It’s not an unproblematic love. I’m well aware that as a privileged television viewer–one who has never been incarcerated and most likely never will be–there’s necessarily something lopsided about my enjoyment of a prison drama. A prison dramedy, even, as this show can be very funny. But I think it’s a well-made show that does some valuable things, as shows go.
A lot of the conversation about Orange is the New Black revolves around whether or not it is a realistic depiction of life in prison. Let’s go ahead and settle that debate for the purposes of this post: it’s not. How can it be? And why should it be? It’s riveting television: hours of boredom and dreary routine have to be collapsed to make way for plot advancement; some aspects of the prison complex must be exaggerated and others must be downplayed in the service of narrative and character arcs. For example, with the exception of Piper’s first stint in solitary, we only get to know the horror of SHU by the way people look when they come back from it; Piper’s Thanksgiving SHU experience will probably be the only time the show spends much time in a solitary cell, because without the narrative frame of “new girl’s first SHU” there’s not much you can do with it storywise. It’s not a realistic depiction, it’s realistic fiction: its purpose is to present situations that could happen, place them in a coherent narrative, and in so doing provide us with insight into the time and place of its setting as well as our own.
And as a fictional narrative, this show does that extremely well.
- Drawing from Piper Kerman’s experience and additional research, the show depicts more of prison life than most viewers will ever see, and has sparked a great deal of interest in prison conditions. That’s a meaningful step, and I have to say that it works on me: I find myself reading reports and articles about prison life that I might well have skipped otherwise, because now I have a frame of reference for it.
But in a fictional narrative, imprisonment also works as a conceit for other types of containment and restriction. Since it’s a women’s prison, we see again and again the ways the female characters are trapped because of being women. For an easy example: Season 2 opens with Piper overhearing a lewd conversation among COs referring to women as “poochies;” one CO explains that he can no longer say “bitch” because it’s degrading. Piper’s face shows how she feels about being subjected to this conversation, but obviously she is not in a position to give one of her signature prim corrective speeches. And how many of us have had to swallow our words because speaking up about sexism will open up a world of trouble? [Link goes to a classic Shakesville piece on daily negotiations with sexism.]
- Of course, sexism is not the only oppression at play in this show, and Piper’s sheltered character introduces a lot of sharp criticisms of race and class privilege. Piper is often criticized for being the least interesting character who is given way too much screentime; I don’t disagree, exactly, but I also really love what the show does with her. She’s very recognizable to me as a product of a certain kind of education and upbringing; I find it hilarious when she goes off on her little rants about how “The Road Less Traveled” is commonly misinterpreted or how emperor penguins care for their young. She could easily be someone I know: over-educated by birthright and irritatingly proud of it.
In Season 2, Piper goes off on a loud public rant about how she understands that she received her furlough because she’s white but it shouldn’t matter because she’s going to see her beloved grandmother. It’s hard to watch–I’m not much for cringe comedy–but I’m glad it’s included. Piper learns a lot in the course of this show but there are a great many things she resists learning; her little cafeteria rant about race gives voice to white resistance you can plainly see anywhere on the internet anytime a nonwhite person is speaking about their lived experience of injustice, and I’m frankly glad that OitNB shows us how pointless and wrong it is to be that person. Sometimes Piper’s narrow-sighted naivete offers a lesson in How Not To Be.
- One more for Piper: I also love/hate her character for her insatiable need to be liked. Piper’s need to be liked drives her to do and say some completely stupid things: for one minor example, she gets a little miffed when Luscek refers to Alex as “the hot one” (as opposed to Piper); more egregiously, she argues with Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” that she (Piper) is too a nice person, despite the fact that she has deeply hurt Suzanne’s feelings. Piper is an asshole, and has no idea she’s an asshole; when she does have her occasional flashes of insight and realizes that she’s a total tool, self-awareness brings her to her knees more painfully than any external antagonism.
On the other hand, her need to be liked also leads her to do some genuinely nice things for other inmates, and form a legitimate bond with other inmates such as Miss Claudette, so that’s nice to see.
- Enough about Piper. The next few things I love are similar to other Things I’ve Loved about other shows, but they are still are unusual enough to be noted–starting with the fact that this show is almost entirely about women! Here is a critically respected show with an enormous ensemble cast and almost all of that cast is women. Women of many races and ages and sexualities and backgrounds! Although the male characters get just enough backstory that we can see their complexity and feel sorry for them if we so choose–even the Big Bad of Season 1, Pornstache–it’s really not about them. Honestly, I could do with even less of certain men, like Boring Larry, but then if we didn’t have some reasons to sympathize with him, we might get too sympathetic with Piper. (Truly they are two of a kind; my grandmother would say that it’s a shame to waste two houses on them.)
- Did I mention women of all races? Women of various races who have their own friendships, rivalries, and interests that have nothing to do with the white “main character.” It seems pretty basic, but it’s rare. (Here’s an older but still relevant post from the Angry Black Woman about the need for a Bechdel Test-style rubric for nonwhite characters.)
- Female desire is obviously foregrounded in this show–in a closed system of women, most of the romantic plots are between women. This is one of the points on which the show is often criticized, actually: lesbian action is so often eroticized for a male gaze in visual media that it’s really difficult to depict same-sex sex without traipsing a little into erotica territory. Fair. But what’s remarkable about the show is that female characters get to to be sexy and sexual without necessarily conforming to conventional (i.e. male, heterosexual) standards of desirability. Women express desire and desirability whether or not they wear makeup and fix their hair. They express sexuality regardless of size, appearance, or age. Toward the end of season 2, longtime inmate Red lays back on her medical seg bed with her face all bruised and discolored, and purrs like a cat as she talks about sex with her husband. Why shouldn’t she? But then, how often do we get to see older women depicted as sexual without it being a joke?
- Speaking of sexuality–I really enjoyed this piece by the OitNB writer who realized she was gay while working on the show. I was gratified to see that this is the writer who was responsible for that sweet scene between Piper and Alex when Alex tells her “I heart you.” Cheesy, absolutely–that’s why it’s perfect. Alex is definitely a character who is afraid of being vulnerable, so of course she would try to throw a Cloak of Plausible Deniability over her admission of love. In general, I think the writing on this show is great–very smart, very sharply observed, very revealing of various characters’ fears and longings.
- There are so many characters and I can’t think of one who I could do without. Even in Season 1, which had the busy work of introducing them all and setting the major plot points in motion, allowed even the minor characters to have little moments which revealed their motivations and personalities. Season 2 really opened up a lot of those storylines, and for the most part they are consistent with those little glimpses we saw in Season 1. It’s all about the long game, as more than one character has noted.
For more thoughts on the series–some positive, many not–see the Round Table at Public Books. For fun, an insider view on how hair and makeup achieves some of the main characters’ signature looks.
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