Orange is the New Black: the L-word

By Caroline Nelson ‘16TV Columnist

The representation of romantic and sexual relations between women on television has always been frustratingly paradoxical. The contradiction stems from it frequently sending the message that most women aren’t actually lesbian while failing to do justice to bisexuality or the notion that sexual attraction can often be a rather fluid and slippery entity. To speak in generalizations, the most common form of romantic interaction between two women on television is when two girls who are often straight and conventionally feminine kiss. It is a phenomenon so common that the wiki TVTropes has dubbed this particular ratings stunt the “Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss”. This is usually done either to get male attention or for the viewing pleasure of a male involved with one or both of the women. This way a show can be titillating and edgy without worrying about alienating anyone the way a lasting homosexual relationship would.

If these girls actually did fall in love for real it might give men the disturbing notion that women are perfectly capable of attaining sexual fulfillment without them. This is why queer women on television are almost always bisexual or experimenting. If they do identify as lesbian, males watching are often reassured by their falling in love with a man. This focus on femme or lipstick lesbians serves to further marginalize their more butch or masculine counterparts without really doing anything positive for the first category, instead sending the message that lesbians who dress and act more in keeping with gender norms aren’t really homosexual and bisexuals are just indecisive or looking for attention. I realize that this whole piece does “Orange is the New Black” a disservice by defining it negatively. It is not these other shows; there are a wide variety of characters across sexual orientations. For all the talk of Piper no longer being a lesbian or turning gay again the show makes it very clear that this isn’t how her inclinations actually work in regards to Alex. Alex, by the way, is very much a lesbian even though she sports long hair and an epic cat eye.

But I think that the distinction between “Orange is the New Black” and shows with two girls who kiss once needs to be mentioned, not because the latter is offensive but because it is bad art. It’s cynical, without vision or conviction, and fails to explore dramatic possibilities. “Orange is the New Black,” on the other hand, is generous, earnest, and understands that the complexities of sexual and romantic attraction make for a much better story.