Sunday, 21 July 2013

Orange Is The New Black Is The New Black

Spoilers abound, from the off.

I couldn’t not write about Orange Is The New Black. I, like everyone else with a brain and a Netflix subscription, am obsessed with it. I finished the first season yesterday, having rationed myself to one or two episodes a day from its release. Everyone said it worked brilliantly as a binge watch but I prefer to savour good TV like Charlie Bucket does chocolate. Now I’m done I’m feeling somewhat lost. For the past week it’s been pretty much all I’ve thought about. Like Piper Chapman I too had become embroiled in the prison drama to the exclusion of real life. Now I’m out and, like Taystee, I’ve no idea how to handle it.

We’ve needed a show like Orange for a long time now, for far too long actually, and it couldn’t have had better timing. In a year where 80% of speaking roles in film output were male and television’s second place status was being seriously questioned, Orange stood out from the crowd as both the proud owner of a diverse, overwhelmingly female cast and as yet another example of television doing what movies should be. This is also the year that Veronica Mars got crowdfunded on Kickstarter, proving that the networks don’t always (or in my opinion, often) get things right. Netflix showed once again with Orange that the best, most groundbreaking television is found outside of the networks, proving itself to be the place for risk-taking, original, diverse TV. Orange Is The New Black would have looked very different if it had been made for standard television. Not only does Netflix as a format allow for longer run-times, it’s also the reason why Orange’s cast is so racially diverse and why the show can portray such a frank depiction of female sexuality. It seems completely ridiculous to me that before Orange I’d never once seen a vagina on television, especially when – thanks to Game of Thrones – there’s penises everywhere.

It also seems somewhat strange to be talking about Orange being groundbreaking. Surely, in 2013, seeing that many non-white people on TV shouldn’t be something new. Surely an honest depiction of female sexuality should be old news by now. This should be commonplace, but the fact is it’s not and this is something Orange deals with brilliantly both in world and on a meta-textual level. Amongst the almost universal praise I’ve read online, I’ve seen a few posts bring up the point that it’s a shame that, in a cast so full of non-white characters, the protagonist still has to be white. To an extent, I agree but this isn’t a problem with Orange Is the New Black, it’s a problem with television as a whole. Orange is based on a book written by a white woman and is very specifically the story of a white woman’s experience. You could see this as being a compromise, as the industry only accepting non-white people’s stories from a white perspective or as the industry recognising an audience who would only accept things that way. However, I think Orange is in fact doing something very different and very clever with its white protagonist. Instead of showing her as “the normal” and the non-white characters as “the other” it asks us to identify with the women of colour at least as much, and in some cases more, as we do with Piper Chapman. As a middle class white woman I identify with Piper but not in a good way. I see my bad qualities in her, I see my naivety and my privilege. Through Piper Chapman, Jenji Kohan is asking us to recognise and examine our own white privilege as Piper does hers. In the first few episodes I often found myself having to confront the fact that I would have made many of the same mistakes that Piper did. I too would have studied for prison, I would have been shocked at the self-imposed racial segregation (despite the fact that it seems in Lichfield it’s not about supremacy at all, rather finding a family based on an assumed common experience) and I probably would have inadvertently insulted someone on my first day and received a tampon sandwich for my trouble the next morning. Piper Chapman is not a particularly likeable character, she’s supposed to be like me but like the bad parts of me, like the parts I’m ashamed of. At the start of the series she’s vastly self-involved, she refuses to accept responsibility for her actions and is often accidentally cruel. We watch her be confronted with these unlikeable parts of her personality as the series continues and as she realises that she’s perhaps not the “nice white lady” she thought she was, we (I) realise that too.

Orange Is the New Black reveals its characters’ backstories through flashbacks framed subtly as memory threads throughout the series. In the pilot, when Piper talks in voiceover about how she used to love to wash herself, we see her memories of bathing – one scene with her current fiancé Larry, and then once with her drug runner ex girlfriend Alex – which inform us about her character. We see some of Alex’s childhood, growing up poor with her single mother and getting bullied for not having the right shoes, when she is accused of being a “rich girl” by the hateful Pennsatucky. These flashbacks tell us about the characters’ backstories but also reveal to us their headspace, how they think and why they are how they are. Miss Claudette’s obsession with cleanliness is explained by her past as a scared child sold into indentured servitude as a maid in the US to pay off her parents’ debts, who then becomes the boss of the girls she used to be and kills a man who dared hurt her workers. Sophia’s need for her hormone medication is given further emotional depth once we see how much she sacrificed to transition. Yes, Piper Chapman is the protagonist and we see more of her life on the outside than we do the other characters, but crucially those characters are never relegated to secondary status, they’re never periphery, never supporting players. I care just as much about Sophia and Nicholls and Miss Claudette as I do about Piper and sometimes even more. None of the characters are there as tokens, every woman is fleshed out as a person, as someone with their own story to tell and as someone who never thought they’d end up in prison either. The inmates aren’t even the only ones whose stories we care about, the guards and the administration are shown as human beings with their own motivations as well and of course Piper’s family and friends are rounded characters too. This is particularly hard to do with a large ensemble cast and is one of the reasons why Glee, although inclusive on the surface, fails to reach this level of diversity. No character is on Orange to fill quotas, Jenji Kohan doesn’t just want to seem inclusive, she wants to tell everyone’s story and so far, she succeeds.

The episode which I think best embodies this equal opportunities approach to storytelling is episode 11 “Tall Men With Feelings”. In this episode Piper’s fiancé Larry (who is one of the few characters I really, really hate and not just because he’s a barrier to goddess Alex’s happiness) does a radio interview on NPR where he talks about how hard it is for him to have a fiancée in jail. He constantly appropriates Piper’s experience as a vehicle for his own success as a writer (the main reason for my hatred of him, that and he watched Mad Man without her) and during the interview tells a story from one of his first visits. This story is not his to tell and he reduces all the people we, and Piper have grown to love and understand, to ciphers, to characters in his girlfriend’s story. Piper, having changed somewhat by this episode and having formed connections with these people and grown to understand and relate to them, is horrified and berates him for minimising her experience and offending her friends. During his interview he directly refers to people like Red and “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne as “characters” and he reduces them to tropes with his repeated use of the phrase “the girl who…” through his retelling of Piper’s first impressions of prison. We are reminded here, late in the season, of who Piper used to be, of what she used to think and she is confronted with this as well. We also see what this does to the people Larry talks about. Miss Claudette initially looks angry at Larry/Piper’s characterisation of her as terrifying and Piper’s claim that she “slept with one eye open” for fear she’d kill her in her sleep, but is later revealed to just be hurt that someone she thought was her friend had ever thought of her in that way. “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne’s reaction is perhaps the most heartbreaking. Earlier in the episode we saw Suzanne as a whole person with feelings for the first time during the series. Previously she had just been “Crazy Eyes” who was slightly deranged and couldn’t take a hint when Piper told her she didn’t want to be her prison wife. In episode 11 we see her recognise the boundaries Piper has set for her when she helps her back to her room after she slips and falls. Suzanne explains her mental problems and why she’s allowed to stay out of psych. She asks, with a look of sad confusion, why everyone calls her “Crazy Eyes” and we realise that Piper is the only one to ever call her Suzanne. She is given layers in this episode, Piper and we as an audience start to realise the depth of her personality and Larry’s interview reduces her back to a trope, to an amusing anecdote his fiancée told him about prison, and she lies in her bunk in tears. “Tall Men With Feelings” shows us the importance of being seen as a whole person – we even briefly sympathise with Pornstache, the tall man of the title, when he wonders why no one asks how his day went – rather than just a character in someone else’s story.  In Orange Is The New Black, the characters Piper encounters are never secondary, they aren’t there to impart wisdom and make the pretty blonde white lady a better person. They have their own stories, their own ways of coping, their own reasons for being inside – and the only person who can make Piper better is herself.

This sense of equality is reinforced by the fact that the only person to see Piper as separate from or better than the other prisoners is Officer Healey, who is revealed to be a homophobic villain who singles her out because he finds her attractive. As soon as Piper reveals herself to be more similar to the other prisoners than to him, he drops her as his pet project and punishes her by throwing her in the SHU. He originally thinks that she is like him, that prison isn’t meant for heterosexual white people who made mistakes. He sees her as different to “the others” and as the series develops and Piper realises she’s just like the other inmates, he’s forced to confront this as well. She becomes “the other” to him and is therefore no longer deserving of his help. He ends up leaving her for dead when Pennsatucky tries to attack her in the finale, siding with the lower class white woman with bad teeth over Piper because she hates her homosexuality as much as he does. The only character to see Piper as any different from her fellow inmates is shown to be wrong in almost everything he believes and does. His opinions are ridiculous and bigoted which emphasises the spuriousness of his putting Piper on a pedestal. 

It also seems ridiculous that this is the first time I’ve seen a trans-woman on TV who is actually played by a trans-woman (Laverne Cox) rather than a cis-male in drag or a cis-female like Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. Sophia’s story is groundbreaking not just because trans representation is so rare, but also because she is a trans-woman of colour with a wife and a son whose crime is white collar identity theft. Trans-women on TV are all too often represented as either sex workers or drag queens –implying a less than optimistic life for any trans-woman with stage fright. Sophia was a fireman when she was Marcus, who stole credit cards and identities from the burning buildings she was called to on the job in order to pay for her transition. This is a trans experience we are not used to seeing on television, or anywhere in the media for that matter – an African American trans-woman in a traditionally masculine job, married to a woman who supports her transition despite the risk of alienation from her family and church community and her personal emotions about losing her husband and gaining a wife, with a son, who goes to prison because she stole the money for her operations and medication. Sophia is not a stereotype and her identity is never questioned. Those who discriminate against her are almost exclusively the villains of the show – meth mouth Pennsatucky and Pornstache (who, I feel it right to mention, even despite his crudeness when talking about her with Bennet, still never misgenders her and readily accepts her identity as a woman) – and we as an audience sympathise completely when her hormone medication is taken away from her due to “budget restraints”. Sophia is in prison because of how much she was willing to risk to actualise her identity. This shows us the desperation felt by many in the trans community and also leads to frank discussions of how Sophia’s transition and subsequent incarceration affected her family. We see in flashback Sophia’s wife help her to find the right dress to suit her figure but also beg her to keep her penis. We see her wife struggle to combine her acceptance of Sophia’s trans identity and her wish for her to be happy, with her resentment that she is no longer around to raise their son. These are trans issues being discussed on television in a way I have never seen before. We’re seeing the realities of Sophia’s trans experience portrayed and explored in the same way that we see Piper’s relationship with Larry or Alex’s experience growing up in a low income single parent family. Her trans-ness isn’t stigmatised or singled out for special treatment. Everyone has their shit, everyone has experiences which got them to this point, Sophia’s happens to be that she was born with a penis. She isn’t token trans representation, she’s a whole person with a life like everyone else, and in a landscape with very few trans characters let alone trans characters with depth, that seems revolutionary.

Another character who I’ve never seen properly represented on TV before Orange is Lea DeLaria’s Big Boo – an unashamed fat, butch lesbian. It’s widely known that you only really see classically attractive lesbians on TV – there were no characters like Big Boo on The L Word or Lip Service. For the patriarchy to accept women who love women and therefore don’t need men, they at least need to be attractive to look at so that in some way they are still for men and not their own.  Big Boo is the first truly butch lesbian I’ve seen on television. Shane from The L Word may have worn suits and ties but she was far from butch and still ridiculously universally attractive. Big Boo on the other hand is overtly not for the patriarchy. She’s butch in both her style and her attitude and she too is shown as a character with depth. She’s not just comic relief, a position which stereotypically butch lesbian characters are often relegated to in non-speaking roles as a punchline in a sitcom, she’s a person who we sympathise with when her ex girlfriend seems to no longer care about her. Her bond with the puppy she’s training “Little Boo” is adorable and lets us see past the hardened exterior she is introduced with. There’s a scene which shows her masturbating with the handle of the screwdriver we were led to believe she might use to hurt her ex girlfriend in revenge before her release date. This scene seemed particularly striking to me as both a rare example of female masturbation on television and as a subversion of the type of female sexuality we are usually shown on screen. Female sexuality, and female nudity, are almost exclusively shown in order to titillate men. We rarely see a naked woman shot or lit in a way which isn’t supposed to be sexual (the reason I expect behind the shock of seeing Lena Dunham’s naked body reported by men who’d never been forced to see a naked woman as a subject rather than an object) and women having sex on screen is almost always shot in a way that makes them appealing to men, even – or sadly especially – when that woman is having sex with another woman. Big Boo’s sexual pleasure is entirely her own both because of the fact that it is self induced and because it is clearly not intended to be sexy for the audience – at least not for a male audience anyway.  This scene is both confrontational – making us question the way we see female sexuality – and humanising, as we see Big Boo choose orgasms over violence and her own pleasure over jealous revenge.

Another way in which Orange Is The New Black stands alone in its representation of sexuality is through Piper and Alex’s relationship. At the start of the series Piper claims she “used to be a lesbian”. This rang alarm bells for me as the idea of lesbianism being a phase is a far too often used cliché and is essentially a shitty way of describing bisexuality. Later on though, once Piper has stopped being the person she thought she should be, she explains to her friend at visitation that sexuality is a spectrum, referencing the Kinsey Scale. Piper realises she didn’t stop being queer just because she’s dating a man largely because she is forced to confront her feelings for Alex now they’re in the same prison. Larry, his family and Piper’s friend Poppy all seem confused about her sexuality and how she can be attracted to both men and women at different times. Piper’s brother at one point tells Larry that his problem is the idea that she needs to be one or the other. This is the main reason why people get confused about bisexuality and why many people refuse to believe it exists at all. People like binaries – male/female, black/white, straight/gay – and when something falls outside those binaries it scares them because it threatens their world view, it stops them from being able to see someone as the same or the other and forces them to consider that they might be both, or even scarier, neither. Piper’s sexuality falls outside the binary so Larry is threatened by it, it confuses him, he needs her to be straight or gay, he can’t accept that she might be both at the same time. We as an audience however, are shown that this is entirely possible. We see Piper’s relationship with Larry both in flashback and in present day, and her relationship with Alex, again both her past and present. Both these relationships are shown to be genuine. Piper may have dated Alex for the adventure but we completely believe she was in love. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the season for me was Alex, in tears after her mother’s death, begging Piper not to leave her and Piper going anyway. The phrase “Please don’t leave me” is echoed when Alex is locked in the dryer by Pennsatucky and Piper’s decision to stay this time sparks the renewal of their relationship in the present. We see Piper and Alex’s relationship as just as valid as Piper and Larry’s. In fact, for me Piper’s love for Alex seemed at times more genuine but I am very aware that I’m incredibly biased. Piper’s claim that she “used to be a lesbian” turns out to be just something she said to affirm her new identity as the “nice white lady she was always meant to be”. Before prison she thought she couldn’t be bisexual and still attain her middle class suburban married life with Larry. In prison with Alex she realises it’s not as simple as one or the other, with her it’s both and right now it’s both at the same time. We very rarely see this kind of exploration of bisexuality on television and it’s so refreshing to see it done so well.

I want to talk about Alex because I’m obsessed with her and the way she puts her glasses on but I’m already way over 3000 words and it would really just be me talking about my crush on her. There is so much more that needs to be said about Orange Is The New Black which I don’t have room for here and to be honest I could talk about this show for days. To be really honest I already have. OITNB is truly incredible. It’s original, diverse and groundbreaking in so many ways, but most of all it’s just damn good TV. It’s entertaining, it’s funny and heartbreaking and real and I can’t wait for season two in 2014. Orange Is The New Black I heart you. Please don’t leave me. 


  1. I didn't think much of the series when I saw it until I read this post, so thanks for opening up some perspectives. Love your writing and would be interested to read your thoughts on Breaking Bad (a show I'm currently obsessed with).

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
      I'm not really a Breaking Bad fan to be honest. I recognise it's a good show but I didn't like it much when I watched it and gave up after season one. But if I ever get round to giving it another go, I'll make sure to write my thoughts on here.