As I prepare to teach a Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Popular Culture class this coming spring, I have been looking for an example of a television show or film that can start out the term, offering a strong jumping off point for our feminist analyses of pop culture. And I am thrilled to have found it in Netflix’s newest original series, Orange is the New Black.
[Spoilers ahead, so only make the jump if you have seen the show; if you haven’t yet seen it, stop reading and go watch it]
Orange is the New Black is loosely based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her 15 months in federal prison. While the show changes her last name to Chapman, the details about her past are the same: Piper, freshly graduated from Smith College, got involved with a woman who worked for an international drug cartel. Caught up in the passion and adrenaline of the new relationship, Piper assisted with a single money laundering transaction by picking up a bag of money from the airport. After the whirlwind romance became more stressful than exciting, Piper left the girlfriend and the lifestyle. The show introduces us to Piper eight years later, living in New York City and engaged to Larry Smith, a nice, dependable, unemployed writer who knows nothing of her past. But the past comes back, and Piper is named in the federal case against the drug cartel; everything she has been working towards is put on hold as she is wrenched from her “good life” and thrown into prison for this decade-old crime.
Orange could have stayed safe, showing prison solely from Piper’s perspective, as Kerman’s memoir does. The real Piper had few conflicts in prison; she made friends with many of her fellow inmates, maintained her relationship with Larry, and did her time quietly. She and Larry are now married and parents to a young son, and Kerman works as an advocate for prisoners.
But the show doesn’t play it safe and this is precisely why it succeeds when viewed through a number of feminist lenses. Jenji Kohan, the producer of Showtime’s series Weeds, uses Kerman’s memoir only as the jumping off point for a richly developed multi-perspective series. While Piper’s main storyline is interesting, as she discovers herself – and ex-girlfriend Alex – behind bars, it’s the characters around her that give the show its heft.
This is due to the fact that the show pulled in an incredible crop of actresses, women who often are sidelined due to the fact that network television and film have such a narrow window of “acceptable” sizes, ethnicities, ages, and looks. Kohan noted this in an interview with Daniel Fienberg for hitfix.com, saying, “You know, it was an embarrassment of riches. […] I would get these audition tapes and it was just one after the other, so good. So we started creating more characters because we wanted to use more of the girls we saw in the audition tapes. There were just so many great Latina actress and black actresses that hadn’t had the opportunity to really do this thing […]”
The cast helps raise the show above other female-oriented series that are often criticized for their lack of diversity. I can’t think of another show or film I have ever seen that has this much female diversity in it. Orange also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. It takes place in a women’s prison, so, naturally, there are multiple women seen talking to one another about things other than just men.
Orange succeeds in touching on many feminist issues without straying too far into melodrama or didacticism. Here are a couple of the storylines, characters, and themes that I found most interesting as a feminist viewer; there’s a lot to offer, and I’m curious to know what characters and plot lines you were most drawn into.
Prisons as Bad Business
Orange is deeply subversive in its portrayal of the American prison-industrial complex, sharing this criticism with Postmodern and Socialist Feminist theories, among others. But no one is making any lengthy speeches here about incarceration for one mistake or for committing a crime because the deck was stacked against a person or a group from the start; the characters tell their stories and let you think about how unfair our judicial system is. Most of these women are in prison for a non-violent, often drug related, offense (something they share with the majority of real-life female offenders); if the system was willing to get at the root causes of the crimes, the show argues, we could avoid a lot of meaningless time served and lives ruined (both for those serving time and those they leave behind). Piper Kerman advocates for community service over prison time for non-violent crimes and it’s easy to see why with the characters Orange gives us.
Miss Claudette is one of the best examples of this. Piper’s roommate is serving time for human trafficking, one of today’s most serious and newsworthy crimes; however, her backstory reveals that she was trafficked to the U.S. from Haiti as a child and stayed with the group that brought her to the states. Her trafficking organization brings young girls from troubled countries, offering them a place to stay and “employing” them as domestic help while the girls pay down their parents’ bill with the traffickers. (Yes, Miss Claudette did murder a man who had severely beaten one of the girls from her house cleaning business, but her impeccable cleaning skills indicate that she was never caught for that crime.) Her story is one of the most tragic of Season 1, as Miss Claudette briefly allows herself to hope for early parole and that dream is crushed; after her parole is denied, she attacks a guard. Immediately, Miss Claudette is carted off “down the hill” to the Maximum Security prison, where she will most likely remain for the rest of her life.
For those who remain, the prison’s GRE program has been shut down due to toxic mold in the classroom, the exercise facilities, including the outdoor track, are always on the brink of closure, the AA group shares space with yoga classes, Suzanne notes that their prison doesn’t get to do “Shakespeare and shit,” and most of the inmates’ jobs are menial or meaningless.
We also get a good look at the realities of SHU (Solitary Housing Unit). SHU is a feared place and rightfully so. When Piper is thrown in SHU in the “F*cksgiving” episode, for “lesbianing” (dancing suggestively with ex-girlfriend Alex), her couple of days in there completely break her down. Piper is bombarded by screams and curses from the other solitary prisoners, she is served moldy food (not that the cafeteria food is much better, at least while Red is running the kitchen), and her loneliness is so palpable that she begins talking to an imaginary person through the vent. On the plus side, her solitary confinement also sparks one of the strongest changes in her since her incarceration began, demonstrated literally by the best transformation walk since Kaiser Soze revealed his true form in The Usual Suspects.
If you watch to the end of the clip, you’ll also see something that the show succeeds at: a sex-positive message. Most of these women are in control of their sex lives and the physical relationships are varied, spicy, and satisfying. We also see that sex happens for a lot of reasons: some women are in love, some are in lust, some want the protection that an inmate like “Big Boo” can provide, and some just need to feel less alone. When Sophia is fixing Piper’s hair in one scene, an overwhelmed Piper begins to cry because it has been three weeks since she had been touched by another person. Since I am not a fan of pop culture’s glamorization of infidelity, I’m not completely on the Piper-Alex train, but the inmates’ need for intimacy (and the price they pay for not having that) is obvious. Part of Miss Claudette’s breakdown comes from her lack of human contact for so long; the hope for a reunion with her beloved Baptiste is stolen away and she snaps.
Materialism and Make-Up
For anyone critical of popular culture’s focus on materialism, Orange is a wonderful antidote. There are no closets full of shoes a la Sex In the City here; these women wear one outfit in prison (two if they are newcomers, as they start out in orange and transition to khaki), little jewelry, and next to no make-up. In flashbacks, we can see characters who relied on a good deal of makeup before they were locked up (and it looks odd on Piper’s character since we’re so used to seeing her in her natural state- although I know television uses a lot of make-up to get at that “natural” look). While some of the inmates spend their commissary money and barter with people for make-up, the one item they choose explains their character beautifully. Alex needs to apply her eye liner to feel like herself and Sophia creates a homemade red lipstick out of Kool-Aid and Vasoline.
Possessions are also dealt with in a fashion that many feminists will appreciate. The inmates can bring almost nothing in with them, so they are forced to be creative when physical items are needed. The final episode of the season features a Secret Santa exchange among some of the inmates; the gifts they craft for one another are lovely in their intimacy (and in Nicky’s case, a great deal of intimacy is achieved!), and it’s enjoyable to get to know the characters throughout by seeing the few things they need. Nicky has her music player and Miss Claudette has her picture of Denzel Washington. Taystee gives a great speech about the merits of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire versus James Joyce’s Ulysses (which most English majors will appreciate), Red is seen reading Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, and a screwdriver helps an inmate in unexpected ways. By stripping away all of the things we use to hide our selves, Orange gets to the heart of who these women are.
Pregnancy and Motherhood
Many Feminist Theories deal with the positives and negatives of pregnancy, motherhood, and abortion, topics that are deftly handled on Orange. Piper’s friend and business partner Polly is pregnant in the first two-thirds of the show; Polly’s experience with privileged pregnancy and motherhood provides a stark contrast to the pregnancies that progress inside the prison walls.
One of the most devastating storylines of the season focuses on Maria, a minor character who goes into labor while incarcerated (in Episode 8, “Moscow Mule”). Instructed not to return to the medical desk until her contractions are “closer together,” Maria is coached through early labor by her friends and fellow inmates. When the ambulance finally comes for her, her fear and isolation are palpable in those final moments before they wheel her out. The next morning, Maria comes back with empty arms, her eyes blank and her face slack with shock. The camera pans over her fellow inmates, whose expressions reflect her own grief and pain. Maria spends days in bed, refusing to eat or talk to anyone, as she works through the devastation of having to return to prison without her child.
Maria’s storyline demonstrates one of the skillful methods the Orange writers use to bring attention to a real life issue without descending into didacticism. Most female inmates don’t get any pre-natal classes to help them deal with the pain of labor. Their partners aren’t present for the labor and birth, and many states (including the one I live in) have laws that keep women shackled to the bed while they labor and deliver. The new mothers spend less than 24 hours with their baby, after which the newborn is given over to family members or foster care. As this article demonstrates, being pregnant and giving birth while incarcerated is certainly a lonely and demoralizing emotional experience, and possibly a terrifying and extremely painful physical experience. The real-life Piper is on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, which is fighting to change the way female inmates are treated, including during pregnancy and birth; you can get involved here..
On another side of the pregnancy spectrum, Tiffany “Pennsatucky’s” backstory includes murdering a nurse at an abortion clinic after the nurse insults her for the number of abortions she has received. But the show asks the question without asking it: why does a woman like Pennsatucky get abortions (which are costly and more dangerous, particularly after so many) when birth control is much less expensive, less invasive, and much safer option? The backstory also gives nuance to a character who originally came across as the stereotypical dumb Evangelical hick. Her “conversion” scene, in a courtroom with all of her new pro-life friends around her, illuminates the fact that Pennsatucky is actually insane. When her attempts to heal people through the power of her connection to Jesus turn dangerous, she is put in the Psychiatric ward, where drugs take the place of any real attempt to help her.
My favorite character by the end of the season was Suzanne (Piper’s “wife” for a nanosecond at the start of the series). Suzanne is played by Broadway actress Uzo Aduba, a performer who proves that aspiring actors should always get theatre training and experience (Aduba has incredible diction and levels of concentration). Suzanne is my favorite example of a character the writers let you think you understand before they show you how shallow your initial impression was. Suzanne, nicknamed Crazyeyes by the other inmates, is this season’s biggest mystery character: her parents, who are white, visit once but provide no answers to her crime, she is emotionally unstable at times but brilliant, lucid and heartbreaking at other times, and, most mysterious of all, she can perform Shakespeare monologues like a pro (the following is a video of the “best of Crazyeyes” clips; forward to 1:37 if you want to see the monologue lead-up):
Did you recognize her speech? I didn’t (and I have read a lot of “Shakespeare and shit”). That’s because Suzanne’s not quoting from one of the “usual” Shakespeare plays, like Hamlet or Othello; this speech is from Coriolanus!
Suzanne is lonely and misunderstood (the segment of her crying as she finds out what Piper really thought of her was a tear-jerker); her instability also shows our country’s practice of incarcerating people who would be better served with psychological care. Lucky for us, Aduba was promoted to a series regular for Season 2, so I’m hoping we get Suzanne’s back story, more performance opportunities for her, and the reason why she is serving time.
Sophia is played by Laverne Cox, an actress and famous transgender activist. Sophia’s backstory shows her when she was a fire fighter and started stealing credit card numbers in order to finance her surgeries and new life. The early flashback scenes of Sophia, when Sophia had a man’s physical form, are played by Cox‘s twin brother, M. Lamar, in the most intimate form of role-playing I have ever seen. I cannot imagine the connection the two of them must have, since Lamar performs the role of a person who went through the same physical transformation his twin did.
As Sophia, Cox performs the unique vulnerabilities a transsexual inmate has, including harassment from male guards and fellow inmates to the dangers of losing healthcare and hormone pills that are essential to her life. Sophia handles her inmate life with grace and humor, but when it comes to her outside life, the waters are muddier.
In the flashbacks, we are able to witness the deep love that Crystal and Sophia have for one another, but we also see Crystal’s pain as her husband Marcus transitions to Sophia. Sophia clings to any connection with her son (in one moving scene, she shows off a card she received from home, as it’s clear that Michael signed this one himself) and part of her grief when Crystal acknowledges a need to move on from the marriage is due to the fact that she fears losing her wife and son to a new man. Next season will bring some answers to those fears.
One of the most successful relationships is the friendship between Taystee and Poussey. Other than any scene with Nicky (played by the amazing Natasha Lyonne), I rewind the scenes between Taystee and Poussey the most. Taystee is the only inmate whose “after” story we get to see, and it’s as tragic as most of their “before” stories. While it’s completely unrealistic that an inmate would make it back into the same federal prison so quickly after release, her return gives us a chance to hear why prison can be safer for some women than the outside.
The biggest criticism I have about the show is that the male characters are not well developed. While I understand that the show isn’t about them, this isn’t an acceptable excuse when a television show or movie isn’t about female characters. It doesn’t take a lot of screen time to create nuance to a character; we have so much more invested in someone like Yoga Jones because of three short but crucial scenes between her and Jenae, the former trackstar. But for some reason, the backstories or additional off work scenes for the male characters do nothing to make them more human. Not all of the male characters, like the female characters, need to have a lot of depth (let’s leave Luschek as he is), but the ones who we should be invested in need more shading to them.
While the show has many visceral moments guaranteed to gross out some viewers (a used tampon on bread is Red’s punishment to Piper for insulting the food; we see a lot of toilet use and noses running), the only moment I found completely disgusting was supposed to be a romantic moment between Daya and Bennett.
In a stolen moment in the yard, Daya chews some of Bennett’s tobacco before spitting it out in disgust. After he comments that the chewing tobacco is stuck between her teeth, Daya asks Bennett to scrape it out with the post of her earring. This moment was underscored by the Daya-Bennett romantic musical theme, but I felt nothing but my gut churning for the entire sequence. This is another criticism I have of the show; while most of the friendships, hook-ups, and relationships are crafted carefully, designed to reel us in, the Daya-Bennett relationship is bland. While it leads to an interesting story arc involving Pornstache and Red, the relationship itself could be shelved (but won’t now that Daya’s pregnant) and I wouldn’t miss it at all. I resent the number of minutes we have to spend on it, minutes which could be devoted to the far more interesting relationships on the show.
If the show helps us see where the “golden age” of television can go – with strong female characters, feminist messages, and thought-provoking socially relevant storylines – I don’t care if they ever use the “F” word. It’s my vote for best feminist show on television and I can’t wait to see what Season 2 has in store for us.