When I mention that I like Orange is the New Black, it doesn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. It’s not a controversial choice: When I rattle off my list of TV shows I’m into, more often than not, people’s faces light up when I mention the Netflix gem. But to me, it’s not just an entertaining show. It’s proof that being a queer woman is becoming more accepted than ever before.
For the past week or so, since season three dropped, I’ve noticed several articles about Ruby Rose, and her character’s role as Piper’s potential love interest. On one particular TV show, reporters were talking about the romantic plot line as enthusiastically as they would a straight couple and I nearly teared up. Among the chatter about Piper and Alex and Ruby Rose, so many people seem to forget how incredible it is to see what a show like OITNB did for the LGBTQ+ community: it brought us representation, and it made that representation mainstream.
Before Orange is the New Black the only show with significant representation of queer women was The L Word—which was pegged as a show about lesbian women. So when I was 16 and I was trying to figure out my sexuality, I was too scared to watch the The L Word because I was afraid my parents would catch me—and BOOM!—I would be outed. I remember sitting with my parents watching television when a promo for the The L Word came on and my mom said offhandedly “You know what that show’s about don’t you? It’s about lesbians.” She was just trying to make conversation, but her observation underlined the fact that queer women were very much a niche subject in the media. I continued to watch the promo silently with my mother, thinking about how she didn’t know that I knew the name of every character who popped up on the screen after illegally streaming that “lesbian” show earlier in the week.
But then, years later, Orange is the New Black was released, and both my parents watched it before I did. When I finally watched it, it was a dream come true: it was a show with an intriguing plot with women of many races, sexualities, and ages. There were gay characters, but their plot lines weren’t exclusively about them being gay, and even better, it wasn’t being pegged exclusively as a “lesbian” show. Suddenly, every TV talk show was discussing how hot Piper and Alex were together, and People did a entire piece on Laverne Cox’s red carpet dresses. There was a time in my life when I only saw transgender individuals on Oprah specials and now Laverne Cox was strutting her stuff at the Oscars.
OITNB quickly became my favorite show, and a must-watch for many of my friends at the time. But despite its popularity, I was always surprised when someone I knew said they watched it. A bunch of my very straight female friends had huge crushes on characters like Alex and Poussey and I felt comfortable acknowledging that I was attracted to them as well. The show gave me a little more room to explore my sexuality without explicitly saying anything to anyone. I started following more Orange is the New Black fan blogs on Tumblr, and became more involved in the queer community.
It’s hard being closeted and gay and looking for community support without anyone knowing. Sure, the Internet helps, but you can’t just Google “gay people” and expect to find a community waiting for you. For me, Orange is the New Black was a stepping stone into a world I always knew about, but was never truly a part of—and in some ways, it gave me the confidence to embrace who I was. Seeing queer women as part of the mainstream media reminded me that our world was changing, and that I could take that step and be a part of this culture of acceptance.
Every year when a new season of OITNB comes out, I am struck with the same awe I felt the first time I watched the series. Sure, it’s not perfect. No TV show is, and I have plenty of friends who refuse to watch it, including my own girlfriend, much to my dismay. But this is why I love OITNB. It’s about women who celebrate being themselves. It’s so hard for women to get proper representation in media, let alone queer women. It’s so rare to get a show like this—one that challenges stereotypes and changes perceptions for such a wide range of viewers. It’s a marker of how far we’ve come in terms of media exposure and acceptance since I was a teen, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Sam Roschewsk is a college student who is obsessed with stories, singing, Marvel Comics, and really good winged eyeliner. You can follow her on twitter @samroschewsk.
[Image via Netflix]