This TV series has made headlines with the number of boundaries it has pushed in the TV world. Quench’s LGBT+ Editor Suryatapa Mukherjee discusses how it represents LGBT+ people
I watched the entire first season of Orange is the New Black in a couple of days. And I have to say, I’m impressed.
It does a very good job of representing women, women of colour, transwomen and women of varying sexual orientations. That, right there, is quite impressive for any single show to successfully handle.
When the season starts off, it could have easily flown into the usual storyline of lesbian relationships being portrayed as sexual deviancy. Piper Chapman could easily have become the ‘nice, blond lady’ who had a ‘lost-soul, post-college, adventure phase’ with a dangerous drug-importing lesbian who ultimately led her into trouble. But it does not.
After she comes into prison, gay people continue looking menacing for a little while – as Chapman is stalked and wooed by Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ – but so do straight people. There is Joe Caputo, the prison counselor, who masturbates in his office and crushes on a much younger correctional officer. There is ‘Pornstache’ Mendez who sexually harasses prison inmates every chance he gets.
The characters become multi-layered and complicated, and so do their relationships – same-sex or otherwise. There are people who make homophobic and transphobic statements, but those are not given much credit. The homosexual, and trans*gender characters are made, if not always likeable, at least definitely understandable. They are not stereotyped, unnecessarily dramatized, or used for comic relief.
In spite of being constantly labelled ‘lesbian,’ ‘ex-lesbian’ and ‘straight,’ Piper never once identifies with any of them. When her best friend says that she might turn gay again, she says, “You don’t just turn gay, you fall somewhere on a spectrum, like a Kinsey scale.” Some might argue that it leads to bi-erasure, as bisexuality is never discussed, but I’d give it time. It looks like Chapman is finding herself – and as many of us bisexuals know, that takes some time.
Piper’s heterosexual relationship is sometimes directly pitted against her homosexual one – both on a physical and an emotional plane – and the second never comes off as lesser than the first.
The show’s trans*gender character is played by a trans*gender actor – impressive, again. It is highly commendable how the show depicts her journey, leaving little room for stereotyping. Her relationship with her wife is very complicated and refreshing. They do not stop being a couple even after Burset decides to transition – her son is not as understanding, clearly hating her for it.
When, due to budget cuts, her exogenous estrogen dosage is reduced, she goes to great lengths for help; “If I don’t get my medication, I’m going through withdrawal – hot flashes, night sweats, my face will sag, my body hair will start to grow back… I have given five years, eighty-five hundred dollars and my freedom for this… I can’t go back.” No one understands.
She says that she wants to see a doctor, saying, “This is an emergency.” The reply comes, “Ya, well, we don’t see it that way.” It portrays how transitioning is viewed as a luxury, an option – rather than a necessity. Sophia Burset nicely expresses how much of a necessity it really is. It makes the viewers root for her, be hopeful that she’ll get her estrogen dosage, disliking each person who turns her down. It makes the viewers understand.
And that is where OITNB really wins: It makes you understand.