In Defense of Piper, Alex and the Female Anti-Heroine on “Orange is the New Black”

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Last week, this site published my recap of “Trust No Bitch,” the Season 3 finale of Orange is the New Black, bringing to a close five intensive weeks of binging and recapping the show. Now that I’m emerging from the Regina Spektor-fueled haze of marathon recapping, I’d like to address a sentiment I’ve seen all over the internets (including the comments section of this site). It seems that people the world over have had it UP TO HERE with Piper and Alex’s relationship. I’ve read loads of reviews and comments declaring that Pipex/Vauseman have jumped the shark.

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I respectfully disagree. As the central romantic relationship on the series, I still enjoy seeing Piper and Alex bounce off of each other. The actresses have great chemistry together, and their tumultuous relationship keeps me tuned in. Of course, there is plenty that keeps me watching OITNB: an amazing cast, great writing, an emphasis on queer and diverse stories. I mean, you don’t have to sell me on watching beautiful people kissing each other’s faces—I’m in.

What is frustrating about the Pipex backlash, is that it speaks to a larger complaint about the series, namely the character of Piper Chapman. Since the series began, people have been complaining about the character of Piper, and often rightfully so. She is self-absorbed and pretentious. She cheats and lies. She tries to be a thug when she’s actually an over-privileged white chick. She’s a brat, honestly.

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But what about Don Draper? Or Walter White? Or Ray Donovan? The world seems to welcome these male anti-heroes with open arms, despite their lying or cheating or bad behavior. Walter White kills people. He assaults his wife and family. And yet, the character most often vilified on social media is his wife, Skylar, for being a “nag” and a “pain in the ass.” What the actual fuck? Why is the world so threatened by complicated women? And why does there exist so much vitriol aimed squarely at them?

People complain that they don’t like the Pipex relationship because it is toxic and dysfunctional. So what? Not every queer relationship on TV has to be kittens and rainbows. Those are (of course) lovely, but are they the only kind of queer narrative (aside from just killing off queer characters) we’re allowed to tell? Equal representation is only equal if it allows for a diverse, warts-and-all depiction of a character. Anything less is insulting, or (even worse) plain bad writing.

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There’s a distinct double standard that exists for fictional women and—who am I kidding?—real women for that matter. While male characters glorify “bad” behavior and revel in transgression, female characters are forced to remain safe and likeable. This is what makes the women of OITNB, specifically Alex and Piper, so important: they are three-dimensional, flawed, fucked up women. And they don’t apologize for it. Consider how much their relationship has changed over three seasons, and how their power dynamic has shifted. Season three has seen the formerly powerful Alex laid low by paranoia and fear, while Piper finds her inner Alpha in the panty business. And with the cliffhanger in the finale, it’s obvious that these two characters have plenty of stories left to tell, either separately or together. But given their history and their forced physical proximity, more likely together. I mean, if we can put up with ten seasons of Ross and Rachel, I think we can handle a few more with Alex and Piper.