The Movement Beyond Tropes (f*ck your gaydar): Orange is the New Black and CanCon Find Common Ground

October 15, 2014 CJ Blennerhassett

Almost every day we are confronted with images in the media that force us to categorize people using a set of “gay criteria” based on how they look or act. The media has helped us all create our own little “gaydars” by which we can label the man behaving effeminately as the obviously gay man behaving effeminately. Tropes, or stereotypes, ripple outwards by aiding in the formation of people’s opinions and thoughts, which, as we know, are often vastly off base. The use of stereotypes forces us to generalize complex information, making it easy to dismiss LGBTQ folks as one-dimensional, non-people. Although the increasing visibility of LGBTQ characters is often seen as positive progress in the dismantling of harmful stereotypes, it can have the opposite effect of piling on more stereotypes, reinforcing misperceptions. 

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When we meet Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), lead character in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, she’s someone we’ve met before, Straight Yuppie Girl Has Rebellious Lesbian Relationship. When we meet Jess, Jan Guenther Braun’s main character in her 2008 novel Somewhere Else, she is a lesbian teen whose father is the President of a Mennonite College. When we meet the main characters in Joey Comeau’s collection The Complete Lockpick Pornography, they’re a jaunty, raw, real life queer crew. Though these characters experience the LGBTQ spectrum, and embody stereotypes in vastly different ways, all envelop you fully in their worlds, leaving you feeling like you are a little bit Piper, a little bit Jess, and a little bit rad.

Almost every day we are confronted with images in the media that force us to categorize people using a set of “gay criteria” based on how they look or act. The media has helped us all create our own little “gaydars” by which we can label the man behaving effeminately as the obviously gay man behaving effeminately. Tropes, or stereotypes, ripple outwards by aiding in the formation of people’s opinions and thoughts, which, as we know, are often vastly off base. The use of stereotypes forces us to generalize complex information, making it easy to dismiss LGBTQ folks as one-dimensional, non-people. Although the increasing visibility of LGBTQ characters is often seen as positive progress in the dismantling of harmful stereotypes, it can have the opposite effect of piling on more stereotypes, reinforcing misperceptions. As we know, giving people the ability to paint a stranger as ‘that’ offensively masculine, threatening gay woman, can have scary, violent consequences. Incorrect representations of LGBTQ characters can cloud judgment and make homophobic behaviour permissible. In the work of breaking down tropes, there is a lot at stake.

North American millennial media, particularly television and independent publishing, have spent much more screen time on queer characters in recent years. Partly this is because queer story lines are pop-culture trendy, but it is also because queerfolk in the Canadian independent publishing industry like Leslie Feinberg, S. Bear Bergman, Ivan Coyote, Joey Comeau, and Elisha Lim, among many others, have spent years making space, telling stories about their lives and the lives of rad queers. The discussion of sexuality in public is, as you can imagine, a big deal. Much of what we see and hear about gay characters is their coming out stories; sexuality is something that, once known, must be softly but staunchly proclaimed to friends and family, yelled publicly from the rooftops. Subtleties of experience have been all but lost. While there are still buckets of criticism to be levelled at modern media’s portrayal of LGBTQ characters, the fact that we have spent so much time with queer characters means that we can now spend time contextualizing queerness into their, and consequently our, wider lives.

Orange is the New Black’s creator Jenji Kohan and the writers of the show have fun dismantling a whole array of both ‘women in prison’ and queer tropes. Laverne Cox, the actress who plays Sophia on OITNB, says in an interview about the show: 
“There’s never really been a show that has so many different kinds of women, so many races, backgrounds, and body types, and ages. So that kind of diversity, too, is really exciting to be a part of, and to have these stories being told in ways that let us really connect with these characters.” 

Piper is introduced to us as the straight-edge woman who rebelled from her parents by finding a girlfriend. The “lesbian experiment as interesting character development” trope is one that, in North America, we are well-versed in. 1999’s Cruel Intentions saw Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character, painted as damaged and manipulative, seduce women as a means of winning a contest. Her kiss with Selma Blair’s character caused that character’s downward spiral, and the “lesbian moment” was used as the central confusing factor throughout the movie. The poaching lesbian woman is always categorized as devious, a corrupting influence on the otherwise innocent straight girl. It is in this way we enter the world of Piper Chapman, and her ex, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), with the expectation of a superficial presentation of LGBTQ characters.

Similarly, the “outcast lesbian youth” trope has received much play in North American media. Blue is the Warmest Colour, a graphic novel and film that became immensely popular following its debut at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of 17-year-old Adele who falls in love with a woman she passes on the street. The graphic novel, written by French author Julie Maroh, highlights the emotional complexities of queer youth in working out their identities while also trying to reconcile those identities with their more conservative family lives. Films like Blue is the Warmest Colour and Boys Don’t Cry engage readers by appealing to the part of us that feel like outcasts. Though, as you can imagine, this is relevant for many queer youth, it also reaches across the bounds of sexual orientation and resonates with audiences from all backgrounds.

Somewhere Else by Jan Guenther Braun approaches this last trope in much the same way; protagonist Jess leaves a stifling, though often loving, home on the Prairies where it is not safe for her to explore her identity to head for the city of Winnipeg and a sense of belonging among others like her. Though she reads at first like a timid, confused character, as the novel develops you see the ways in which she grapples with her sexuality to find sources of strength. Both her and Piper come to some sense of who they are through their relationship with other women. For Piper it takes a trip to prison for her to spend time reflecting on the ways in which her struggles with identity have impacted other people. Jess is not sure of much, but she is certain she likes women, and while on a train to Winnipeg she meets Freya, a scattered, passionate queer lady, and falls in love. Her relationship with Freya provides a sense of escape, in that she can ignore the implications of her sexuality on her family and future, but it also serves as a vehicle through which she can become comfortable with herself as a lesbian. In this way, both Jess and Piper experience their sexuality differently, at different times in their lives. This is no old-school Degrassi Junior High, where sexuality was a switch that was turned off or on and the only time characters were gay was during the episode they had to painfully proclaim it to the world by “coming out.” This is the portrayal of women grappling with sexuality in the context of their holistic, messy lives.

By the end of season two of Orange is the New Black the relationship between Piper and Alex is considerably more complex; it has moved from a seemingly Katy Perry-esque fling in our minds to a living, breathing, flawed relationship. Moreover, the writers have Piper and Alex defy traditional interpretations of lesbian relationships by not pigeonholing either one into the more masculine or feminine role. Because Piper read originally as a basic, superficial straight girl, once we’ve gotten a few episodes in that stereotype does not sit well, and the viewer is not sure how Piper engages with the LGBTQ community or where her relationship with Alex will end up. The creators of the show use Piper’s character as an entry point in to a series-long discussion of LGBTQ tropes. They play with stereotypes of both queer characters and prison life while managing to imbue storylines with humour, depth, and dignity. Though it is incredibly frustrating as a queer viewer to feel as if the show had to spend the first few episodes warming up the audience to the overtly LGBTQ themes, once they’ve arrived you know straight people are still watching.

Jan Guenther Braun writes such an engaging portrayal of her main character that by the end of Somewhere Else, we have spent so long inside Jess’s head that it is almost impossible to tear apart the reader and narrator. We come to Jess as she leaves home amidst feelings of vast confusion, disconnection and distance from her family. Much of the writing reflects this mood, coming across often as jerky, with quick chapter endings and seemingly random flashbacks. As the book moves forward and the writing slows down the reader has been caught off guard by the common ground built by the narrator. We’ve all had lusty, unconcerned love affairs that ended with both spitfire and quiet, slipping goodbyes. We’ve also all had terrible moments of disbelief when our parents relate to us as adults for the first time and we do not like what we see. The jerky, disconnected beginning fits with our felt experience of Jess’s identity and all of its uncertainty. As the writing comes together, so does Jess’s idea of whom she is, and of who she should love. Guenther Braun presents these experiences in ways that help you to examine the intersectionality of the character’s queerness as it meets her experience of class, race, family, and belonging. Empathy is unavoidable; the reader’s perspectives are alerted by the time spent in Jess’s world.

Orange is the New Black, now shooting its third season, has surpassed expectations in many ways. Women and trans* characters are given the vast majority of screen time, allowing them to speak volumes about themselves in a way that we do not often see in mainstream media. Viewers who have watched the show from the beginning have had a substantial amount of time with each character, giving the audience time to relate to the cast in a way that is meaningful. Each character is flawed, complicated, and both likeable and unlikeable. The audience cannot help but appreciate the subtleties of each character’s perspective and this makes the storylines relatable, as the viewer has to imagine themselves in each character’s shoes.

The utilization of stereotypes can be useful in that it introduces people in a way the viewer can understand. The use of a hook, an interesting character or story, though incredibly problematic, is a clearly successful tool used in longer form media to pull in consumers. The hook brings people in, spoon-feeding them familiar themes initially and slipping in more detailed queer lives as the story progresses. Despite the use of stereotypes, OITNB does a great job of avoiding the trappings of two-dimensional characters by incorporating plot points that subvert assumptions.

Nuanced social interactions show up in the relationship between Morello (Yael Stone) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). When we meet Morello, a straight character planning a wedding with a man on the outside, she is in a relationship with Nicky, a lesbian, while in prison. Morello is the first inmate Piper meets when she arrives at prison, and on their ride in to Litchfield Penitentiary she talks with Piper about planning a wedding with her fiancé Christopher. Later in the episode, we see Morello and Nicky together romantically (read: making out). Morello presents and identifies as straight yet enters in to a relationship with Nicky in a seemingly comfortable, authentic, and mutually beneficial way. In later seasons we see this romantic relationship fade while their friendship flourishes.

Fluidity of sexuality is examined again with one of season two’s new characters, Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), who has sex with Nicky during Nicky and Big Boo’s (Lea DeLaria) “pussy race”. During that scene Soso says she has had sexual experiences with women before and, though she’s portrayed as a stereotypical hippie-type activist, it’s clear she uses sex with Nicky to feel less alone in her new surroundings. The portrayal of characters like Soso and Morello, who demonstrate that sex serves different purposes for different people, defies the boundaries of traditional sexual and romantic connections and asks us to tease apart sexuality and identity.

We’d all like to move away from the nature versus nurture debate that exists in the portrayal of the average well-groomed, fashionable, gay man (nature) versus the average softball-playing, folksy lesbian (nurture). Copious amounts of screen time give space for fluidity of sexuality and the richness of gender identity, showcasing how, for the people in these stories, it can be either nature or nurture. Lea DeLaria, the first openly gay comic to appear on late night television, who now plays Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, famously appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993 and proclaimed: “I’m a biiiiig dyke! Yes, I am. Yes, I am. I’m a big one! And that’s OK.” Her character Big Boo is also a big dyke (Big Boo = nature). DeLaria revealed in an interview for BuzzFeed recently that she refuses to play the two-dimensional, stereotypical butch dyke characters anymore. Big Boo represents a shift in the portrayal of butch characters; she plays a butch with emotions. Although Boo has to play to the extremes of her butch identity to create an image of herself as the misogynistic, bully prison wife, she transcends that image by also showcasing sadness, fear, and apprehension. The portrayal of shifting, changing identity helps viewers to understand that identity is always a matter of perspective.

Sophia Burset, a Black trans* character played by Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, is introduced to us pre-transition. Sophia is written as being in prison for credit card fraud racked up to finance her transition. Laverne Cox’s twin brother, in an episode that was directed by Jodie Foster, plays the pre-transition version of Sophia’s character. In this episode we see Sophia’s naked, transitioning body, an image which is one of the most powerful, political statements in recent memory. With this role Cox became the first openly transgendered person to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category. In a recent interview about her character Laverne Cox states: 

“…the character is… a multi-dimensional character who the audience can really empathize with, all of the sudden they’re empathizing with a real Trans person. And for Trans folks out there, who need to see representations of people who are like them and of their experiences, that’s when it becomes really important.” 

Orange avoids the claustrophobic trappings so easy to fall into with a prison setting by making the characters a true ensemble crew. By showcasing characters along the spectrum of LGBTQ lives and by allowing enough screen time to appreciate the nuances of their stories, the series asks viewers to re-examine their own beliefs about identity, sexuality, class, and race. Although there has been controversy around this type of storytelling, there is something to be said for the writer who successfully creates an easily digestible entry point (Piper) into a world where the lives of complex people of colour (POC), queer, and differently abled characters can be examined. There is controversy because, in North America this is the way in which media is typically consumed — a white cis-gendered person is used as the lens through which the rich backstories of POC can be highlighted as narrative window dressing. While it can be effective (along with Piper’s journey we also see the Latina and Black characters' struggles) we should be mindful of the othering effects of centering whiteness. Portrayals of the white, straight character as default are problematic because the narratives of POC should be the central focal point in their own stories. By centering whiteness we perpetuate the view that “a problem is not really a problem until white people are impacted by it”; e.g. we do not enter into a discussion about the treatment of women and trans* people within the prison-industrial complex until a white character goes to jail.


Canadian author Joey Comeau's work faces this controversy head on. There is no spoon-feeding or straight-people placating. Comeau spends little time acclimating the reader to the world he has created. From the very first page we see real (albeit, at times extreme) queer lives. This is not to say that his work is not relatable to the heterosexual masses, just that you will not find any familiar stereotypes to gauge the experience of the characters by. Comeau’s novels hit you in the gut from the very first page. In The Complete Lockpick Pornography he explores themes around the impact of prejudice and violence. He takes a group of queer characters and looks at the way which living in a heterosexually privileged world as a gay person can cause massive personal damage. Reading Comeau’s work after watching Orange is the New Black was so very refreshing because there is no slow-burning building of nuance, he has no need for it; the characters just are.

Television is particularly fond of wading into queer lives, exposing just enough fashionable material to keep folks interested. In doing so, television shows take away the narratives of queer stories from queerfolk themselves. The oft-utilized dichotomy of straight person as default and queer as other is played out. As is the singular portrayal of the gay character as white, male, and affluent. Stereotypes are not just annoying and inaccurate portrayals of queer lives, they can result in hostility, aggression, and violence. Establishing personal relationships with characters, if you can rope folks with prejudicial, homophobic views into reading novels like Somewhere Else and Lockpick Pornography, can break down those stereotypes and increase understanding. The reduction of prejudice is possible with lots of communication, interpersonal contact and positive interactions. It is too much to ask queer people in our every day lives to engage in these types of intensive, educational, interactions — thankfully we have Orange is the New Black to do it for us. Independent publishing and new platforms for television viewing give audiences queer characters that are both radical and relatable. In the real life, multi-faceted world of queer lives, these tropes hold no water. F*ck your gaydar.


CJ Blennerhassett lives and works in both Ontario and Nova Scotia. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Midwifery from McMaster University, Caitlin’s time is spent catching babies and reading about catching babies. She’s a solo parent, bibliophile and queer activist with a penchant for comic books and tea.


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