Bi Erasure in “Orange is the New Black”

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Ever since the Netflix-original series Orange is the New Black premiered on July 11, 2013, the buzz has been increasing about the show’s varied portrayals on-screen, ranging from racial and sexual diversity to trans* characters and beyond. One of the biggest issues in relation to the LGBT+ community that the show has brought up is the lack of use of the term “bisexual” – despite the apparent bisexuality of the central protagonist and other characters as well.

In the first episode, protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is shown to have had relationships with both men and women in her life; instead of being called “bisexual,” however, she’s referred to as an “ex-lesbian.” This term is used several more times over the course of the first season; in other instances Piper is referred to as “straight” and “lesbian.”

For the bisexual community, many of us are on the look-out for portrayals in television and film that we can relate to; historically, such portrayals tend to be stereotyped and negative (i.e., sex-crazed, nonmonogamous cheaters or something to that effect). When we see a potentially promising character like Piper, oftentimes we become hopeful that there is finally a positive bisexual role for us to watch. When that role eschews the term “bisexual” in every single instance for another term, however, that hope diminishes.

When asked about her thoughts regarding Orange is the New Black, Bisexual Resource Center President Ellyn Ruthstrom said, “I enjoyed the show a lot and thought it was a shame that for a show that is trying to push the boundaries on several levels, that it still resorts to the old binary of gay/straight.” Ruthstrom felt like the show “missed an opportunity” and is awaiting Season Two. “Piper is clearly bisexual so perhaps it will be explored better in the future.”

Bisexual activist Aud Traher furthered Ruthstrom’s sentiments, saying, “I still think the idea of calling anyone ‘ex-lesbian’ is incredibly dangerous. It gives credence to not only bisexual invisibility but … putting this into popular media only cements it further into the dominant discourse that queer people can be ‘cured,’ that queer women only need to find the right man or have sex with one to ‘cure’ them.”

To be sure, using a term like “ex-lesbian” may come off to a majority of the LGBT+ community as the ultimate goal of reparative therapy and “pray the gay away” camps. One might counter, however, that current discourse makes the way bisexuals are portrayed on Orange is the New Black more realistic than if the most politically correct terms were, in fact, utilized.

To this point, bisexual activist Angel added, “It’s obviously not the portrayal of An Ideal Bisexual™, but I think there’s a difference between negative and [an]unideal but honest portrayal.” Fellow bisexual activist John Clark agreed, saying, “I’m fine with the way Piper is finding herself in the show… Piper clearly is still figuring out herself.”

In fact, while other characters call Piper “ex-lesbian,” “lesbian” and “straight” throughout Season One, she never refers to herself as any of these labels. In fact, there are multiple instances in which she refutes them. In one episode she explains to her friend and fiancé, “You don’t just turn gay, you fall somewhere on a spectrum, like a Kinsey scale.” In scenes like this, the viewer becomes aware that regardless of how other people see and label Piper, she does not necessarily see herself the way others do – and doesn’t that ring true for the lives of bisexuals of today and yesterday?

Clark summed it up well, saying, “When I watch Piper, even though male, I get the place she’s at. She’s me decades ago just trying to figure out how she ticks. Our stories of self-discovery are the hardest to tell and very dramatic. They take time to tell.”

Viewers will have to wait to see if Piper comes out as bisexual in Season Two, or if her journey of self-discovery still has longer to go before she’s comfortable identifying with a specific label. Season One of Orange is the New Black is currently streaming on Netflix. Season Two is set for a 2014 debut.

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About Author

A.J. Walkley

A.J. Walkley earned a B.A. in literature from Dickinson College in 2007 before heading into the U.S. Peace Corps as a health volunteer in Malawi, Africa. Upon her return to the States, she became a United Nations correspondent and freelance writer working out of New York City. Walkley has three novels to her name: Choice (2009), Queer Greer (2012) and Vuto (2013). She currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona and is working on a novel based on the life of a Texas inmate she believes to be wrongfully incarcerated.

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