For a portion of last summer I spent six weeks on the couch recovering from a horrific kitchen accident involving an avocado, a knife, and my hand.
During this enforced resting time I was anxiously devouring as many television shows I could find. Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and Veronica Mars were my DVDs of choice, so it was slightly ironic that I began to investigate Orange is the New Black, which represents the unspoken side of law enforcement.
My Facebook and Twitter were bursting with raving reviews of the show. I am incredibly skeptical of any media that creates such overwhelming fanfare without critique. But after watching a couple of episodes, I realized that I was missing out on some of the most hilarious, heartbreaking, and fascinating female characters I have ever seen.
In Orange is the New Black, we are introduced to Piper Chapman (Taylor Schiling), a seemingly put-together affluent woman with a supportive – yet somewhat underwhelming – journalist fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs).
Before meeting Larry, Chapman fell in love with a woman (Laura Prepon) who worked for an international drug cartel and helped transport drug money to Europe. Chapman finds herself with a year-long sentence to pay back her debt to society for a crime she committed nearly a decade ago. As soon as Chapman says goodbye to her fiancé in the prison intake room, we fall into a whole new world with her.
This world is inhabited by real women in a society that operates not only on rules established by prison regulators, but on informal ones laid out by guards and inmates alike.
With each episode you are drawn further into the lives of this heterogeneous group of women, as well as Chapman’s day-to-day mishaps. Each instalment includes a fleshed-out backstory of one or more of the characters, where we are confronted with their raw emotion. We see each woman as a holistic human being, challenging our own stereotypes about incarcerated women. Each woman is so much more than what she first appears to be.
My favourite example is Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). At first glance, Miss Claudette is a hardened ‘neat-freak’ who has been in prison for a decade. Her hard work ethic and disdain for messiness make her a prickly bunkmate for the ‘newbie,’ Chapman. When Miss Claudette’s past is exposed, we see the nurturing nature that lies underneath her hardened, no-nonsense exterior.
These flashbacks develop the characters beyond their behaviour in prison, which is often formed to help them survive the new social norms. By allowing the audience to identify with the characters in the ‘real world,’ we see that each woman could be a next-door neighbour, or even a friend.
The show also often takes what Jezebel columnist Laura Beck dubs ‘a non-white point of entry’ to various story elements.
For example, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is concerned with how she is going to look when she is put up in front of the parole board. She tells the stylist that the majority of the board will most like consist of white people. She should look appealing to white women, like the “black best friend in the white girl movie,” in order to appeal to their soft liberal hearts.
The scene uses amazing dark humour, but at the same time is incredibly uncomfortable. It exposes and highlights how pathetic and limited white women’s views are in the context of the larger world.
Whiteness is also not a free pass for solidarity or friendship. Chapman’s feud with religious zealot and junkie Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) highlights the conflict of white privilege.
In the final episode, Chapman is violently confronted by Pennsatucky and discovers that the colour of her skin is irrelevant and no one will save her because of it. In this context, does white privilege extend beyond the poverty line?
I really hopped on the Orange is the New Black bandwagon when I discovered that Jodie Foster directed episode three, which develops the storyline of incarcerated trans-woman Sophia (Laverne Cox). It depicts her struggles not only to keep her family together, but to have her gender identity respected by the doctors and prison system alike.
It would also be impossible not to mention the absolutely phenomenal cast that is assembled for this Netflix series: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Michelle Hurst, Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Samira Wiley, Lea DeLaria, Danielle Brooks, and Uzo Aduba together create an amazing group of characters the audience can easily identify with.
We so rarely get to see women interact with each other in ways that don’t involve men that Orange is the New Black is a breath of fresh air.
The show is far from perfect, as it does occasionally fall back on stereotypes rather than examining some of the issues women face while incarcerated.
However, it does shine an intense light on how poverty and class impact the amount of time served, who is sentenced to do time, and who is on probation.
There are also so many other aspects of the show that this review does not touch on, such as sexuality, religion, family, addiction, loss, relationships, sexual assault, mental health, motherhood, and forbidden love.
The diverse spectrum of women in various shapes, sizes, and ages represented on screen is nothing short of unique, and is something I have yet to see paralleled in any other television drama.