“Orange Is The New Black”: Taking Privilege to Task

2521756Netflix’s brilliant new original series, Orange is the New Black, stars Taylor Schilling as TV’s most unlikely convicted felon. Piper Chapman is a white, upper-middle class, Smith-educated fish-out-of-water in the suffocating air of a low-security women’s prison.

During an excruciating visit with her daughter, Piper’s mother tells her,

Sweetheart, you’re nothing like any of these women.

Initially, at least, she seems right. Piper is engaged to a nice Jewish writer. She lives in Brooklyn, shops at Whole Foods, watches Mad Men and goes on week-long lemon cleanses. In her immediate post-collegiate years, however, she helped her international-drug-smuggling girlfriend traffic money. Now, 10 years and a longterm heterosexual relationship later, she is paying for her crime with 15 months in Litchfield, New York’s fictional federal prison. Did I mention that the show is based on a true story?

Piper is intentionally relatable—a proxy of the Netflix-watching audience who regards her fellow inmates, at least initially, as oddities. Her crime is mostly incidental, an anomaly in the larger Piper Chapman story. She is the demographic exception at Litchfield, not the rule. She assures her concerned mother,

I am not going crazy. I am surrounded by crazy, and I am trying to climb Everest in flip-flops.

From a feminist perspective, this dynamic may seem deeply troubling. And, in certain ways, it is. The show capitalizes on the audience’s affinity for characters who look and sound like them, as if to say She matters because she’s wealthy, white and doesn’t obviously “belong” there. Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, is familiar with this narrative ploy. Weeds, her previous creation, featured Nancy Botwin (Mary Louis Parker) as a suburban, middle-class, white mother who turned to dealing marijuana after the death of her husband.

But in Orange is the New Black, the choice of a privileged protagonist is somewhat more involved, due in part to the show’s complex, intersecting story lines. Luckily, Netflix’s all-at-once downloading model, made especially for binge TV watchers, accommodates this complexity. The storylines are not separated by long gaps of time; they are deeply interconnected and layered. Each episode prominently features a select character, retelling her experiences leading up to her incarceration in flashbacks. There is Red, the ruthless Russian cook; Claudette, the stern Haitian maid; Sophia, the transgender hairdresser;  Nicky, the facetious recovering drug addict; Watson, the former track star; and Sister Ingalls, the nun and political protester.

The show is unafraid of sexuality, queerness and race. Its humor is crass and unapologetic, but Orange is the New Black takes its characters seriously and sympathetically. The women make for compelling characters and believable human beings.

Pennsatucky, a terrifying, born-again ex-junkie who murdered an abortion clinic nurse, is perhaps the most impressive example. Her character is the least forgivable—aggressive, delusional, vulgar—and she makes the secular Piper her unwitting nemesis. But in a moving if brief moment of clemency, we glimpse the poverty and misfortune that underlie her evangelicalism, as she says:

You made the Almighty God into a joke, and a joke ain’t nothing to me. A joke didn’t write me letters up in here. And a joke didn’t give me hope so I could do my time and make something out of it… Do you believe in Hussein Obama? Electric cars and Shakespeare books and do you go out to eat to restaurants? I don’t have any of that, okay. All I have is Him.

Even the characters whose main function is comic relief are developed and animated. Crazy Eyes, a somewhat unstable inmate who is alternately hilarious, frightening and kind, helps an injured Piper to her bed. When she asks, hesitantly, “How come everyone calls me ‘Crazy Eyes’?” her unknowing smile is heartbreaking.

Piper keeps being reminded, even if only momentarily, that the women around her are human and that, while she is separated from them by privilege, she is not so unlike them. In a telling moment of self-awareness, she assures her mother:

I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here. I made bad choices, I committed a crime, and being in here is no one’s fault but my own.

Unlike most of her fellow inmates, though, Piper’s fate was not overdetermined by her race or class. She’s unlike Daya, whose mother occupies the same prison: Piper did not inherit a propensity to illegal activity or a likelihood of getting caught. And she’s unlike Taystee, who leaves “the Litch” only to realize, “Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone. Don’t nobody ask ’bout how my day went.” Piper will be protected by her family, her money and the color of her skin when she gets out.

This is what the show does best: As the narrative tends to each character, it debunks Piper’s prejudices and feelings of superiority and unpacks her privilege. It reminds the audience that each woman is a full person, not an oddity, and it does so with unwavering and addictive wit.

Comments

  1. I absolutely love this series because it demonstrates how Piper comes to terms with her multiple privilege identities! But it also sheds lights on the real life experiences of women in prison, particularly women from low social economic status. I cant wait for season 2!!! I blew through the first season, I might just watch it all over again!

  2. Rebekah says:

    I thought this was a good post, and I’m definitely interested in watching this series now. However, I would recommend not using the word “binge” as it can be very triggering to many people with eating disorders, despite the context of the sentence. Thanks.

    • Rebekah, what about the word ‘crazy’ to the mentally ill? What about the word ‘sexuality’ to rape victims? What about the word ‘addict’ to addict? They are all valid words, properly used. If ‘binge’ is the correct term, then why recommend using a different word that would present misinformation? It’s binge TV watchers. If I avoided every possible trigger of my PTSD I would never be able to function in any kind of society. Words are words, and need to be recognized as essential tools of communication, first and foremost.

    • I have struggled with eating disorders and there’s always gonna be something that could trigger you. It’s about developing the resources to cope in healthy ways, not expecting the world to mold itself to your needs.

  3. I have watch 5 episodes. It is very good. I really like to portrayal of the prisoners. Seem like real people to me. Of course the book’s author actually experienced prison.

  4. Margot Goldstein says:
    • That was a really great review that brought up many issues I hadn’t thought about yet (I’m also not done watching the first season). Thanks for sharing!

    • penny white says:

      Thank You for referring me to that review. I thought I was insane for thinking the show was racist. Whew. Seriously. All of these reviewers I respect so much were gushing about the show, and i was stunned when I watched it. I wish someone would start an internet series called “tropes vs black people.” A lot of very “hip” shows would be highlighted.

  5. Anyone know when season 2 will be out??

  6. Amanda Anais says:

    I read the book by this same title a few years ago. My understanding is that the book is a memoir, and all of the characters are real people. I don’t know how close the series stays to the book, or how close the book stayed to the true experiences of the author. The names of the characters I see in this article are the same names as those the author talks about in her memoir, with the same characteristics and backgrounds. I think it is valuable when thinking about this series that it is based to some degree on a true story – the author / main character’s prejudices and privilege are not fabricated to appeal to an audience (though there is something to be said for why this particular inmate was successful not only in writing a memoir but also in marketing it), the experience she describes in the prison is consciously through the lens of her privilege (she discusses the limitations of her viewpoint at length in the book), and the scenarios and people she meets there are not fictions, but real stories and real human beings.

    • penny white says:

      The problem is, we get an experience of prison through the eyes of a privileged white woman. All of the “real” characters in her book are filtered through her white privileged perspective. I wonder how one of the black or brown women in prison with Piper would have written about HER. How “real” would Piper’s character have been, when filtered through the eyes of an imprisoned black woman? These women are not and cannot be accurately represented by anyone but themselves. And from what I’ve seen of the series, the “real” black characters might not be too thrilled with the rich white lady’s version of who they are. But no one has bothered to ask them. Have they?

    • Karen Lyon says:

      I just read and discussed the book with my book club, and the women who’ve been watching it talked about the differences, so it’s been tweaked. I could see that from just reading the article here. The woman who ran the kitchen was named Pop, not Red, and the nun’s name was not Ingolls. It’s possible they made those changes since they might need permission to use the real names, though. The most egregious change is my mind, is the Pensatucky thing. Pensatucky, for example, was not a murderer……in fact, Kerman makes it clear she had a relatively short sentence of two years. If Pensatucky had been a murderer, she wouldn’t have been in the book, because none of the women in the “Dorms” where Kerman was had done any violent crime — women who were doing “hard time” were in another part of the prison, where women lived in seperate cells, not open dorms. I may sound picky as I point all this out, but I’m just skeptical that the series is done to enlighten anyone about what in prison is like for anyone, white or black, privileged or not.

  7. My husband and I blew through this first season in one week of evening viewings. I found each of the characters easy to relate to and beautiful. Nicky, Sophia, Watson, Taystee, Daya, Crazy Eyes, Red, Sister and Alex really bring out the best/worst in Piper! I loved how their weaknesses weren’t exploited but gently exposed. Piper, the character, is not unlike many whites I know. This is a good opportunity for women to peek in and see themselves in the mirror. So glad Mendes went away! Hated Healy being the bad guy! Can’t wait for season 2!

  8. Karen Lyon says:

    I haven’t seen the series, but some people I know have, and they like it. The book is definitely worth reading, that I can say. I don’t think I will watch the series, either. Not just because I don’t have Netflix (I could watch with a friend, after all) but because I agree with the critique (link) posted by margot goldstein. The series is focused on the memoir aspect (and the usual Hollywood focus on sex, which was not even discussed in the book) Piper Kerman wrote it as “don’t do what I did lesson, but also really wanted people to see how broken the prison system is. She has lots of references for people to access if they want to get involved with change and is an activist herself. Somehow I don’t think the series does justice to that.

  9. Do a good search for Piper Kerman White privilege and see the better things that come up. With the amazing Womanist scholarship and voices that are finally out there, why is Ms consistently so out of touch with how minority women, including poor white women who have family in prisons, feel about everything? Do that search and read the article from DrStiletto and please fucking consider.

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