'Orange is the New Black' does bisexuals dirty, again

Season six of “Orange is the New Black” just came out, and the Internet is abuzz with overall opinions ranging from almost good to bad to ugly. This criticism is certainly reasonable, as this season never fully divorces itself from the torturously specific depictions of racism, transphobia and the accompanying slurs common throughout past seasons. Seasons four and five were especially brutal in this regard: Piper accidentally-on-purpose starting a Nazi gang, characters slinging so many racial slurs I lost count of them all and a guard murdering Poussey — a fan-favorite and one of only two black lesbians on the show.

Despite these already serious ethical problems, “Orange” offers both stereotypical and complex depictions of queer life and relationships, especially those involving bisexual women or trans characters.

Perhaps the show’s most jarring and questionable depiction of LGBT life is its view of bisexuality. In season six, the permeance and validity of bisexual women’s affections are questioned again, as Daya, who was previously presumed straight, begins a relationship with the androgynous drug dealer Dominga “Daddy” Duarte. Unlike Piper and Alex’s mutual attraction, Daddy and Daya’s relationship begins with relentless pursuit.

Photo from Netflix

Photo from Netflix

Daddy brings her oxycodone ostensibly to ease the pain of her broken ribs, but with the implication that Daya will eventually become chemically (and thus romantically) dependent on her dealer.

Both of these things do eventually happen. By the end of the season, Daya is strung out on the drug supply she helped smuggle into the prison, and she and Daddy regularly hook up. The positive fulfillment of Daddy’s manipulation brings Daya’s sexuality into question: is she genuinely attracted to her dealer or did just fall for a master manipulator?

Daya tries to answer this question for Mendoza by asserting that she’s “gay for the stay” but follows it up with “’cause I’m staying [in prison] forever.” In light of her life sentence, Daya’s straight identity outside of prison is of little consequence, which carries the heavy implication that her gay identity in prison would be just as insignificant on the outside.

This issue in OITNB is a long-standing one: in season one, Piper, the most obviously bisexual character, cheats on her male fiancé with her old girlfriend and new prison mate, Alex.

Photo from Netflix

Photo from Netflix

This offers great conflict for the season and artfully showcases Piper’s general moral turpitude. But it also supports one of the most pervasive and damaging stereotypes of bisexuality: the “unreliable bisexual” who cannot make up her mind between men and women, and ends up cheating on both genders.

Photo from Netflix

Photo from Netflix

This stereotypical indecisiveness appears again in Lorna Morello’s and Nicky’s relationship, as Morello eventually chooses a mail-order husband over their long-term relationship. There are few redeeming qualities in the how Morello leaves Nicky (or her reasoning), so Piper’s faulty queer representation is still healthier than Morello’s.

Piper rarely uses the term “bisexual” (and never uses “pansexual” or “queer”), and though the show depicts her going through the motions of the typical unreliable bi, its tone toward her relationship with Alex is forgiving. Piper’s longing for a true, steady emotional connection with a significant other is more representative of a traditional “courtly love” narrative than the actions of a detached cheater.

When it comes to representation in regard to gender, Daddy’s introduction in season six adds some depth to the show as the dealer’s gender identity remains ambiguous. Throughout the season, Daddy responds to both she/her and he/him pronouns, and flashbacks to life before prison show her dressed androgynously and having the typically masculine role as a pimp. Not only does Daddy use multiple sets of pronouns, but other characters try to use the correct ones, even though no one knows (or asks) which set is preferred.

This relative respect is a distinct development in season six, as Sophia, the only trans character before Daddy, is periodically bullied and beaten in earlier seasons.

Photo from Netflix

Photo from Netflix

The difference between characters’ attitudes toward Daddy and Sophia is one of season six’s most acute and nuanced forms of social commentary: while the only trans woman is condescended to and eventually takes a payout from the prison to compensate for her inordinate suffering as an inmate, the (apparently trans) masculine character is respected albeit misunderstood, highlighting the disparity in society’s treatment of trans people on opposite ends of the gender spectrum.

Any show with as much social commentary as “Orange Is the New Black” will make mistakes, and “Orange” makes more than a few. However, amid the slurs, reinforcement of negative stereotypes and often clumsy depiction of race relations, streaks of insight shine through the latest season. In the last episode of season six, Piper and Alex’s relationship culminates in their ideal “prison wedding” and typifies the show’s LGBT representation as a whole: it’s a bit lopsided and a tad forced, but the honesty and heart are what really matter. 🍒