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Why Orange Is The New Black Is So Important

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Orange Is The New Black
Orange Is The New Black

“I really want a gay BFF.”

My general reaction to this sentence is usually one of disgust. It’s even worse when it comes out of the mouth of a privileged young woman who’s, like, not totally sure if two gay people should be allowed to raise kids. But ohmygod I love gay guys they’re so fun! 

Let me stop you right there. What is it that you “love” about gay guys exactly? That they’ll talk about boys or go shopping with you? Maybe they will. But what I want to make clear to every girl who is so desperate for a gay BFF is that not every gay man is Cam from Modern Family. The fact that a man is attracted to other men does not equate to the fact that he wants to be your prop. How would you feel is someone wanted to be your friend based on your sexuality, whatever it may be? I have my share of gay friends, and yes, some of them are great for talking about boy problems and clothes. But not all of them. And wanting to be someone’s friend because you assume they fit a stereotype is nothing short of patronizing. In fact, it brings the movement towards LGBT equality two steps back. Chelsea Forbes-Terry said it best: “Gay men are not the must have accessory to your straight girl antics, they’re people, not Michael Kors bags.”

Before I continue harassing everyone for loving gay men, let me explain the primary reason this phenomenon makes me so angry. Generally speaking, there is a hierarchy of acceptance in terms of the sexuality spectrum. At the top of this hierarchy, you have your fabulous gay men. Who doesn’t love Neil Patrick Harris? Of course he should be allowed to get married and have a family. He’s so adorable. Vacating the next spot down on the pyramid is the power lesbian couple. They’ve probably adopted a few kids and their life together in itself is a strong statement against the “marriage should be between a man and a woman” Bible thumpers in Congress. The entertaining and fashionable gay men as well as these successful/cool granola lesbians have come to be accepted by the average American (I come from a fairly liberal area, so this is the way I grew up–I understand this is not the case in every part of the country). But as we start to go further down the spectrum towards bisexual, questioning, and even just curious, opinions start to get cloudy. This is where Piper Chapman comes in.

For those who haven’t watched Orange is the New Black (the basic bitch in me wants to say ‘like omg where have you been for the past year’), it tells the story of Piper, a thirty-something WASPy woman who is sentenced to fifteen months in prison for carrying a suitcase of drug money for her former girlfriend. It’s been a decade since she committed the crime and she’s now engaged to an upper middle class Jew boy (played by Jason Biggs, pay attention for American Pie references). Piper’s ex lesbian lover, Alex, is in prison with her. They reconnect and Piper is forced to abruptly leave her traditional present and come face to face her not so traditional past.

One can generally assume what goes on in an all women’s prison. To be blunt, I know guys who watch the show just for the girl on girl scenes. But the importance of the show goes far past the novelty of lesbians in a shower. One of my favorite lines from the show comes from Piper’s brother, Carl, after Piper’s fiancé asks him if Piper’s “gay now”. Carl responds, “I’m going to go ahead and guess that one of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything.” For me, these words hit closer to home than the many other shock factors that come with every episode. Why is it that we as a society feel the need to categorize? Why do we find it so easy to accept a man who has always known he was gay, but if a person questions his or her sexuality later in life or simply experiments with the opposite sex, they must just be “going through a phase”? All the friends I’ve ever had who labeled themselves as bisexual or questioning faced similar responses from their friends and family. “You’ll get over it.” “You’re just experiencing a life crisis.” “Bisexuality isn’t even real.” But here’s a radical thought–imagine a world where we didn’t feel obligated to subject ourselves to ridicule and stereotypes by placing ourselves in a category. One of my other favorite lines from OITNB comes from Piper herself: “You don’t just turn gay. You fall somewhere on a spectrum, like on a Kinsey scale.” The Kinsey scale is a spectrum on a scale from 0, exclusively heterosexual, to 6, exclusively homosexual. To make the argument that everyone is either a 0 or a 6 is simply archaic. Sexuality is not black and white. The human experience is not black and white. Life is essentially a series of grey areas strung together by occasional moments of black and white clarity. And in my experience, most of these glimpses of clarity have come at the most unexpected and, ironically enough, complicated times.

Piper says that she’s scared she’s not herself when she becomes reunited with her lesbian lover in prison. She then says she’s also scared that she is herself. Self-concept is a process that can take a lifetime. Nobody has it all figured out. So why are we still so unforgiving and willing to turn a blind eye towards people like Piper who are simply unsure of who they are? Everyone is unsure of who they are in one way or another. So show a little compassion and stop saying things like no homo. Stop being so afraid of what you don’t understand. Sexuality is a spectrum and life is messy. I was thrilled when OITNB became successful because Piper is (very generally speaking and I realize this is up for debate) a likeable character. Her story is complex and flawed, just like yours is and just like mine is. I can only hope that every OITNB fan (yes, even the guys who watch it just to figure out how girls have sex) learns from Piper that it’s okay to lose control of your self-concept. One of my all time favorite quotes is from Henry David Thoreau: “Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.” If a friend is questioning his or her sexuality, don’t make a big scene. Every girl has girl crushes, maybe your friend just decided to act on hers. If your deepest secrets and questions were brought to light, you would want your friends to embrace you in spite of them, and ideally, love you all the more for them. All we can do is accept one another. All we can do wait for those brief moments of standing still amidst all the blurriness. All we can do is make peace with the fact that one person’s definition of clarity may be different or slightly more complicated than yours, but that does not devalue it. And in the meantime, we can wait for Season 3 of Orange (I miss you, Alex Vause). TC mark

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