A name which is familiar to viewers of Netflix favorite Orange is the New Black and conjures up the image of the woman with the round freckled face, and untamed auburn mane. Nicky is a firm favorite amongst fans, and this season has brought home just why that is.
Nichols’ devilish wit captured our imagination when we first met her. I won’t be alone in my envy of her own unique brand of satire. However, I fell a little bit more in love with her this season when a trait surfaced in her character which I (and I am sure many other viewers) recognized all too well.
The story of unrequited love is as old as time (irony fully intended). However, what we see in Nichols is the rare, selfless act of a woman who cares far too much. Her call to Vinnie where she describes the intensity and the honesty of Morello’s love hit me right in the feels: because we all know how much Nicky cares for her crazy little lover.
Of all the lesbian tropes that are portrayed in Orange is the New Black, I believe this is one of the most important because it demonstrates a positive way to negotiate the situation. All too often in popular culture, we see this scenario play out in tragedy.
When we talk about the problems and struggles which are faced by the LGBTQI+ community, our thoughts rightly turn to atrocities like Chechnya and Orlando. We face structural and political inequalities, an inability to express ourselves freely, and experience marginalization and bullying for wanting to love who we love. With all this in mind, what happens when the person we love does not love us in return?
Unrequited love is obviously an issue which also affects heterosexual individuals too. However, they must acknowledge their privilege in this instance and accept that although it ultimately sucks that the person who they care about most passionately and intensely in the whole world doesn’t love them back, they have not had to overcome the same personal, historical, political and social barriers to manifest these feelings in the first place. In an essence, although the degree of heartbreak is comparable, what is not are the ramifications this negative relationship has on the individual’s own self-esteem and worth.
When an LGBTQI+ individual is in a position like Nicky, their negative experience is amplified. Imagine finding the person you care about enough to love or fall in love with, from an already proportionally tiny and sometimes underground community, only to then discover that this person doesn’t love you after all. You’ve already overcome the odds (less than 5% of the population identify as being gay or bisexual) to find a person, what are the chances you’ll find someone you like this much again? How are you supposed to ‘get over’ that person?
In some ways, it would be easier if you were getting over a break-up. Break-ups happen in relative public, your friends will hopefully support you and you receive validation and commiseration from society. Whether or not we believe this to be important for us, subconsciously it’s something that affects us all. Humans are social creatures, and we care about what others think of us. It’s only instinctual and natural. However, when your heartbreak is under the radar, it develops a whole host of other associated issues which make it hard to deal with. These are amplified by the fact society is heteronormative and quite emotionally illiterate.
Whether or not the person we fell in love with is a straight friend, a colleague, or another gay individual is almost irrelevant. What matters is that you developed feelings for someone you ‘shouldn’t’ have: Cue all the old internalized homophobic feelings of youth when you had feelings you felt were wrong, immoral, damaging or just plain inexplicable. You are reminded of all of the old pain you experienced, and you question just why you allowed yourself to experience the euphoria of love in the first place. What is even the point if it just ends in heartbreak? Why do we allow ourselves to love people we know will never love us back in the same way?
Partly, it’s related to self-esteem. The old Perks of Being a Wallflower quote rings incredibly true here: “we accept the love we think we deserve.” This, of course, means that we can only experience a healthy and reciprocal relationship when we ourselves have cultivated our self-esteem to a degree which means that we can recognize the love we are capable of and can accept the care of others.
We sometimes need these experiences of unrequited love to teach us we are worthy of so much more. The very fact that we can love someone with that intensity when it is not reciprocated only teaches us that one day, we are going to be capable of having the most beautifully reciprocal and healthy relationship. It does not mean the inverse – which our society’s pressures may make us feel.
A heteronormative society is dangerous because it teaches us to believe that our feelings of love are wrong. When we love someone who doesn’t love us back, this only strengthens these old feelings of invalidation and self-loathing. We must flip these on their head and look at the positives: you are worthy of more than you currently believe.
However, what you can’t do is go looking for it while you are still in unrequited love with that person. You need to make positive steps to help yourself move on. If you feel comfortable, confide in a friend. They will understand – but make sure you tell the story in an authentic way. A problem shared is a problem halved. It’s good to have someone to vent to, when those feelings get so intense you need to let them out somehow. It’s okay to need to do that, and it’s okay to not be okay.
What we see Nicky doing is essential to the moving on process. Share your love for that person in ways which are productive for you – e.g. they allow you a source of expression – in a socially acceptable way. When Nicky speaks to Vinnie, what appears to be an act of selflessness to save her friend’s marriage is actually an act of self-compassion and care. She is telling Vinnie all the reasons she loves Morello so that she can move on knowing that Morello will receive the love that she deserves and would be able to provide her with. It is also a form of validation – if another can recognize all of these wonderful qualities in Morello, it means Nicky is not the only one who has seen them. This is both an act of letting go, and moving on.
It’s important to acknowledge the added complications and pressures which are placed on gay relationships. However, they are also capable of producing some of the most wonderfully intense, supportive and wholesome friendships. Sometimes, lines are meant to be blurred. What’s important is that whatever shape a relationship takes, it is equally reciprocal and healthy. These relationships can blossom from ones which begin life with an unequal power dynamic. Although negotiating society’s structures and inequalities are challenging, what lies on the other side can be incredibly beautiful and constructive.
Sometimes, all it takes is for us to step through the door.