Orange Is the New Black is a Netflix original series based off Piper Kerman’s acclaimed memoir of the same name. The on screen adaptation, produced by Jenji Kohan (creator of Weeds), is centred on the character Piper Chapman’s time in the Litchfield, NY federal prison and the women she encounters during her confinement.
Jenji and her team have created an incredible series that brings light to important issues that we don’t often (if ever) get to see on TV. When we think of prison, the ideas of crime, violence, drugs, etc. come to mind. While Jenji’s team does explore those topics, there is so much more to talk about. Through the eyes of a first time offender new to the prison world, the audience is compelled to put themselves in Piper’s taupe khakis and vicariously live the experience with her.
Jenji has taken a story about a women’s experience in a women’s prison and used her as a catalyst for unearthing the realities of many women in that prison. Orange Is the New Black eloquently is brings humanity to a variety of issues. Let’s look at these issues: Abuse, sexual orientation, gender and sex representation and bonds between women.
Abuse: A show about prison would not be complete without including abuse. We see abuse and assault frequently on TV, though it is rare that viewers take it seriously. Orange Is the New Black extends the content of abuses of drug, emotional, sexual and physical by again adding humanity to the form of abuse inflicted on the women. The cast expertly depicts various forms of power dynamics with raw emotions from the abuser(s) and abused.
Sexual Orientation: It is common to see female partnerships on TV nowadays; however, Jenji does it in a different way. The show depicts how sexuality can be fluid. This is shown with Piper’s past relationship with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) and her current one with fiancé Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs). Also, it is demonstrated through the various stories of the incarcerated women. The Orange Is the New Black writing team puts it out there that sexuality can be anywhere from bonafied lesbians/bisexuals, to casual sex, to female touch. They daringly put it out there that women are sexual beings and sexuality does bend, even within prison when it is strictly prohibited.
Gender and Sex Representation: Gender is of course separate from gender in that sex is your anatomy and gender is a social construct consisting of characteristics/traits, expression and roles. This is another topic that Jenji does extremely well. Orange Is the New Black breaks down the gender binary of either masculine or feminine and has characters that fit somewhere on a sliding scale. For starters, never have I seen butch dykes on TV (and we’re not talking Shane-butch). It was refreshing to see Lea Delaria’s character, Big Boo, in all her butch glory. However, it isn’t just the lesbians that diverge from the western gender idealization. Gender can be expressed in a variety of ways such as actions, appearances and relations. Jenji and her team have created a beautiful gender diverse group of women. Furthermore, I have never seen a storyline of a trans* woman done with such integrity and humanity. The show highlights some of the very real and particular challenges that trans* people face in prisons. I was thoroughly impressed that Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) was played by a trans* woman and activist.
Bonds Between Women: Piper’s strategy in surviving her sentence is to keep to herself and maybe she can come out unscathed. She learns really quickly that that is nearly impossible. The audience watches Piper struggle through maintaining alliances, never fully seeming to belong to any one group. As viewers, we start to see that alliances are based on the bonds between the women. Yes, there are nasty fights and wars between people/groups, however through this we are able to see the compassion, empathy and loyalty the women can have for one another. There are maternal, sister and friendship bonds between the women, which if nothing else teaches the audience a thing or two about solidarity. For whatever motives the women have to protect one another, we see that strength that women are capable of.
What is great about this show is that it is run by women, stars women and most importantly, is all about women. Jenji and her team did an excellent job showing women of all shapes, sizes, colours, ages, sexualities and genders in prison. Of course, the conditions within prisons across North America are not the same as what we see in the show. North American prisons are engendered by serious violence and abuse, harsh daily living conditions and systemic discrimination. However, the cast and crew did such an amazing job surveying the different lived experiences of the women incarcerated. So great that we see pieces of our own oppressions, fears, battles and scars through the telling of the character’s stories.