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In Orange Is the New Black, Prison’s a Cage But Sexuality’s Free Range

In Orange Is the New Black, Prison’s a Cage But Sexuality’s Free Range: Photo courtesy of Jessica Miglio for Netflix

Photo courtesy of Jessica Miglio for Netflix

When we last left Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), she was beating fellow inmate Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) to a bloody pulp in the snow. When we meet her again in Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, which drops its entire, binge-worthy second season on Netflix tomorrow, she’s in a new prison in the middle of the country. She might be a murderer. And she’s lost everything: her fiancé (Jason Biggs); the privileges afforded a nice, blonde, straight lady; even her drug-dealer ex-girlfriend (Laura Prepon), who landed Piper in jail after naming her as a cash mule in a plea deal.

While Season 1 opened with Piper terrified over losing her freedom, it ended with a feral and confused Piper. “I’m scared I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am,” she says, ice-cold, to a teen visiting the prison with the Scared Straight program. “The truth is what catches up with you in here. And it’s truth that will make you its bitch.”

Since Roger Corman invented the “Women in Prison” genre in the early 1970s, girls going wild behind bars has been the stuff of warning and titillation. But Orange is the New Black presents women’s sexuality, in all of its variations, with the bluntness, nuance and diversity that The L Word— the gold standard of televised lesbian experience (if only by default)—always hopelessly lacked. To watch The L Word today is to dig up a time capsule from 2004, more aptly titled The Real Lesbian Housewives of West Hollywood. It’s a caricature of a specific and privileged type of gay woman. But the part that felt real was how it represented a gay community fixated on classification: You’re butch; you’re femme. You’re a top; you’re a bottom. You’re bisexual, meaning you’re suspect—a straight girl in a gay woman’s clothing.

Ten years later, labels matter less, which is what makes Orange is the New Black the show for a new generation of queers interested in moving beyond the terminology and declensions that the Andrew Sullivan generation found order in. Within that framework, Piper is pigeonholed as a liberal arts “Lesbian Until Graduation"—not really "one of us"—but ultimately, she’s attempting to find the space to figure it out as she goes. Sealed off from the influence of pushy mothers, heteronormative friends, and yuppy lifestyle markers, Piper continues to discover that sex is an unreasonable animal and a tool for survival. You are what you eat, as they say, most clearly in prison. Potentially, hopefully, it could be that clear on the outside, too.

You’d think that most people in Piper’s educated and enlightened circle would have heard of the Kinsey Scale by now, which says we all fall somewhere on a spectrum of sexual identity and activity. But for all of the New York Times-reading, NPR-listening liberalism of Piper’s former world, the sexuality there only comes in black and white.

All of the straight people on this show—guards, friends, even some fellow inmates—are constantly "concerned” about any straight women who seem to be straying from the flock. To them, these women must be in some sort of crisis, mental or moral. Really, they are patrolling and defining the lines between homosexuality and heterosexuality. It’s judgment and control disguised as “concern” about what being gay or having any out-of-bounds relationship reveals about a person’s character.

To that end, some Orange is the New Black characters are gay archetypes, foils who could easily have been stereotypes in lesser hands than show creator Jenji Kohan. When we first meet Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), the big butch seems hard as stone until we see her masturbating with a contraband screwdriver fashioned into a dildo. It’s a shocking scene—not just because you never see butches depicted on TV, but because you sure never see them vulnerable, on their backs, expressing a sexual longing. That she’s turned a potential shiv into a sex toy is a sly “fuck you” to whoever wants to dictate what a butch should be—even if the term and type might be fading as new generations draw their own maps of sexual terrain.

As Piper settled in to prison life—and, for a time, back into a relationship and lots of sex with Prepon’s character—it was tempting to draw some conclusions about where she was falling on that Kinsey scale. Still, Piper resisted owning any labels. “I’m not gay,” she swore, suggestively licking an orange slice. “Alex and I are very old friends. We have an affectionate relationship. It’s about comfort.” That was cold comfort for Alex, who felt like a “binky” Piper sucked on while biding her time.

That issue—of being “gay for the stay"—is a charged one: "Identity” in this environment seems to be a matter of playing the hand you’ve been dealt, so to speak. Career lesbian Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), for example, gave it to Lorna (Yael Stone) on the regular in the prison chapel, nevermind that Lorna was planning her wedding.

To some of the older guard, though, this arrangement isn’t acceptable. Vee Doppelganger (Faye Yvette McQueen), a recaptured drug dealer who practically raised younger inmate Taystee (Danielle Brooks), doesn’t approve of Taystee’s close friendship with Poussey (Samira Wiley), who’d like to take things further. Vee hands Taystee some convoluted judgment from the outside world: “‘Gay for the stay’ is for punk-ass bitches who ain’t strong enough to be true to themselves,” she snarls. What will people whisper behind her back later? “Don’t let her drag you into that shit."They’re already dragged down. Wouldn’t love, or even just companionship, lift them up?

In Season Two, Piper gets that more anyone, having already lost the people to comfort her (Biggs and Prepon). And more than anything, she’s lost the thread of fancy embroidery she’s used to obscure the convoluted truth of her story and identity her whole life. In a new episode, we see where this formed: We meet her grandmother, giving a pre-teen Piper a WASP lesson on truth after she witnesses an infidelity: "Sometimes it’s not a matter of right or wrong” grandma says. “It’s about making a choice that will cause the least pain to others. Sitting on information and feelings and living with your secrets.”

“That sounds horrible,” replies little Piper.

“Oh, it is, dear,” she responds.

Editing one’s sexuality so it reads more legibly is how closets get built. It’s why, wracked with fear and guilt, Piper shrank her life with Alex into “a lost-soul, post-college-adventure phase” to keep Larry. But as we saw last season, no closet could be worse than solitary confinement, where Piper does a long jolt after dancing with Alex—and telling a corrections officer that “Girls like us, we don’t fuck guys like you. We go for tall, hot girls, and we fucking love it. You don’t get me—ever.”

As the new season opens, Piper has a new prison wife: Truth itself. This relationship makes her freer in some ways than she ever was on the outside, with a man or a woman. And it doesn’t seem like this hookup is just “for the stay.”


Shauna Miller is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published on Kinja on June 5, 2014.

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