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BY creating compelling original shows and allowing writers to pursue their own visions with few restrictions, Netflix has managed to become the dominant company in the on-demand subscription industry. So it comes as no surprise that the Netflix original show ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (NETFLIX 2013-) was an instant success with audiences around the world. Created by award-winning writer Jenji Kohan, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is entertaining and has a diverse set of storylines and characters. But what makes the television drama so dynamic is how its content expands the concept of “queer”.
The word has become an umbrella term to represent the many different identities in the LGBTQ community. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK informs and educates its audience about many different sexualities and how sexuality itself is not fixed, but it is a spectrum, a viewpoint that is not common across mainstream media. The show focuses on the stories of those who usually occupy the background, whether it is because of their sexuality, race or gender identity. The inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary share not just bunks and lengthy prison sentences, but also experiences of marginalisation and rejection.
Of course, it is not just the ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK writers who have drawn attention to the issues facing the LGBTQ community. Shonda Rhimes, executive producer of ABC shows GREY’S ANATOMY (2005-), SCANDAL (2012-2018), and HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER (2014-) was presented with the Ally for Equality Award at the 2015 Human Rights Campaign Gala in Los Angeles. Through her work, Rhimes has increased the onscreen representation of minority roles that are so often overlooked and, in doing so, she has raised awareness about the issues surrounding the LGBTQ community, women and people of colour. In her acceptance speech, she mentioned why she created such a wide range of stories and how the way she writes her characters goes beyond just diversifying television: “I really hate the word ‘diversity’, it suggests something other”, Rhimes said. “As if it is something special. Or rare, as if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV. I have a different word: Normalizing. I am normalizing TV”. She went on to say that her goal was that everyone should be able to turn on the TV and see someone they relate to, someone who looks like them and loves like them. She also emphasised the importance of audiences seeing characters that they cannot relate to because hopefully they can also learn from them.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK UNDENIABLY TRUMPS OTHER SHOWS WITH ITS REPRESENTATION OF SEXUAL AND RACIAL DIVERSITY.
In their 2014 annual report LGBTQ rights organisation GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) found that only 17 of the 102 movies produced by well known studios released that year featured LGBTQ characters and, of those 17, the majority were deemed offensive or negatively represented. Even in 2015 it seems that studios are still not doing enough, with just 17.5% of the 114 major studio releases containing characters that identify as either lesbian, gay or bisexual. Less than a third of the 20 films that contained LGBTQ characters featured bisexual roles. The 2015 report, which focused on television, found that of 881 regular characters, 35 (4%) were identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis noted: “Each of us lives at the intersection of many identities and it’s important that television characters reflect the full diversity of the LGBT community”. She went on to say that “It is not just enough to include LGBT characters; those characters need to accurately represent an often tokenized community”.
The ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK writers - Kohan is joined by regulars Piper Kerman and Jordan Harrison among others - have created an amazingly diverse set of characters, with more depth and emotion seen than most mainstream television characters. With most of the characters falling somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, there is never a “token queer” character. But despite ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK receiving an abundance of reviews praising it for showcasing such diversity, there are still many critics who argue that the series relies too much on harmful stereotypes and is passing up the opportunity to correctly educate its audience about the LGBTQ community. A good example of this would be in the third season when Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a black transgender woman, is targeted and assaulted by a gang of inmates. Sophia is sent to solitary confinement, apparently for her own safety, while no action is taken to punish the perpetrators or to prevent this type of hate crime happening again.
BISEXUALITY IS OFTEN SEEN AS A MIDDLE GROUND.
Considering the often-violent treatment that transgender women face every day, this storyline is not surprising. According to GLAAD, in 2015 alone 21 transgender women were murdered in America. 2016 overtook 2015 as “the deadliest year on record” with 21 transgender women killed in the United States, with most of them being women of colour. This number does not account for transgender women whose deaths were not investigated, or for those who were mis-gendered during their life and after their death, thus further denying their womanhood. So it seems that Sophia’s unfair treatment is maybe far closer to the truth than audiences are willing to accept or are comfortable with.
The show undeniably trumps other shows with its representation of sexual and racial diversity but its representation of bisexuality has caused debate. The protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is bisexual but the show seems to treat the word “bisexual” as taboo. In the first 39 episodes the word “bi” is uttered only once. On a show that does so well with normalising so many different sexual identities, its unwillingness to acknowledge bisexuality has understandably offended some of its viewers. In the first episode Piper is shown as having had relationships with both men and women. However, instead of being called bisexual she is referred to, many times, as an “ex-lesbian”.
In common discourse, bisexuality refers to the sexuality of an individual who is sexually attracted to both men and women. It is often assumed that bisexuality is uncommon and that the majority of people are either gay or straight. Problematically, bisexuality is often seen as a middle ground, a space to occupy while the individual is still trying to figure out their own sexual identity. In August 2015, Internet-based market research organisation YouGov released a study finding that almost half of the UK’s 18-24 year olds are not “100% heterosexual” and YouGov US indicated that one in three young adults in America feel the same way.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK does acknowledge the varying degrees and fluidity of this sexual identity, however. Directly referencing the landmark 1950s studies on human sexual behaviour, in Episode One “I Wasn’t Ready” Piper explains to her male fiancé (Jason Biggs), “You don’t just turn gay, you fall somewhere on a spectrum, like a Kinsey scale”. There are a few scenes like this where the series hints to the audience that Piper is still just trying to figure herself out and has yet to label her sexual identity.
Off-screen, the cast are dedicated to raising awareness about LGBTQ issues. They have spoken out about the importance of seeing more diverse characters on screen and called for more mainstream LGBTQ television characters that are not just young, white males. Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo, has become an advocate for LGBTQ rights and is also one of the few well known butch lesbians on television. During an interview with LGBTQ interest magazine Advocate in 2013, DeLaria said “We never see butch women on television; lesbians on American television are usually pretty and feminine. They are most often doing each other to the delight of the 16 to 24 year old straight male audience”. Having a butch character like Big Boo represents a different groups of lesbians who are often overlooked in mainstream television. Ruby Rose, who plays androgynous inmate Stella Carlin, has not only sought to educate people about gender fluidity but has also been praised for her openness about mental health as a youth ambassador for the Australian non-profit mental health foundation Headspace. In 2014, she became an icon for the LGBTQ community when she released her short film BREAK FREE, which is about how Rose embraced her gender fluidity.
In July 2014, Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy in an acting role and, earlier that year, featured on the cover of Time magazine with the powerful headline “The Transgender Tipping Point”. Her outstanding portrayal of Sophia Burset has given her the opportunity to tell her story and educate and empower others. In 2016, Cox produced FREE CECE (Jacqueline Gares 2016), a documentary exploring the controversy surrounding transgender woman CeCe McDonald, who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter after defending herself against a transphobic and racist attack. The documentary focuses on McDonald’s case, her experiences while incarcerated in a men’s prison and the larger implications of her case for the transgender community.
The women of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK have won the hearts of audiences around the world and not only spread awareness and educate their audience about the LGBTQ community but also campaign on issues surrounding feminism, racism and body positivity in young women. If studio execs previously feared that audiences would be put off by same-sex content on mainstream television, in becoming Netflix’s most-binged original series in 2018 five years after it first aired, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK has showed us that audiences demand it.