Orange is the New Black’s Piper: What Are We Missing?

June 4, 2014 in inQueery

CollageoitnbOrange is the New Black brought the Netflix-connected community a stunning flurry of diverse female characters – not caricatures – with its gripping first season last July. Standout star Laverne Cox as trans woman Sophia may very well be the shining example of how the characters of the show tell their own stories in their own words or actions, instead of fulfilling a diversity quota or slot. The show isn’t perfect but it is impressive in its realistic portrayal of tangible humanity, even if it’s set in a prison, where the average viewer may least expect to see it. OITNB is all about shaking our assumptions and defeating stereotypes while acknowledging the small truths in them. It’s about experiences and the way the characters view them, not about our prejudices.

So what about Piper Chapman? The response to the central character has been the most divided. Some are critical of her placement as protagonist while others see it as necessary to offer up the discussion it dares to about race, class, and privilege in our culture’s media bureaucracy. But we’re here to talk about the elephant in the room – Piper’s sexuality. Arguably the centerpiece of her struggle, placed aptly in the middle of the first season, it is also a source of division between some of its queer viewers.

In writing, she is often referred to as bisexual, but she never actually says the word. As her relationship to a man falls apart while she rekindles her romance with a woman, viewers and critics wonder and debate:

Is she lesbian? Is she bisexual? Why is this important?

When it comes to sexuality on the show, characters determine their own sense of identity based on their feelings and actions. Overall, the depictions and conversations on-screen of sexuality and romantic relationships are complex and honest. Opting out of labels is almost as common as attaching them to oneself on the show and even when they do align themselves with a label, we get to see how they work around it or through it. Essentially, OITNB is not a world where everyone pretends that sexuality labels don’t exist, nor is it attempting to serve as a who’s who of the queer world. They don’t follow a clichéd pattern often seen in the media of realization → coming out → same-sex encounter → relationship. The confines of the prison is a helpful environment to explore this as it requires a deviation from that narrative.

Of course, when a person feels attraction to men and women (and perhaps other genders), bisexual isn’t the only thing they can “be” or call themselves, should they choose a label at all. But, labels can be important. Bisexuality in particular is an important identification that is still too often deemed un-claimable or even invisible. Those who do identify with the term constantly face doubt and criticism from both heterosexuals and the gay community. There are a handful out and proud bisexual women in the media who actively deny exclusive attraction to a single sex/gender and help to eradicate the belief that it is a phase. But as far as most media goes – television or streaming – goes, there still aren’t characters who echo the claims of people like Evan Rachael Wood or Margaret Cho.*

Piper claims in the pilot episode that, “No,” she’s “not still a lesbian.” She constantly refuses to identify with that word and that is definitely her choice. Piper refutes words like “lesbian” and rolls her eyes at being called “straight girl.” What is clear is that her relationship with Larry (although not ultimately a lasting one) is as legitimate as the one she had shared with Alex, even if that fact is originally dismissed by Piper herself in an attempt to hold onto a piece of her “stable” reality after her criminal activity and before prison.

However, in a flashback, she acknowledges to her best friend Polly: “I like hot girls. I like hot boys. I like hot people, I’m shallow.” So, Piper is not confused about her sexuality. It’s her best friend and her fiancée (even the other inmates) that constantly push labels onto her or are disgruntled when she does not exhibit behavior that they can clearly identify as either “homosexual” OR “heterosexual.” Polly uses the term, “turn gay” to describe what she believes Larry is worried about will happen during her incarceration. Piper corrects this line of thinking by referencing the Kinsey scale and clarifying that people “don’t turn gay.” Larry is the one confused by the fact that she’s been with women and men, asking her brother if it means that she’s “gay now.” Piper’s brother Cal counters with “…one of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything.” All of these instances completely avoid the term ‘bisexual.’ While it could be interpretated as a nod to sexual fuilidty, it can also serve as an example of bi-erasure. The problem lies here with the fact that it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone as a possibility, not even to be shot down by Piper. She makes it clear that she’s not straight and not a lesbian. But nobody ever even asks if she may identify as bisexual.

One way to look at Piper’s initial determination to write off her relationship with Alex as a “post-college adventure phase” and her standoff-ish attitude towards identification is to imagine that she knows that she won’t be understood. The people in her life after Alex occupy a rather heteronormative narrative that she perhaps associates with recovery from her tumultuous life with the drug cartel. Loving a woman for Piper is wrapped up in crime and the destruction of stability. It is difficult for her to accept that as part of her life now. But when she finally does, she begins to re-evaluate that side of herself.

Ultimately, the real conflict about where her heart lies has to do with the people involved, not the genders. We want to honor Piper’s own self-identity but we also see her grapple with revealing that she may have mis-categorized her relationship with Alex in the beginning of the season. She admit that Alex was not just an exciting fling or experiment but at this point, it should come as no surprise that she is not the most reliable narrator. This experience of owning up to the past is part of her being forced to see herself as she really is, no longer shielded by the quiet, normalized and respectable life she clung to pre-incarceration. When it comes down to it, Piper had lied to those around her about her true feelings and thus we see the error of taking her words at face value.

Piper has revealed to us through her trying to make sense of her emotional and physical leanings – her judgment of them based in the individuals they’re ascribed to and not labels – a greater picture of sexuality.

When it comes to my hopes for the declaration of Piper as bisexual, I’m on the fence (pun intended). But it would be nice to hear that word in the media sometime soon without a lilt in the voice to suggest it’s not a real identity.

*While Margaret Cho prefers the term “queer,” she recognizes the need for bisexual visibility and accepts the term as applicable to her as well. She has also always been a prominent figure and activist for bisexual visibility and equality.

Katie Tims is a Staff Writer and Editor at InQueery.
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