My big fat orange gay awakening
An ode to Orange is the New Black
by Parel Wilmering
Illustration by Parel Wilmering
Gay awakenings come in many forms, shapes and sizes, but mine was sparked by Blue is the Warmest Colour when I was about fifteen.
It was not the best time for queer cinema. Even though Abdellatif Kechiche’s 3-hour-long lesbian love story won a golden palm and went down in history as a big moment for the lesbian community, it is still a story that has been told and viewed with a male gaze (see: the ten-minute-long, super steamy sex scene). While a revolutionary film for its time, it still presented lesbianism as being one-dimensional and only focused on sex, which, like women themselves, it is not.
There is probably just as much sex in Orange is the New Black, the TV series that pioneered Netflix into the phenomenon it is today. The show aired in the same year Blue is the Warmest Colour was released, but I started watching it a bit later when the third season was just released. Besides The L Word, which I have never watched and I don’t think has ever been mainstream (at least not in our generation), Orange is the New Black was the first major TV show that was based around almost only female characters, and portrayed many different lesbian relationships.
“Imperfect” seems to be a word that describes the characters and their relationships on the show well. The actors all look like normal people; most of them are not conventionally pretty, although beautiful regardless. Since the show is set in a prison, the characters have all made some not-so-great decisions, the consequences of which they have to deal with. And their relationships, well… They reach from being true loving relationships to ‘gay for the stay’ prison relationships that are purely pragmatic.
Like their relationships, the women who are in them are just as diverse. Lesbian representation in films and on TV, in general, does not reach beyond a very feminine-presenting image of lesbians: examples of these representations are all the queer women in Jane the Virgin, Carol and Susan in Friends, Rita Ora’s Girls music video, the ballerinas in Black Swan, the two lead characters in Carol and the queer women in Riverdale, to name a few. There is nothing wrong with being a woman who likes women and looking like this. It’s just not the only kind of queer lady there is out there.
Orange is the New Black has done a great job representing all sorts of women who are all members of the LGBT+ community. Reaching from (for lack of a better word) ‘stone-butch’ characters like Big Boo to more ‘femme’ characters like Alex and everything in between,* as well as queer women of colour, Orange is the New Black provided representation of sorts of characters who were not given so much screen time on a popular TV show before.
*Side note: many queer women do not feel comfortable with labels such as ‘butch’ and ‘femme’, just like many queer men do not feel comfortable with labels like ‘bear’, ‘otter’, or ‘twink’. Only use these labels to refer to them if you have their permission.
But, you may ask, why do we need all those lesbian relationships and queer women on mainstream TV? Well, just like with any other minority on TV (think ethnic minorities, disabled people and other LGBT+ folk), for many people these are some things that might happen:
1. With no representation, the minority may feel like they are not worthy of representation. If you’re gay and you only see straight love stories on TV, or if you’re black and you only see white people on TV, you may feel like you’re not recognised by society, or like your story is not worth being told.
2. With inaccurate representation, maybe the sort that only focuses on one specific group that belongs to a minority, people who belong to that minority may feel like they have to act a certain way in order to fit in. Think of the stereotype of the feminine gay man. There is nothing wrong with being like that of course, but there is something wrong with gay men feeling like they have to act that way, in order to be accepted by society and, indeed, by their own community.
3. With inaccurate or no representation, it may take someone who belongs to the LGBT+ community, specifically, much longer before they figure out who they are. That’s not something negative, per say: it’s fine to take your time when it comes to finding out who you are. But if you miss out on certain experiences because you find out who you are, and who you love later in life, you could really go on to regret not being sure of who you were earlier.
Which brings me back to the starting point of this article, gay awakenings. In terms of awakening, Blue is the Warmest Colour was mine. But Orange is the New Black, to stick with this metaphor, was my stepping out of bed, my opening the curtains and my making myself breakfast and a cup of tea. Orange is the New Black showed us sexy women who were also just plain human, women who I could develop crushes on but also relate to.
While Blue is the Warmest Colour showed me what I could have and opened my eyes to new possibilities, Orange is the New Black showed me a world where I felt I belonged, and more importantly, a world where there were other people like me.