Ruby Rose: Sexuality and gender in ‘Orange is the New Black’

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Human sexuality is an enormous field and one which we are only tentatively coming to understand. In terms of homosexuality, there has never been a definitive scientific study that identifies any concrete biological determinants. Scientists think that homosexuality is more likely to be defined by a complex interplay of biological and environmental stimuli, although the most important factors have yet to be identified.

Currently, it’s popular to say that homosexuality is a purely biological condition. Pointing out that it may very well not be is routinely denounced as homophobia. This is dogma, it is not fact. There are parallels with radical feminists in the 1970s refusing to acknowledge that there are hormonal differences between the sexes. Increasingly, gay activists such as Julie Bindel are recognising the emancipatory potential in affirming sexuality as a choice. This doesn’t tally up to many people’s experience, although deliberately choosing lesbianism as a political identity as well as a personal one has historical precedent, such as the revolutionary feminist Wild communes. All of this is interesting in an academic sense, but for most queer people, it doesn’t really seem to matter why they are the way they are rather than the impact their identity has on their lives.

The nineteenth century saw a thoroughly unscientific revolution in the categorisation of human beings. The effects of this legacy in terms of race are well known. Less discussed, is that the binary distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality was not set until the 1800s. The rollback from this began in the early 20th century. Now there are approximately two hundred different scales of human sexuality. The most famous of these is the Kinsey scale, which locates sexuality on a spectrum running from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual).

A 1 on the Kinsey scale means that you predominantly heterosexual but that you may develop homosexual inclinations towards particular person, or perhaps a couple of particular people, but not on the regular. The past couple of weeks have seen a number of Kinsey 1s popping their heads above the parapet, all vying with their feelings for one particular person – Orange is the New Black Star, Ruby Rose.

Ruby Rose identifies as gender-fluid, meaning that she doesn’t strongly categorise herself with either gender. In her adolescence, she considered transitioning but decided against it. Now, she is comfortable in a female body but not with being exclusively identified as a woman. She’s also smoking hot, with strikingly unusual amalgamation of masculine and feminine facial features. Her sex appeal appears to be astonishingly universal. Men who have previously identified as purely homosexual have all kinds of feelings. Women who have previously identified as purely heterosexual also have all kinds of feelings. It is the latter group rather than the former who have attracted waves of fury.

Part of the annoyance stems from a genuinely irritating trend involving straight girls ‘experimenting’ with lesbianism without intending to see it through to climax. This could involve kissing your best friend to turn on the boys or giving it ‘a go’ with an actual lesbian to see if you like it. It’s the latter that lesbians particularly resent. You can’t try eating pussy like you can try eating caviar. I can see the confusion, they both taste like fish, but also…kind of not. The difference is that one of the things is attached to a person with feelings who probably doesn’t want to be your sexual smorgasbord.

Another factor is the ‘girl crush’. In an article for the New Statesman, Eleanor Margolis defines a girl crush perfectly as; “Girl crushes are 75 per cent respect, 24.999 per cent idolatry and 0.001 per cent something nebulously sexual. It’s more about wanting to be someone than wanting to do them.” She goes on to say that ‘girl crushes’ are a way of doing the lesbian thing ironically.

Some women find this overly flippant and demeaning to their sexuality. This is the pessimist’s view. The optimist’s view is homosexuality as a label that is not shameful to apply to yourself anymore. With Ruby Rose, it appears to have gone beyond a girl crush and into the arena of genuine sexual desire for a number of women who previously identified as exclusively straight. The fact that these women are comfortable enough expressing this desire publicly should be a cause for celebration, not condemnation.

Another indication of society’s recognition of sexual fluidity (at least for women) can be seen in the show Ruby Rose features in, Orange is the New Black. In this show, female sexuality is dealt with in a dynamic and nuanced way that has no parallel anywhere else on television. Many of the female characters identify exclusively as gay. Others have relationships with both women and men. The show also tackles gender identity with the trans character, Sophia. Ruby Rose’s character, Stella, is gender-fluid saying that she only categorises herself as a woman because her options are limited. Queerness in Orange is the New Black is never hysterical, never moralising and never tokenistic.

Sexual fluidity and the refusal of labels is a running theme in Orange is the New Black, particularly in terms of the main character, Piper who never refers to herself by any labels at all a subtly rejects those imposed on her. As her brother says to her enraged fiancé, Larry questioning whether she’s a lesbian again; “I’m going to go ahead and guess that one of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything.” That line says a lot.  

Labels are fine up until the point that they stop being empowering and start being exclusionary. Benjamin Butterworth, writing in The Independent last week, identified a growing trend in the LGBT community; “The modern gay community – equal in law and thereabouts in culture – has turned in on itself. It brandishes the attitudes and outlooks that once-upon-a-time it would define itself against. Looking like an inward, aggressive group of judgemental trolls.” There’s truth to this and it’s sad. Personally, I didn’t sign up to learn the party line or self-righteously police the parameters of anyone else’s sexuality. When you refuse to allow a heterosexual woman to honestly articulate her sexuality, because fancying girls is something you did before it was cool, it’s all so;

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Ruby Rose herself put it best when she said; “I, personally, think that the moments we try to nit-pick who can and can’t say that they are genderqueer or gender-neutral or trans, or who’s gay or who’s bi — who are we to tell other people how they can live their lives and what they can tweet and what they can say? It’s really none of our business. I think we should let people go and say what they want to.”