The most hotly debated TV series of the summer, “Orange Is the New Black,” can’t figure out if it’s a quirky comedy about a twee white debutante being shocked-just-shocked at the people and the predicaments surrounding her in a low-security prison … or, if it’s a dark, diverse drama about the institutional injustices large and small that work to dehumanize incarcerated women, especially those of color.
The public conversation swirling around Netflix’s original series “Orange Is the New Black” has hit all the points on the love/hate spectrum. While some, like Salamishah Tillet in the Nation, Yasmin Nair in In These Times, and Salon’s Roxane Gay have seen both strengths and weaknesses in the show, more often critical reception has vacillated between glowing praise and biting evisceration from journalists and viewers alike.
And since “OITNB” tries to have it both ways, this week’s installment of “Cringe OR Binge” is devoted solely to one piece of media that deserves critique and praise in equal measure. For the first time, welcome to “Cringe AND Binge.”
Choices. It’s nice to have them, isn’t it?
In the memoir that spurred the eponymous Netflix series, Piper Kerman, a moneyed WASP with a diploma from Smith College, an outsize sense of entitlement, and a brief stint as a bit player in an international drug ring (for which she spends a year in the joint a decade later), writes:
It was hard for me to believe that the nature of our crimes was what accounted for my fifteen-month sentence versus some of my neighbors’ much lengthier ones. I had my fantastic private attorney and a country-club suit to go with my blond bob.
Kerman’s right, of course: as the massive disparity in incarceration rates between white and non-white Americans indicates, the nature of people’s crimes has precious little to do with how and whether they’re punished (see Autostraddle for extensive data on this). Yet Piper Chapman, Kerman’s semi-fictionalized TV counterpart, has no such awareness of the structural biases – including race, class, mandatory minimum sentencing, the multiple tentacles of the failed War on Drugs, and the profitability of the prison-industrial complex, among others – that resulted in her relatively short sentence. Instead, over the course of 13 episodes, show runner Jenji Kohan has Chapman repeatedly lamenting the “wrong choices” she made that landed her in lockup, a mantra superimposed onto all the women doing time in “Litchfield” (“OITNB’s” version of real-life Danbury Federal Correctional Institution).
This emphasis on “bad choices” hobbles the “sharp sociological critique” critic Daniel Fienberg claims “OITNB” offers. Sure, if you pay attention you might catch a passing comment here or there from ensemble characters like Poussey, a black inmate whose back story we won’t learn until Season 2, who notes that lots of those women are “doing fifteen years for letting their boyfriends do deals in the kitchen ’cause they was afraid of getting beat if they said no.” But such insights fly by without much narrative heft, their substance outweighed by the dominant theme of women bringing prison on themselves.
In Episode 7, sweet-natured rookie guard Susan Fischer tells Chapman, whose groceries she used to bag in Red Hook, that, “As far as I’m concerned, you and me are the same,” because “the only difference between us is when I made bad decisions in life, I didn’t get caught. It could’ve been me here in khaki, easy.” Likewise, during a visitation scene in the previous episode, Chapman’s stuffy, wealthy mother tells her she’s “nothing like any of these women,” disdain dripping from her lips as if she’d tasted the moldy mystery loaf her daughter had to consume in solitary. “Mom, I need you to hear what I’m going to say. I need you to really hear it,” Chapman says forcefully. “I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here. I made bad choices. I committed a crime. And being in here is no one’s fault but my own.”
Viewers are meant to scorn bigot-sophisticate Mom for lines like, “Darling! You were a debutante!” and read Chapman’s outburst as a sign of personal growth and cross-cultural solidarity with the women of color and poor white women who occupy Litchfield. Yet it’s Chapman’s mother, not the fish-out-of-water inmate, who speaks the truth in that scene: Chapman (and Kerman, for that matter) likely never would’ve been convicted if she’d gone to trial, because she is different from the majority of her fellow prisoners, possessing all the privileges that lead to such imbalances in prison populations.
One of the many unseen benefits of middle- and upper-middle-class whiteness in America is how easy, even seductive, it is to believe that what happens to you throughout your life is simply the result of your own stellar decisions. Good grades in school? You must be really smart. Snagged a great job? You must be impressive, special. Wealthy? You earned it, baby. You never have to consider how the system may have been stacked in your favor: how your teachers put you in honors courses where they shunted black and Latino kids with similar grades into remedial tracks. How your parents could afford to pay for college, where working-class and poor kids who aced every test but couldn’t manage tuition went directly into minimum wage jobs after high school. That a friend of your family hired you for a position for which you weren’t particularly qualified, while the unemployed masses scour job listings that are almost always filled from within. That you buy weed every month from a dude whose number is listed in your iPhone and you’ve never once worried that you’d get so much as a legal slap on the wrist, while people of color are often arrested, convicted and spend years of their lives in cells for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The flip side of this ideology is that individual actions, not collective causes, are responsible for the course of your and everyone else’s lives — and in the case of prisoners, their choices, not continued societal imbalances — control their fate. And so it goes.
By attempting to highlight racial tensions in the prison system without actually delving into racial and economic injustice, Kohan and “OITNB’s” writers unintentionally reinforce the conservative fantasy that life in prison may be brutal, but if you’re in jail you deserve it because of your own guilty-as-sin back story. A Guardian writer described the series as “a fairly accurate portrayal of prison,” yet none of the scenes of inmates’ pre-prison lives featured a woman who took a plea deal because she couldn’t afford a competent lawyer to prove her innocence, for example, or a battered wife who killed her husband in self-defense, despite the abundance of such cases in real life. Certainly, it’s not for lack of artistic potential that these all too common tales were left untold in Season 1: What could provide more drama and pathos than a woman falsely convicted, or someone unfairly behind bars because she finally mustered the courage to stop her abuser from hurting her? But that kind of uncomfortable, eye-opening realism isn’t what Kohan’s going for, so every one of the characters who earned a flashback episode did the crime for which she’s doing the time. Worse yet, despite the memoir featuring mostly nonviolent drug and fraud offenders, Kohan chose to invent coldblooded murders (Miss Claudette, a Haitian-American woman involved in an illegal child-labor trafficking ring who killed a man who beat a girl she had forced to work as his maid, and Pensatucky, a “white trash” meth-head/religious zealot who, after her fifth abortion, shot a nurse at a women’s health clinic for making an insensitive remark), all the better to terrify Chapman and titillate the audience.
Kohan wants to humanize women prisoners, which she does with significant success (see Binge below). Unfortunately, the limited sociopolitical insight informing “OITNB’s” point of view leads the series to reinforce some of the same harmful prison tropes its writers ostensibly seek to challenge. Beyond codifying the American fairy tale that individual choice trumps collective culture, three damaging clichés stand out: racial caricature, white savior narratives and romanticized abuse of prisoners by guards.
Though several characters of color are depicted with nuance, “OITNB” often plays on notoriously racist archetypes. There are minstrel-show-worthy moments where black women go into a singsong reverie over thoughts of fried chicken. The lone Asian inmate basically never speaks. The only Latina mother in the show is portrayed as promiscuous, vacuous, neglectful and cruel to her daughters, one of whom is in Litchfield with her; in case viewers weren’t quite convinced of her “hootchie” bona fides, she attempts to seduce her daughter’s prison guard boyfriend. But the most indulgently inhumane portrayal is of a dark-skinned black character nicknamed “Crazy Eyes,” a mentally challenged inmate who is sexually predatory toward Chapman, stalks her, nicknames her “Dandelion” and claims her as her wife, only to flamboyantly squat and pee on the floor of Chapman’s bunk after the flustered white lady rebuffs her. Played to bug-eyed perfection by actress Uzo Aduba, Crazy Eyes is given a smidge more depth toward the end of the season (She can recite classical theatrical monologues! She has unexplained white parents!) but not granted a flashback episode; she’s primarily used as comic relief throughout the series, because black women who can’t control their bowels are a laugh riot. I mean, that’s what “Flavor of Love” taught us when they built an episode around a black woman pooping on a mansion’s staircase, right?
Kohan told NPR that she built “OITNB” around Piper Chapman as a “Trojan horse,” an “easy access point” to make prison stories “relatable to a lot of audiences” (that’s TV-land shorthand for white viewers) who’d then stick around to watch characters of color who threaten, befriend or otherwise engage with “the girl next door, the cool blonde.” Shorter: This is a show about people of color, not for people of color. Enter one of Hollywood’s most well worn clichés: the White Savior.
This trope plays out in ways both minor and major throughout the season. Of all the inmates, it’s the Nice White Lady From Smith who is the most inventive in the clutch: She fashions medical masks out of maxi pads and rubber bands to keep herself and her roommate healthy when the flu is going around, and gets herself out of hot water with head cook Red by making her a back pain-reducing lotion out of jalapeno peppers and cocoa butter. Just call her Doctor MacGyver.
Though she has no legal training, one after another inmate seeks her aid with their appeals. And when it comes time for a de facto prisoner’s union meeting with a manipulative administrator, Chapman – the only white inmate representative — is also the only character to make any real demands to improve conditions in the prison, which, as Yasmin Nair notes, “goes against what we know about prison movements.” All perky yuppie optimism, she rattles off a list of suggestions including clinic hours every week for preventative healthcare, legal counseling, restarting the GED program, and more — while her black, Latina and Asian fellow prisoners are quickly and easily bribed to sell out in exchange for coffee and doughnuts at the weekly meetings. Chapman is the only one to express any outrage at the sham, eventually going above the administrator’s head to get the track reopened; we see her smile as she watches Janae Watson, a black character who used to be an all-star runner, sprint off joyfully into the distance. Run like the wind, Watson: “the cool blonde” set you free. Oy.
Most disturbing is the wholly disgusting and unrepresentative portrayal of violence and sexual assault by guards against inmates. But “OITNB’s” worst narrative failure lasts the whole season, as we watch Daya Diaz – long-suffering Latina daughter of an emotionally abusive mom – flirt with, fall for and have sex with a young, white correctional officer named John Bennett. Legally and ethically, an inmate cannot consent to sex with guards, staff and administrators, who control every aspect of their lives. And indeed, as reported in a PrisonLegalNews.org story headlined “Sexual Abuse by Prison and Jail Staff Proves Persistent, Pandemic,” Bureau of Justice statistics reveal that “over 60% of allegations of sexual abuse involved staff members rather than other prisoners.”
Yet every time Daya and Bennett are on-screen together the soundtrack shifts to soft rom-com music, a classic tool of persuasion and a cinematic shortcut to create emotional buy-in from the audience. We’re meant to see their furtive glances and secret courtship as inappropriate and somewhat uncomfortable, but ultimately as a mutual, consensual love story — not what it legally is: rape. Even Bennett’s outward signs of abusive control are played as romantic, as when the guard makes a big show of grabbing Daya and yelling that she needs to show “Less attitude! You’re not in charge here, I am!” in a domineering manner, as cover to tuck a note in her pocket telling her where to meet him for a rendezvous.
This representational morass goes from bad to worse when Daya gets pregnant with Bennett’s baby in Episode 9, and her formerly adversarial mother suddenly becomes her confidante, convincing her to seduce the sadistic guard “Pornstache” and then “cry rape” to frame him, get him fired, and protect Bennett’s job. (As soon as this plan is enacted, Kohan gives Pornstache a complete 180: one quick boom-chicka-pow-wow in a storage closet and a guy we’ve seen regularly threatening, harassing and groping inmates just for fun — and exerting his control in vile, petty acts like pissing in pots of Thanksgiving gravy — goes mooney-eyed, calling Daya “The One” and sending her long, rambling love letters about how wonderful their lives could be together.) For a show that manages nuanced storytelling when it wants to – again, see Binge below – it is incomprehensible why Kohan chose to render actual prison rape invisible, replacing that devastating reality first with guard/inmate “romance” and then, as Salamishah Tillet sums up, “reproduc[ing] stereotypes that women in prison are untrustworthy and lie about sexual assault.”
Here’s where I would usually close with a pithy line about why you, dear reader, should avoid this week’s cringe-worthy selection and recommend a more worthy piece of media to binge on … except, not this time. Because everything above? That’s only half the story.
BINGE: “Orange Is the New Black”
In the past two years, TV viewers and the Twittersphere exploded over ABC’s “Scandal,” with special fan fervor coming from women of color who made the show an appointment-TV hit. This fandom hasn’t happened simply because “Scandal” brings nutty, soapy, “West Wing” meets “As the World Turns” fun to prime time, but also because Kerry Washington is the first black actress to be the lead on a network drama since Teresa Graves starred in the 1974-75 series “Get Christie Love.” Kerry Washington’s success is earned but it’s a lily pad in an ocean: Even ensemble sitcoms starring women of color, previously not uncommon, have fallen away. Back in the day, NBC gave us six seasons of “A Different World” starting in 1987, Fox filled the 1990s with “Living Single,” and UPN and the CW kept “Girlfriends” on TV for eight seasons in 2000s. But in this decade, those of us who’ve wanted to laugh with black comic actresses have had to leave network TV and go online to do so, assuming we knew to look for Issa Rae in her independent, crowd-funded series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
Kerry Washington is the only black woman to lead a network drama in 40 years, while a rich legacy of diverse, women-led comedy casts has completely vanished from contemporary network television? In the face of that seriously sad math, it’s no wonder that, despite the problems discussed above, people are going crazy over “OITNB,” calling it “the best TV show about prison ever made” (Washington Post), “your new favorite show” (Metro Times), and an “addictive” (Colorlines) “deeply humanistic, beautifully empathetic season of television” (AV Club). There’s not a whole lot of TV to consume nowadays if you are a fan of well-rounded women characters on mainstream television who have well-written back stories and motivations, grudges and joys, humor and sorrow, strength and vulnerability. Or if you want to watch stories woven around characters who are straight, lesbian and bisexual; transgender and cis-gender; wealthy and poor. And for those challenging, sometimes screwed up, always intriguing characters to be played predominately by black and Latina actresses? Virtually unprecedented. Into that void, Netflix brought “Orange Is the New Black” – buying all 13 episodes on Jenji Kohan’s pitch alone, without even needing to see a pilot. That’s almost unheard of, as is the hands-off editorial freedom Netflix gave Kohan in developing her vision. “So much of television is a culture of fear and they’ve got huge, swinging balls. They’re not afraid. They’re just like, ‘Let’s try it.’” Kohan told Hitfix.
It’s telling that “OITNB” comes to us online and not from the generally bland, risk-averse network and basic cable landscape. The gamble paid off for Netflix in the form of persistent buzz and instant relevance in pop culture, and for viewers who ravenously consumed the entire series in the course of a few days.
Kohan has filled her cast to bursting with extremely talented actresses who turn in funny and poignant performances. Laverne Cox, one of the only transgender actresses ever allowed to play a major trans TV character, is versatile and impactful in her breakthrough role as Sophia Burset (more on her shortly). Uzo Aduba brings a humanity to “Crazy Eyes” that could easily have been lost under the weight of caricature. Danielle Brooks shines as the wisecracking Taystee, giving her a sincerity that deepens a role that could have mimicked the reductive “sassy black friend” stereotype usually found on TV. And as Taystee’s socially conscious best friend Poussey, Samira Wiley delivers some of the best lines of the season (“we’re all just in here because we took a wrong turn going to church”), leaving us itching for a Season 2 flashback episode to deepen our understanding of who she is.
The white actresses aren’t slouches either, especially Natasha Lyonne as Nicki, a former addict with a penchant for exuberant lesbian sex in prison chapels, Laura Prepon as Chapman’s drug dealer ex-lover, and Kate Mulgrew as Red, a Russian gangster’s wife turned hard-as-nails kitchen boss/surrogate mother (or, as Kel Kendrick tweeted, “Captain Janeway found herself in the Worst.Holodeck.Program.Ever”). And though many have mentioned that Piper Chapman is among “OITNB’s” weakest characters, Taylor Schilling is more than effective in her grating role.
And what a treat to watch Lea Delaria’s butch lesbian inmate Big Boo dance and flirt and find creative uses for screwdrivers, for those of us who remember Delaria’s irreverent 1994 comedy album “Bulldyke in a China Shop,” with a classic rant about homophobic names for lesbian bar named “Seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeecrets … Like I’m going to go there every secret Saturday with my little secret dyke friends and live my little secret dyke life in my little secret dyke bar …. Secrets!? I’m gonna open a dyke bar, and I’m gonna name it ‘Girls Lick Girls Here!’” There’s nothing secret about lesbian sex or queer identity on “OITNB” – in fact, the blinking neon finger-shaped sign Delaria said she wanted to point to the name of her imaginary bar would probably not be out of place on the door to their set.
Casting for Cox, Aduba, Brooks, Wiley and their many costars felt to Kohan like “an embarrassment of riches. You have this huge talent pool that is generally tapped for very limited visibility roles, but they’re so good and to be able to let them flex and shine is just so exciting,” she told HitFix. “There were just so many great Latina actresses and black actresses that hadn’t had the opportunity to really do this thing” that she started creating more characters for the artists who sent in audition tapes. I imagine the opportunity to work on “OITNB” felt similarly freeing to the actresses. Women of color rarely get to practice their craft beyond a handful of Hollywood’s most tired tropes: The “crazy” person from the hood, usually a prostitute or a criminal. The rape or murder victim on a procedural crime show who we’re told brought it on herself. The Angry Black Woman. The mammy, the maid, “The Help.” The welfare queen. The hypersexual jezebel. And there’s always “the black best friend in the white girl movie,” a trope that provides the inspiration for Taystee’s hairstyle in advance of her meeting with the appeals board.
The richness of these roles not only offers viewers of color a chance to identify with lead characters who look and sound like them — it also provides a rare opportunity for white viewers to stretch their imaginations to identify with protagonists who don’t look or sound like them (a viewership experience almost always denied to white men in particular, for whom heroes and villains alike are perpetually reflected back in their own image).
Those of us who hunger for diverse media options often glom on to any depictions of people of color that exist in part because we are grasping at crumbs. “People of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table,” Roxane Gay writes (and I’d add that the same can be true for white viewers who also yearn for less homogenous fare, although sometimes without awareness that we’re consuming less than a full meal). So if all Kohan did was employ black and Latina actresses, I wouldn’t be particularly impressed. After all, as Tyler Perry’s movies and reality TV spectacles like “Basketball Wives” so exploitatively illustrate, representation per se isn’t enough — we need to look at the quality of that representation in terms of art, meaning and execution. And then there’s the importance of weighing how media content plays out in social and political contexts; that always difficult-to-measure concept of cultural impact.
And that’s where “OITNB” gets complicated. Sometimes infuriating for the reasons previously discussed, “OITNB” is also frequently moving, often hilarious and always entertaining, telling layered stories about prisoners in ways that highlight not only their mistakes but their compassion, their anger, their humor, their depth. In doing so, Kohan manages to make viewers feel consistently empathetic toward a population typically regarded as some combination of evil, pathetic, crazy and alien … that is, when they’re not wholly invisible.
Various storytelling devices are employed in pursuit of this goal, most notably the flashback format that provided as brilliant and unique an hour of television as I’ve seen in years during Episode 3, when we are transported back to a time before Sophia Burset’s gender reassignment surgery, while she was still living as a buff firefighter named Marcus (a surprising and evocative role played by Laverne Cox’s twin brother, M. Lamar). Scenes in which the beautiful and stylish Sophia fights to change healthcare policy when the prison stops providing her hormone pills are juxtaposed with flashbacks to the challenges her young son had accepting his father as a woman, conflicts with former firefighter buddies, and the loving – if wistful – support Sophia’s wife provides during the early stages of her transition, teaching her how to dress to accentuate a feminine silhouette. When Sophia says she has sacrificed too much to let the prison starve her body of the hormones she needs, flashbacks help us understand that she’s talking about her very freedom: She’s only in Litchfield because she financed her surgery via stolen credit cards. Throughout the season, Sophia strikes up an unlikely friendship with a nun serving time for anti-nuclear activism, navigates a constant series of end-runs around institutional discrimination, and serves as one of the beating hearts of “OITNB.” Cox’s Burset has confidence, depth and authenticity unlike anything we’ve seen in the tragic narratives of transgender people as filtered through corporate media.
“OITNB’s” straightforward scenes of trauma get it done, too: in a particularly compelling episode, a pregnant inmate goes into labor but is forced to wait until the last possible minute before being given medical attention, jeopardizing her health and that of her infant. When she is eventually wheeled back into prison without her baby, the women around her are silent, somber, almost as if reacting to a death. It’s a stark reminder of the deeply dehumanizing impact of incarceration on not only inmates but their families as well, and has sparked a public discussion about abuse of pregnant prisoners, who account for one in 25 women in state prisons and one in 33 in federal prisons, according to the Sentencing Project.
In contrast to most TV series, “OITNB” prompts us to identify with the powerless and revile the powerful, here represented by Litchfield’s almost uniformly corrupt guards, counselors and administrators. Rookie officer Susan Fischer, the lone exception, shows compassion to crying inmates, sees herself in Chapman, and allows an elderly nun to take food out of the cafeteria. When Fischer’s boss (and possibly awkward sexual harasser) Joe Caputo decides to school her on the error of her ways, we’re meant to see him as vile – even though he is simply echoing the general attitudes of Americans raised on reality TV train wrecks like “Cops,” “Lockup,” “Lockdown” and “Prison Women: Females On Guard”:
Caputo: It helps if you don’t use their names. Just say “inmate,” like they’re all the same to you. It reminds them they’re not really people.
Fischer: They are people.
Caputo: [sighs] You can’t think that way. They are sheep. We feed them. We herd them from one room to the next. They’re not like you. You’re a woman. And I’m a man.
Caputo’s assertion that prisoners aren’t even people mirrors the cavalier way they are regarded by elected leaders who use them as political footballs, corporations who use them for slave labor, and average Americans who think of them with fear or mockery—when they think of them at all. That, coupled with good old-fashioned corporate media racism, is why Chapman had to be “OITNB’s” star, rather than any of the series’ far more fascinating supporting characters. Kohan told Hitfix that she centered her show around a privileged white, middle class woman because “you’re not gonna go into a network and say, ‘I want to talk about black women and Latina women and old women in prison.’ You need a guide. You need a way in. She was our gateway drug.”
No matter how risk-tolerant Netflix was, there are still limits; the fault lines of race, class, and gender identity are still barriers execs place over creative development. Chapman’s story remains the only hook that would reel in the corporate cash for all the same reasons why Piper Kerman’s year in prison was marked by the knowledge that she’d emerge with her job prospects relatively unscathed, with a host of jaunty anecdotes for cocktail parties, and eventually a book and TV deal that would never have been given to the women of color whose stories the author has profited from publishing… women such as Taystee, trapped in a punishing cycle of incarceration and poverty for reasons made heartbreakingly clear in episode twelve.
There’s nothing like the power of storytelling to change the way we think and feel, though. Which means that for all its flaws, “Orange Is the New Black” has the potential to join the pantheon of TV programs that have worked to move our country forward, from “Maude’s” abortion in 1972 and arguments about race relations and feminism on “All in the Family” throughout that decade, to “The Cosby Show” helping white viewers in the 1980s understand that black families shared their struggles and triumphs, to Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet on her sitcom, “Ellen,” in 1997.
Of course, those programs all aired at a time when network television held sway over huge percentages of the public; Netflix is a premium online service with only approximately 30 million U.S. subscribers, just a fraction of whom are likely to ever watch this show. Still, as MSNBC host Melissa-Harris Perry said as she introduced the first of three segments of her Aug. 4 show devoted to “OITNB” (featuring author Piper Kerman and actresses Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, and Kate Mulgrew as her guests), “The challenge of building the political will to push for reform on behalf of incarcerated people can simply be summed up with one question. Who cares? I mean, America’s prisons are rife with conditions that deny the most basic humanity of those who live behind their walls, and those of us on the outside are separated from them, not just by those physical boundaries but by a wide empathy gap that makes it easy to turn away from the realities of prisoners’ lives. Well, earlier this month, that gap just got smaller.”
This extremely entertaining show has jump-started a national conversation about women in prison, about the prison industrial complex, and about the disparities and injustices that merit change. And because of that, despite its problems, I can feel good about agreeing with Melissa Harris-Perry that ”Orange Is the New Black” is “worth … binge watching.”