Monday, July 22, 2013

How Does Orange is the New Black Handle Privilege?

I'm watching the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, and I really, really like it.

For context, I should tell you that I watched Jenji Kohan's other show, Weeds, from beginning to end. I did, at some point, enjoy it, but by the end I felt a little like I was watching the show the same way I finish the vegetables that I scooped onto my dinner plate: out of obligation. The sex as power play, racial stereotypes used for kicks, and mishmash of characters so unlikable as to make me almost apathetic to the conclusion of any of their story lines made me so weary by the end that even the witty writing and entertaining absurdity felt stale.

Orange is the New Black is way better than Weeds. Way better.

The plot is based on the true story of an upper-middle-class woman named Piper who ends up sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security prison because of some poor decisions she made while exploring the boundaries of her own sexuality and the legal system after attending college. The deed didn't catch up to her until a decade later, long after she had given up the life of adventure for one much more typical of her WASP background: lemon cleanses, an engagement to a Jewish writer, and a on-the-edge-of-success artisan soap making business.

Not everyone is happy with the show. I mentioned that I was thinking about watching it, and several of my Facebook friends told me they had started it and couldn't get into it. 

That also seems to be the case for Colorlines writer Jamilah King who says:
I’m still very early into the show, but so far I just don’t think it’s all that funny. I felt the same way about “Weeds”, another show that was created by Jengi Kohan.* I get that I’m supposed to be laughing at the irony of white folks in black situations, but to what end? Both shows seem to traffic in tired racial tropes.
I'll admit that the first few episodes do seem to play up the shock value of its subject matter, hinging on the incongruity of our protagonist being placed somewhere she "doesn't belong."

But the whole show is dedicated to subverting that incongruity. We see the experience through Piper's eyes at first, but the show layers on more and more character development as it goes. I am only seven episodes in, and there has already been a lot of work to demonstrate that Piper belongs in prison just as much as anyone else does. Once we've made that connection, we begin to question who belongs there at all and to what end.

Piper's character is a vehicle for permeating a host of privileges. King says that it is about the "irony of white folks in black situations," but that's not really a fair assessment. There are, after all, twice as many white women in prison as black women in prison. Of course, black women are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their population, so there is definitely racial bias at play in the system (and explored in this show). To say that prison is a "black situation," though, misses a lot of the picture. Almost half (44%) of the women in prison have not completed high school. Female prisoners are more likely to report being on drugs at the time of their incarceration than male prisoners. And almost two-thirds (73%) have a mental health issue (compared to 55% of male prisoners). Prison is definitely a place where privilege gets checked, but it is not just racial privilege. Education, access to health care, environmental, geographical, and class privilege are all in play. (Source: The Sentencing Project)

And just as all of those privileges are in play in real life, they are in play in this show. As individual characters' stories get woven into the fabric of what was originally just Piper's perspective, our view of the world enriches right along with hers. We begin to see that the show's tagline--"Every sentence is a story"--resonates deeply.

Every number on an infographic, every statistic you learn about in a class or on the news, each of those are made up of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of real lives, real stories.

As the Ms. Magazine review of the show says:
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.
Others have also reflected on how the stereotypes are placed there only to be knocked down and the diversity of the cast (in body size, race, sexual preference, and age) is allowing actors who seldom receive major on-screen representation to shine.

If you've heard negative things about the show or even if you started watching it yourself and didn't feel the connection, I urge you to give it another shot. Just as in real life, it can sometimes take a while to start unpacking all of those intertwining complications, but my hope is that both in fiction and in reality the wait will be worth it.

Have you seen the show? What do you think? 


  1. I was definitely hooked - way better than Weeds. I watched them all already. I'd like to read Piper Kerman's book to see what her take on the situation was too.

  2. I really liked the show! I think you might find this post interesting (but very spoiler-y, if you're not finished maybe wait to read it)

  3. I'm going to watch the last episode tonight, so I'll check it out tomorrow!

  4. Thanks for this review! I was entertained and hooked by Weeds (felt similar to you) so I would give this a shot and I had no idea it was the same woman so now I definitely will!

  5. Oops, this is Emma, I messed up signing in.

  6. Angela Holland-SniffJuly 25, 2013 at 8:14 PM

    We've been loving it, and spending a lot of time picking it apart as a couple. We don't blog. ;)

  7. I loved the show, seriously, though toward the end, I had a really hard time sympathizing with Piper. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but for me it almost seemed like there was a shift and the audience wasn't supposed to like her as much. Is it just me?

  8. I finished it, too. I definitely didn't have much sympathy for Piper. To me, she becomes something of a blank space for the other prisoners' stories to be translated through. I really like that move because confronting Piper's privilege (which is often the source of my lack of sympathy for her) forces me to confront my own as well.

  9. I want to read the book, too! I am curious as to how close the show has/will stick to her telling of it or if it's more of an inspiration for a larger account.

  10. I'm 3 episodes in and enjoying it. After the 3rd, my boyfriend no longer wanted to watch with me. He feels like each new episode introduces more conflict than it resolves and he doesn't find that entertaining. I'm fine with conflict as long as there are characters I can latch on to and this show is full of them.