By Max Rigby-Hall ’18
Why are there so few lesbians in the world of television? After watching the fourth season of Orange is the New Black recently, I began to think about the portrayal of lesbian women in media. It’s not too often that we see a recurring lesbian character on a show, so why is it that Orange is the New Black, a show based on prison life, has several queer characters? It all comes from stereotypes. When people think of prisons for women, they think of butch girls all being deprived of men and turning towards homosexuality to satisfy their sexual desires. Not only does television promote these stereotypes, it also worsens them by not thoroughly exploring the issues behind them. Television series have an odd tendency to kill of marginalized, especially queer, characters. Overall, stereotypes seem to be the root of the problem, while a lack of thorough exploration seems to further the problem of under-representation of queer women in media.
For the sake of a popular and relatable example, this article will focus primarily on Orange is the New Black with a few nods to other shows. Orange is the New Black (OITNB), despite being an amazing show, has managed to enhance stereotypes of queer women by portraying them as butch and predatory and hyper-sexualizing them. Within the first two seasons of the show, there were approximately 17 sex scenes, 10 of which involved queer women. Although this may seem like a good thing because it normalizes the representation of lesbian women, it normalizes the objectification of these women too. Queer women are more than just sex scenes and cannot be accurately represented when there is a sex scene almost every episode. OITNB also feeds into the stereotype that lesbian women are predatory and/or butch. As the show takes place in prison, this automatically creates the assumption that these women are violent criminals. Although the show explores their backstory, it seems as though the only time queer women get representation is when placed in prison. Also, the show portrays the lesbian women as sex-crazed predators. For example, two characters, Big Boo and Nichols, have a competition to see who can have sex with the most women and ranked the women based on difficulty levels. Overall, the portrayal of queer women as predatory along with the hyper-sexualization of them leads to the misrepresentation of them on television.
In addition to enhancing stereotypes, Orange is the New Black fails to explore the issue behind these stereotypes by killing off queer characters without furthering the plot. Before I discuss the following, I will give a spoiler alert for the final two episodes of season four of OITNB. Poussey, a queer woman of color, was a character loved by the audience, yet she was killed off at the end of season four. Not only was her death unnecessary, but it was also unfair. All over twitter people discussed how Poussey deserved better, and frankly, she did. Autostraddle’s Ultimate Infographic Guide to Lesbian/Bisexual TV History revealed that 31% of lesbian and bisexual characters are dead by the end of a series and 10% are written off. Considering that only 11% of shows have lesbian and bisexual characters, this percentage is ridiculous and reveals the media’s tendency to kill off marginalized people. In The 100, Lexi, another popular queer character, was also killed off, and the audience was furious. Clearly the audience loves these queer women, so why are they all being killed off? The media does not know how to explore queer identity and therefore cannot develop queer characters enough to keep them around. In conclusion, the media fails to challenge queer stereotypes and in fact furthers them by killing or writing off queer women in television.