Orange is the New Black
About: Orange Is the New Black is an American comedy-drama series created by Jenji Kohan and first released on Netflix on July 11, 2013.The series, produced by Tilted Productions in association with Lionsgate Television, is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, about her experiences in prison. The second season premiered on June 6, 2014 at 3:00 am EST. The series has been renewed for a third season.
Plot: The series revolves around Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a bisexual woman living in New York City who is sentenced to 15 months in a women’s federal prisonfor transporting a suitcase full of drug money to her former girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), who is an international drug smuggler/mule. The offense occurred ten years prior to the start of the series, and in that time Piper had moved on to a quiet, law-abiding life among New York’s upper middle class. While in prison, Piper is reunited with Alex (who was in prison before Piper but then grassed on her so they could be together), and they re-examine their relationship and deal with their fellow inmates.
This show is much more than just good and I’ll tell you why in a bit. I’ll just say, Orange is the New Black is revolutionary. Usual representations of girls in prison are clichéd, unrealistic porno versions. This commentary assumes you know the story and are familiar with the characters.
In the book by the head of women’s studies at South Carolina University, 3rd Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts It In A Box, I am called a 3rd Wave Feminist so this article is filtered through a 3rd Wave Feminist sensibility:
In contrast to first-wave feminism, which focused on the right of a woman to vote, and second-wave feminism, which was centered around equality in the workplace and the fight for reproductive rights, third-wave feminism was mostly about fishnet stockings, excessive wordiness, and the belief that lesbian erotica is somehow empowering… a third-wave feminist would frequently tell everyone within earshot that, fuck yes, she is a bitch and a slut, and what are you going to do about it, huh, bitch?
Season 2 fleshes out most of the characters by providing back-story – we find why they are in prison. I call Season 2 the season of pain. We see so much anguish or despair or trauma. Morello loses Christopher, Poussey lost the love of her life in Germany, Piper’s grandmother… Elderly inmate with dementia will likely die, Suzanne is majorly manipulated by her mother figure — Vee, Mendoza was domestically abused, Rosa is dying of cancer. The first season focused on Piper and while she is still a focus, the other characters are given more screen-time in the new season.
Piper’s arc is fabulous. She starts out as a timid, straight, princess and becomes a bad-ass, dyke-hero. Her addiction to Alex is classic and I want them to end up together. My feeling is that Piper is a very layered character. She has integrity. When she initially learns that Alex was responsible for her being in jail, she owns up to her crime and still chooses Alex, not Larry, to be her lover. When Alex plays her AGAIN in court in Season 2 we still route for them.
Kate Mulgrew as Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov and Lorraine Toussaint as Vee Parker are formidable adversaries. There is so much age-ism in popular entertainment that showing older capable, independent and fabulous women is unique.
Red and Vee are presented as tough women who have lots of street smarts. Because they are older, they have experience with unusual people and events. They bring this experience to prison life and create lives for themselves, which are less of a knee-jerk reaction and much more deliberate strategy.
Orange is the New Black is revolutionary because it challenges and re-defines power, voice, sexuality, aging and gender-roles in addition to much more. I still believe that straight men are getting off to the girl-on-girl action but this action looks very different here. Bringing sexuality into a new realm is so liberating.
Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset, a transgender character – is sexy and smart. How many times has a trans character been represented on TV? Her presence is very important. She is accepted by the other inmates, has family struggles and in Season 1 – hormone pill issues. It is wonderful that she is complex and layered.
Lea Delaria as Big Boo is likewise quite amazing. She plays a very out-there bull dyke. To show a large woman taking care of her own desire is very new. Her sex-contest in Season 2 with Natasha Lyonne as Nicky Nicols puts the power of female sexuality on an amazing level and puts the idea of ‘power’ squarely in female terms.
Sexuality in Orange is the New Black does not speak to the male voyeur, it speaks to a Queer, female audience. When I use the term ‘Queer’ I mean ‘Twisted’ or norm-challenged. Sure, the women who watch the show might be gay, bi, straight, trans-gendered etc. but their commonality is a new lens, a new way of watching TV. Men also experience a new lens but the meanings here differ. A different kind of pornography is enabled for many men and for many women.
I once wrote an article about straight women desiring gay male characters in the television show Queer As Folk. I know that an intended audience often over-laps with an unexpected one – that is probably happening here. I do believe that straight men are watching the show. I would be surprised to learn that they are the intended audience.
We are not used to these images of women. Most of these women do not need men to feel beautiful or have sex. Many of these women do not participate in beauty or dominant sex culture. Many of the women swear, are big, are unkempt, fight, are loud and have opinions. So you see, even if straight men are using the show as pornography, it is subversive pornography. These aren’t beauty queens [but some are – eg. Lorna Morello] enacting male versions of what women do together. These are women owning power, voice and sexuality. There is strength here. There is freedom.
Another important part of this wave of feminism is sex-positivity, a celebration of sexuality as a positive aspect of life, with a broader definition of what sex means and what oppression and empowerment may imply in the context of sex… many third-wave feminists challenge existing beliefs that participants in pornography and sex work are always being exploited.
We do not see women as victims here. That does not mean everything is a bed of roses. Even roses have thorns but you never see a ‘woe is me’ or ‘why me?’ mentality. Piper often will say that she is responsible for being in prison. Sure some women cry, some are beat-up…this is living in the world and having sucky experiences.
Uzo Aduba as Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren is absolutely ‘played’ by Vee and is very distressed about it. The event says much more about Vee actually. Many of the women here have had horrid experiences.
There is a difference between ‘being a victim’ and ‘being victimized. A friend noted a distinction I thought was apt: ‘holding onto a frame of mind where one sees oneself as a victim.’ Being ‘played’ is not the same as being a victim. Suzanne was victimized by Vee but she is not a victim. She, like many women, is a survivor.
This television show empowers women. It is hopeful and embodies an alternative way of ‘being.’ Orange Is the New Black moves beyond ‘entertainment’ by including alternative representations of women. In my mind, this is not only phenomenal but very, very important.