets a fair amount of attention in the first season: we get her back story, which shows her pre-transition (played Cox’s twin brother), and watch her struggle to get the medications she needs while in prison. She also gives the other women a lesson on their anatomy.

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Image: Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black.

The show also includes a few disabled characters: an amputee who is one of the male guards at the prison, Suzanne, a mentally disabled woman, Lorna, a woman with delusions (in prison for stalking), and Pennsatucky, a woman who is gaslit until she has a psychotic break. The treatment of these characters by the show is mostly pretty good—Bennett, the guard, seems like a slightly better guy than most of the guards, but his personality is unrelated to his disability. He is also a three-dimensional character, like almost all of the characters on the show. It’s not clear what Suzanne’s disability is, but she is also a very rich character, and in season 2 we see her backstory, and her character is developed quite a bit.  She is also both horribly victimized and, in the end, defended, but I would call that realism more than anything else. I will note that fandom’s treatment of Suzanne is sometimes not so good: while there are certainly fans who would “defend Suzanne Warren at all costs” (myself included), she is frequently called “Crazy Eyes”, which is her nickname on the show. Yes, this nickname is often used affectionately, but the character has made it clear that she doesn’t like being called “Crazy Eyes”. The nickname is ableist: the term crazy is considered by many to be an ableist slur, the nickname was originally derogatory, and it reduces her to her mental illness. And again, the character doesn’t like it.

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Image: Suzanne Warren, played by Uzo Aduba in Orange is the New Black. Image from IMDB.com

The treatment of Lorna, the woman with delusions, seems fine to me. She is very well rounded as a character, and we don’t even learn the extent of her delusions until quite a while after we’ve met her. Pennsatucky’s treatment, however, I find more questionable. While they do a good job of showing what being gaslit can do to a person, and use Pennsatucky’s psychotic break as a chance to show the prison’s Psych Ward, I find it a little disturbing that there seems to be only one long term effect of Pennsatucky’s psychotic episode: She’s nicer. Whether this is meant to be because  of her episode or because, in the aftermath, she befriends a counselor who helps her to work on her anger issues, the implication is still there.

All in all, Orange is the New Black is a tiny diverse diamond in a sea of white dudes. Although the main character, Piper, is both white and upper middle class, most of the stories we see are about women who are not. Throughout the series we see the women’s backstories, and most of these belong to women who are African American. Some belong to women who are Latina or who are white, but poor. The show also examines Piper’s privilege. That said, I think it is worth questioning why a show that is mostly about people who are underprivileged needs  such an extraordinarily privileged vehicle. Is it to encourage audience members to examine their own privilege, or is it because it was assumed the show wouldn’t be watched otherwise?

Images from IMDB.com

 

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