Here’s a fun drinking game to play if you don’t actually feel like drinking: Watch Orange Is the New Black in its entirety. Drink every time someone says the word “bisexual.” Congrats! You’re completely sober!
OITNB recently aired its third season, and continues to be revolutionary in a lot of ways. First and foremost, it’s a show about women (I mean, whoa, right?). It’s also radical in the complex and entertaining ways it explores race, class, and gender privilege, which is why it’s strange that a show so good at presenting diverse characters is also afraid to say the word “bisexual” — especially when, for the first two seasons, one of its central conflicts involves how its main character Piper grapples with her bisexuality. Though Piper never calls herself bisexual, she talks about her interest in both men and women very explicitly. “I like hot girls. I like hot boys. I like hot people,” she says in the 10th episode of Season 1. “What can I say? I’m shallow.”
Piper’s bisexuality is also the only interesting thing about her (barring the fact that she’s in prison). She’s a white, upper-middle-class WASP who makes artisanal soaps and terrible decisions. Her sexuality is one of the cruxes that power the show (that and, you know, Ruby Rose winking at us).
This isn’t to say Orange Is the New Black doesn’t portray sexuality in compelling ways — it does. The situational bisexuality that occurs in the prison alone (or, as the characters call it, “gay for the stay,” which is another way to avoid naming bisexuality — more on that later) is something that’s rarely portrayed in a consensual way.
While OITNB does pay lip service to bisexuals (those who are attracted to more than one gender), Piper’s sexuality is presented as an either/or binary that erases bi experience (as well as the experiences of other characters straddling the not-exactly-straight-but-not-gay line, like Morello and Soso). Piper’s bisexuality is ignored not just by other characters on the show, but also by herself. She describes herself in the very first episode by saying, “I used to be a lesbian. Now I’m not.” Appropriately, since queer people contribute to bi denial just as often as straight people, the gay characters refer to her as a “former lesbian” and “straight,” while the straight characters call her a “dyke.” Cal, Piper’s brother, is the only character who comes close to actually describing the complexities of bisexuality — but not even he can say the word. In Season 1, after Larry asks, “Is she gay now?” Cal wisely tells him, “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.” At the end of Season 3, when Cal’s wife Neri reveals that she lied about her crazy past bisexual experiences, neither of them mention the word. Instead audiences divulge her fake bisexual past through pauses and references to liberal arts colleges:
Cal: “You should know, I mean … You do know what a vagina smells like.”
(Neri gapes at him, wide-eyed)
Neri: “Please don’t think less of me!”
Cal: “You went to Vassar! You lived in campus housing! … So none of your stories are true?”
Neri: “I wanted you to think I was cool!”
Despite its occasional “cool” cred, bisexuality often gets a bad rap in our culture. Bisexuals are plagued by stereotypes, and their identities are often mistaken for a “phase” — a pit stop on the way to one’s TRUE sexual identity. But there comes a point when refusing to utter the word becomes blatantly ridiculous.
Piper, I’d argue, is bisexual in both a sexual and romantic sense. In the first episode of Season 1, she tells Larry that her romance with Alex was a period of experimentation, but several episodes later (seven, to be exact) Piper says, “That wasn’t an adventure or a romp. That was my life.” Later: “You don’t just turn gay. You fall somewhere on a spectrum, like a Kinsey scale.” It’s possible that Piper’s flip-flopping is supposed to be read as confusion about her sexuality, but even if that’s the case, she has zero agency about it. Her sexuality is presented as a blank canvas upon which others project their own fears, wants, and insecurities, as well as something that can be switched on and off like a light. In between the name-calling and constant “straight or gay?” questions is a gaping chasm in which bisexuality is rendered invisible over and over again.
It’s not just OITNB that’s guilty of this, of course. Most TV shows and films that involve bisexual characters either are never portrayed as bi, or start out bi and then become subsumed by a gay or straight identity. A short list: House of Cards; Brokeback Mountain; Chasing Amy; Gigli (Apparently Ben Affleck was the cure for what ailed “confused lesbians” in the late ’90s and early aughts); The Kids Are All Right; Kissing Jessica Stein; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Glee (both Brittany and Santana started off as bi, then Santana switched to identifying as a lesbian and Brittany became “bicurious,” and later “fluid.” And here’s some nice bi erasure from Kurt in Season 2: “Bisexual is a term gay guys use in high school when they want to hold hands with girls and feel normal for a change”); The L Word (Alice’s bisexuality disappears after Season 2, and so does Jenny’s — not that bisexuals are exactly scrambling to claim the latter’s inclusion in the bi yearbook); Queer as Folk; Roseanne (Nancy comes out as gay, then goes on a date with a man. Roseanne exclaims: “Won’t they kick you out of the club for that?”); Seinfeld (Susan identified as lesbian before getting engaged to George) — and the list goes on and on. It’s also telling that Netflix, which created OITNB, doesn’t even have a category for bisexual (or trans-themed) programming on its site — instead it lumps all queer shows and films under “Gay & Lesbian” and calls it a day.
One needs to look no further than the latest sexuality trend piece to see further evidence of bi erasure: Cosmopolitan recently ran a piece called “Girlfriends With Benefits,” in which author Michelle Ruiz describes the “new” phenomenon of straight ladies who also happen to love going down on their lady friends: “For some, like Nicole, a 31-year-old journalist in Cleveland who says she’s ‘one hundred percent straight,’ hooking up with other women in no-strings-attached situations is a way to explore what turns her on in a safe, no-boys-allowed kind of environment.” But if you’re a woman having sex with women regularly, you are not “one hundred percent straight” — you’re 100% bad at math.
This kind of bisexual disavowal applies to men as well. This recent Salon article about “mixed-orientation” marriages follows gay-identified men who are married to straight women — “happily!” the men profess. In the piece are other complicating factors, such as the oppressive, religious environments the men were raised in, which asked them to deny any and all same-sex urges — but what’s at stake here is essentially the same message that’s presented to bisexuals over and over again: Pick a side. The reality, of course, is often far more complex than can be summed up in a single word. As writer Tracy Clark-Flory astutely asks in the Salon piece: “What marriage is not at least to some small degree mixed-orientation?”
If you’re a woman having sex with women regularly, you are not “one hundred percent straight” — you’re one hundred percent bad at math.
“Bisexual” is an imperfect word, of course. Most labels are. It’s why many who are bi call themselves queer (or pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, or choose not to label themselves at all). “Queer” is also an imperfect word, because it is both loaded with meaning and meaningless. It wraps everyone who uses it in a catch-all umbrella that embraces a kind of universality, but in doing so, doesn’t acknowledge the ways in which different segments of the LGBT community police one another. While a bisexual person who identifies as queer resists the rigidity of easy categorization, they risk being rendered a fraud. Since bisexuals are excluded from hetero and homo subcultures alike, using and owning the word is still incredibly important.
Because of bisexuality’s “black sheep” status, it starts to make sense why 37 other words for “bisexual” have cropped up in recent years. Bisexual-but-we’re-not-calling-it-that relationships have been depicted in some iteration or another for decades. The British journal Gay Times declared in 1993 that “Sex between gay men and lesbians is coming out of the closet […] Now people talk openly of their opposite-sex-same-sexuality lovers […] at the party after the SM Pride March, a gay man and a lesbian had sex on the dance floor, but it wasn’t heterosexuality. You can tell.”
The lengths we go to avoid talking about bisexuality are far-reaching and, frankly, absurd. “Opposite-sex-same-sexuality lovers”? Really? That’s not even fun to say, unlike some of the other bisexual-but-we’re-not-calling-it-that labels in common usage, such as “heteroflexible,” “hasbien,” and “gay for pay,” à la porn stars. I’m surprised that “bisexual-but-we’re-not-calling-it-that” hasn’t become a de facto label, based on the stultifying mouthsoup that often comprises our attempts to describe sexual inclusivity. What would happen, I wonder, if we stripped the word “bisexuality” of its politics, misconceptions, and negative connotations and allowed it to mean simply “attraction to more than one gender”?
Who cares? You might be asking. It’s just a word. True — it is a word. And words are power. Remember that just 50 years ago, “queer” was considered a hateful slur. Now it’s been reappropriated as a word of empowerment and solidarity. Fifty years ago there were zero queer people depicted on TV or in movies, except in thinly veiled ways or whenever a director needed a character to suffer a horrible death. Representation is important. When we don’t see people like us in the media, or when we see them but they aren’t out bisexuals, we feel like we don’t exist. A recent report from the CDC found that bisexual women are twice as likely to be sexually abused. This came on the heels of a 2011 report that noted bisexual women are far more likely to be anxious, depressed, and prone to binge drinking. The participants of the study said they felt “invisible.” Discrimination and social stigma, it stands to argue, have real mental health consequences.
When the media fails to acknowledge bisexuality as an option, it diminishes the power of representation we might be given, would showrunners only deign to call bisexual characters what they are. Bisexual lives are so rarely portrayed as real or valid. Part of why Orange Is the New Black, in particular, is such a compelling show is that it doesn’t shy away from difficult, complex topics like transphobia, racism, rape, injustices of the U.S. prison system, classism, mental illness, and many others. So it’s odd that bisexuality is the one frontier the show has yet to cross. What will it take for pop culture to step up and admit that bisexuals exist, and that we are just as much a part of the crazy cocktail that makes up human sexuality?