Orange is the New

On the 19 August 2013 Old Mole Variety Hour, Iven Hale and I discuss the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, about life in a women's minimum security Federal prison. Developed by Jenji Kohan, known for having created the Showtime series Weeds, Orange is the New Black is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, though the show makes a number of changes from the book. Like Kerman, Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is a college-educated white woman incarcerated for having transported drug money for her lover ten years before she was convicted and sentenced to a year in a women's prison. Hijinks ensue. The show has generated widespread interest, and will be back for another season next year. As leftists, we were a little bit chagrined to find ourselves enjoying a show that's been praised by mainstream media, and harshly critiqued by some radical writers whose work we admire and respect. But we also agree with many, though not all, of those critiques. Before we get into the good and bad points of the series, though, we should offer both spoiler and trigger warnings.

We agree with some of the critiques of the show. Salamishah Tillet observes in The Nation magazine, the show's worst failing is its treatment of violence including sexual abuse of inmates. Tillet points out that the "National Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported that staff members rather than other prisoners commit 60 percent of the alleged acts of sexual abuse." Yet Orange is the New Black presents inmate-guard sex as tender romance, or inmate manipulation of a guard, and downplays the sexual coercion one guard exercises.

The show also softens the pain of women's life in prison by omitting the importance of family and children for women in prison. As Marie Lyn Bernard notes on Autostraddle, though two-thirds of women in prison have children, and many of the figures from the memoir who are included in the series were mothers, these circumstances are mostly omitted in the series, where only the Latina women seem to discuss their family ties.

The show also softens its portrait of the prison's institutional structure (for instance, showing the cells as less crowded, the food as less industrially mass-produced, than is really the case in federal prisons). So, there are these and other problems on the series.

On the other hand, while some critics have called out the stereotypically racist and classist portraits of some characters, the marketing of the show, and the lack of larger structural analysis of the prison system, we think some of these apparent problems in the initial episodes set up later developments that complicate the messages of the series. For instance, Piper early in the series suggests she's just like the other inmates in that they've all made bad choices, and many inmates seem to accept their incarceration, stating their lack of good choices. But later flashacks about the other inmates show how few choices the other inmates had. The zealously religious poor white character Doggett (played by Taryn Manning) is obnoxious, but made more sympathetic after the other imates play a cruel trick on her; she's shown as drawn to religion because an anti-abortion group embraces her, providing (for their own reasons) support for her that she clearly needs.

But there's much we value about the series: it has a multiracial, predominantly female cast; hot lesbian sex, and funny dialogue. It's relatively good on sexuality and gender (Piper mentions the Kinsey scale, the trans character is played by trans performer Laverne Cox, and Lea DeLaria plays a version of her standup persona.) Moreover, it's valuable if it gets people talking about the prison system, and it may draw in and move mainstream viewers to more progressive understandings. It develops the backstory of other inmates, humanizing and complicating those characters. We hope for more and continued improvement in the next season.


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