On a recent sweltering day I closed all the windows in my tiny apartment, turned up my struggling AC unit, and sat down to watch what I thought would be one episode of Netflix’s new hit show “Orange is the New Black.” The hype around the show had already gotten to me: a transgender character played by a real live trans woman, a diverse cast of women of color, a decent exploration of queer sexuality, and all in the context of a historically underrepresented space–a women’s correctional facility.
Twelve hours later I peeled myself off the couch and stumbled to bed in a stupor. I even missed a friend’s 30th birthday party. And the next day I was convinced I had just watched something special.
My story is not at all uncommon. This surprising dramedy about a predominantly black and Latina group of women at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Danbury, Conn. (where Lauryn Hill is currently serving her three-month sentence) has taken the U.S. by storm. Not that prison dramas are a new thing–this program follows Fox’s “Alcatraz,” HBO’s “Oz” and even “The Wire”–but “Orange” appears to be in a league of its own.
The wellspring of love for “Orange” has been multicultural. Hashtags including #OrangeIsTheNewBlack and #IThrewMyPieForYou (which references a scene where an inmate throws pie to defend her “prison wife”) have been trending heavily on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr, their users representing a cross section of ages, races and sexual orientations. It’s been applauded widely in the media, with surprisingly limited negative critique. ABC even posted an article of 13 possible coping strategies for recovering from “Orange” withdrawals (including an ill-conceived recommendation that you go visit the facility). The cult of followers also grows daily, and what began as a trickle of social media has grown exponentially per hour with users demanding the next season and commiserating on how it’s taken over their lives.
Still, “Orange” doesn’t get it all right. As Salamishah Tillet aptly points out in The Nation, the show does little to address the issue of sexual assaults in prisons, at times getting dangerously close to suggesting that the women willingly use their sexuality to get things like special food and medication, or better jobs in the prison.
The show certainly reflects the disproportionate rates at which black and brown women are incarcerated in the U.S., but it doesn’t go far enough in exploring this reality, especially in proportion to the entirely white staff of the facility.
And “Orange” often relies on cartoonish representations of people of color, most strongly personified by Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. Played by Uzo Abuda, Crazy Eyes is an erratic, loud black lesbian with a giant smile and bulging eyes who aggressively pursues white lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)–whom she calls “dandelion.” This comes as no surprise: Creator Jenji Kohan has been criticized for her stereotypical depictions of black and Mexican people on her first series, Showtime’s “Weeds.”
Still, I think “Orange” has just the right formula to make up for its race shortcomings. It presents a less common treatment of race and privilege, and offers strong characterizations of transgender people and queer sexuality.
A New(ish) Take on White Privilege
From the moment she walks into the prison, lead character Piper Chapman is confronted with her white and heterosexual privilege. She is a WASPy Smith graduate serving a 15-month sentence for smuggling drug money alongside her post-college girlfriend. Upon arriving in FCI Danbury she likens her prison-issue shoes to TOMs and she can’t seem to shut up about the artisanal bath soaps she’s selling at Barneys. Chapman is quickly accepted by a group of white prisoners though she’s assured by one that “it’s not racist; it’s tribal.” Initially, fear drives her to accept the prison’s racial arrangement (which is quite similar to the one she left in the outside world), but when she accidentally insults the powerful Russian prison cook’s food, she is left alone with no tribe.
A white woman grappling with her diminished privilege in an enclosed space where she is surrounded by people of color is not a typical storyline, but it’s at the center of what moves Chapman’s otherwise obnoxious persona into something that’s quite interesting to watch. And she doesn’t come to terms with her whiteness like, say, Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” a character who suddenly dresses differently and raps with the brown and black youth. Chapman remains a pretty solid nerdy white girl who longs for organic produce and nights at home watching “Mad Men” and wrestles with the favoritism powerful prison officials show her because of her race. And as she copes with her new life, she certainly humbles herself to other inmates experiences.
A Nuanced Look at Queer Identity
Aside from her whiteness, Chapman is frequently confronted with homophobia and heterosexual privilege. Early on in the show, her counselor, Sam Healy, warns her to protect herself from rampant lesbianism. In this scene you watch her stop and think for a moment before she coyly tells him she’s engaged to a man, obviously hoping to shed any suspicion (or perhaps her own conflicted feelings) over her sexual identity. Despite what writer Yasmin Nair describes as an F in class and a C in race, even she and many others agree that “Orange” shines new light on queer sexuality and transgender identity.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor at Feministing.com, says the way ”Orange” portrays transgender character Sofia Burset (Laverne Cox) and explores lesbian sexuality sets the show apart. “I think the trans story line is really powerful,” she says. “You can really tell that the sex scenes aren’t voyeuristic for straight people. It is about survival, female relationships, having sex as a sort of relief in captivity for pleasure and enjoyment, and for feeling less alone in an environment of incarceration.”
Most of the inmates’ attitudes towards sexuality are flexible and open, and this fluidity is treated with both tenderness and humor instead of judgement. The character Morello, played by Yael Stone, is engaged to a man but has sexual relationships with other women in the prison. When Morello decides to stop having sex with one woman it’s not as much from guilt but rather because she’s afraid all the sex will stretch out her vagina. And simply having such a wide spectrum of queer characters moves away from common stereotyping. You certainly have more typical butch and femme dichotemies in the show, but they are mixed in with women who seem simply enjoy having lesbian sex sometimes, a transwoman who is still with the woman she married pre-transition, and the complex emotional love triangle between Chapman, her fiancee, and her ex-girlfriend who’s also on the inside.
Pluses and Minuses
As others have pointed out, however nuanced the treatment of white and heterosexual privilege is on “Orange,” a straight, white woman remains at the center. It’s difficult to imagine that the memoir upon which the dramedy is based or the show would be so popular if they were accounts of, say, a woman of color taking a brief spin in a life of crime and landing a 15-month sentence.
Michelle Materre, a TV and film producer, professor of media studies at the New School, and organizer of the “Creatively Speaking” film series highlighting work by people of color, says the prison-theater documentary “Walk With Me” by Tanisha Christie deals with the same topics without the pitfalls of negative stereotypes. She also pointed to Ka’ramuu Kush’s film “And Then…” and the web series Brett and the City as examples of film and television that give more accurate portrayals of black and brown people but continue to be overlooked by mainstream media in place of a hyped TV dramedy like “Orange.”
While Materre has a valid point, it seems that most critics and viewers are suspending this kind of critique. Unlike the drama Devious Maids, whose producer Eva Longoria was called on to answer for the show’s negative portrayal of Latinas, there hasn’t been loud outcry against “Orange” or Jenji Kohan.
Perhaps the Netflix TV format, where you can digest an entire series in the course of one lazy Saturday, has something to do with it. As the show evolves, the more interesting women in the prison take Chapman out of focus. While she starts to come across as extremely selfish, short-sighted, and, as her ex-prison-wife Crazy Eyes describes her, not a very nice person, you have the opportunity to sit for hours and watch as the lives of the other characters unfold. The viewer can become emotionally invested in their stories in a way that might be different given a week between shows.
So while it’s true that “Orange” lacks texture in many areas and doesn’t go far enough in the connecting race with incarceration, somehow it’s entertaining enough to keep me watching. And with the sustained dominance of problematic reality shows, the series gives me something a lot closer to what I’m looking for: a woman-centered show that puts gender, sexuality and race up front.