Orange Is The New Black's splashy debut last year seemed made as much of stories-about-stories than about the story the show was actually telling: A four-quadrant product with as many angles as there are journalists and bloggers, it hit all the flashpoints. For media writers, it was a show about the future of Netflix and streaming video against the aging ratings dinosaur; for culture critics it was a show about the nearly all-female, richly diverse cast, or about Laverne Cox's brilliant and intimately personal performance; for everyone else it was a show about class, or gender, or prison recidivism, or redemption. Every niche filled.
And now, with the second season spinning out in just a couple of weeks, we have that interesting little twist, in which one of the show's writers turns out to have experienced some fourth-wallish recapitulation of the show's details in her own life. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I started reading Lauren Morelli's short PolicyMic essay, "While Writing for 'Orange Is the New Black,' I Realized I Am Gay." Not because of the title, or even the idea—sexuality is complicated; there are as many angles on sex as there are humans—but because of the invisibly present responses that are sure to follow. We take shit personally, and this is as personal as it gets: Even the format of the show, the claustrophobia and intimacy of its setting, are calculated to make us go crazy.
So if this lady was going to survive telling this story—at its heart, the story of a poignant and absurd coincidence that happened to change her entire life—she was going to need to be braver and more transparent than most of us try for even once in our lifetimes.
Luckily, that's exactly what we got. By focusing on her personal story—in particular the lack of context or narrative with which queer women and men are presented, growing up in our culture—and on the strange juxtapositions and recognitions that typified her first year's work on the show, we see a kind and honest presentation of the ways her work commented on and changed her story, and vice versa. Vulnerable but not weak, self-deprecating but not cloying, it's a report back from the battle lines that shows exactly how much power any one of us should give to conventional narratives when they lie at odds to our subjective, lived experience, which is to say: None at all.
I felt like my life was being rewritten without my permission. I'd checked all my boxes! I was happily married and loved my job!
Things were finally great, for fuck's sake.
I was finally forced to consider a question that had never, ever occurred to me before: Holy shit, am I gay?
It's an oddly familiar story, even down to the goofier details: A comedy writer to the end, Morelli relates Googling how to know you're a lesbian, asking her gynecologist if her birth control was turning her gay, contemplates suicide, and refuses to consider the implications—"I would rather be comfortable than brave"—of having surrounded herself with lesbians while telling a story about a newlywed, like herself, whose sexuality, like her own, proves to be a lot more complex than many of us seem to think is allowed. But what's really moving is her focus on something most of us have forgotten; what more of us still don't recognize even when it's happening:
It feels important to say these things in a public way, to record them where they are easily accessible because if I could think and feel them while working in the world's most supportive environment, surrounded by people in the LGBT community, where being a minority of any sort is joyfully celebrated, I can only venture to imagine the pain, confusion and fear that might have existed otherwise.
That kills me. Not just the idea that you can move to Gaytown and still feel like a tourist, but also the knowledge that either way, you're coming up against people who think they have a vested interest in telling you about your own life. Add to that the mysterious predilection we have on the Left for viciously attacking people we absolutely agree with—and ignoring those we don't—and it's a lot less confusing to see how messy this stuff can still get: You're surrounded by a lot of ideas and strictures and rules of thumb that might work for the general population, but give you very little guidance as far as your own place in it. It's early days.
It might be difficult for me personally to understand how it would take you more than 14 years to figure out something that basic, much less 30, but that's only because I, like all of us, am a product of infinitely variable circumstances. I would never dream of projecting that very specific equation onto somebody else, and I certainly don't see how that helps.
But I think where we live now, there's a shared neurosis born of oppression that seeks balance, equilibrium, everyone in their box; it expresses itself with claims of "confusion" or "cowardice" when people's lives don't follow the obvious paths, and rewards with gold stars those whose do; it falls easily into the trap of trying to define other people's sexuality for them—the most uniquely personal thing there is, an absolute blessing to be celebrated—all because of the million invisible voices we still hear pressing in on us, ourselves.
So while I don't know that "bisexual erasure" is a hugely helpful concept, I do know that Morelli's repeated exhortation—to discover and inhabit and trust our own narratives; to worry less about disappointing people or internalizing their designs for us than we do about ownership over our own bodies—is really the only way out.
[Image via Netflix]