Every year, when a new season of Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black graces our Netflix accounts, one can truly count the seconds before a status or tweet declares Piper Chapman the undefeated champion of being the worst. As the show’s grossly privileged protagonist, she is certainly not the character with whom our sympathies want to immediately align. For the first two seasons, she was clueless, callous, and gave little regard for others.
Yet what truly made her insufferable to so many was her insistence that she still deserved to be pitied. Sure, I could see her for her awfulness, her self-obsession was a blatant and upsetting truth to her character, and yet time and again I found myself still rooting for her, unable to shake the feeling that we were building to some fundamental rupture in which she would take charge and fully embrace the darkest side of herself, or be eaten alive by it. Season 3 delivered this precipice, bringing Piper that much closer to what I believe is an inevitable nervous breakdown, and positioning her firmly as a ruthless antiheroine. And I have never loved her more.
While most response to Piper’s arc in Season 3 has been divided along the lines of disgust, annoyance, or a vague terror, mine was a clear and unshakable thrill. I’ve tried to analyze this feeling, and obviously, here I am at it again, but I have yet to put my finger on it exactly. Part of it is surely the wonderful performance of Taylor Schilling, who tracks this shift with incredible precision, part of it is the writing, of seeing where Piper began to the wide-eyed, crazy-eyed woman she’s become, and part of it, maybe the largest part, is that there is just something so compellingly sexy about seeing this character just stop giving a damn. Yes, she becomes manipulative, hurts people, betrays the woman she loves, abandons all ethics, but she does so without a single care for what people will think of her. It is this newfound confidence, assertiveness, and ownership of her total self-centeredness that has transformed this character from a whining brat into a multi-dimensional antiheroine.
This is the Piper I’ve been waiting for. This is the Piper I can get on board with. And yeah, that’s a little scary to admit.
However, the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve tried to investigate this strange glutton-for-punishment with characters like Piper, it becomes clear to me that Piper is far from an anomaly in queer/lesbian representation. Some of film/TV/literature’s most iconic queer ladies are on the same pedestal of cold, manipulative iciness. The most obvious and recent example is Carol Aird, played with Hitchcock-ian mystery by Cate Blanchett in the gorgeous Carol. While her sense of superiority and authority over the obsessive Therese is present in the film, it is minimal compared to the outright cruelty she displays to her young lover in Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, on which the film is based.
In the novel, Carol is an unknowable figure who belittles, condescends and remains aloof to her partner. Despite the enormous sacrifice and show of love Carol makes by story’s end, I doubt any audience member or reader could genuinely describe her as someone who is kind or considerate. And yet, these are traits that make her magnetic to Therese, our conduit, and begrudgingly or otherwise, we want to see them together. Just as countless fans watch Piper time and again break Alex’s heart, all while knowing Alex, and we, are longing for their reunion.
Another Netflix favorite among queer female audiences, Jessica Jones presents a lesbian character who is utterly diabolical in Carrie-Ann Moss’s Jeri Hogarth. She manipulates, betrays, and acts without any clear moral compass whatsoever, and yet there is an absolutely undeniable sexiness about her, with lesbians across Tumblr declaring their love for someone whom they will freely admit is a terrible person.
While sadly the dimensionality of the characters is entirely disproportionate, there are comparisons to be made between this trend and straight women’s draw to male antiheroes such as Don Draper. It’s not difficult for anyone to fawn over Jon Hamm, but with Draper, a man who treats women terribly and explains it away with his troubled past, it’s an attraction rooted in something deeper, and darker, than an actor’s good looks.
Female antiheroes, in their semi-sociopathic splendor, appear to be characters with specific appeal to queer women, largely because they themselves so often are. The discourse over audience investment in them, whether it be Piper Chapman, the lovers of Carol, or any number of the women on Jessica Jones, including the heterosexuals, is a space seemingly dominated by queer female voices with a feeling and sense of unique understanding and insight into who and what these women represent. Regardless of the sexuality of the characters, it increasingly appears that LGBT-identified women are the self-proclaimed authority on dissecting the unsympathetic, or at least unlikable, female character, who is often (intriguingly and somewhat troublingly) queer herself.