Orange is the New Black: A Television Milestone
“I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am,”
Piper Chapman, Orange is the New Black
For Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the least of her problems is that she is in prison. I made this realization about halfway through Orange is the New Black, a brilliant new original series from Netflix, and it is among the many reasons why Jenji Kohan’s latest creation is worth watching. The series follows the lives of Chapman and other characters as they navigate the difficult terrain of a women’s prison. They come to terms with prison rules and rituals, with their inability to impact the outside world, and ultimately with themselves. It may be somewhat naive to claim that the prison setting is arbitrary, because in many ways the series makes use of prison’s potential to to stifle the characters and vanquish their voices, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that prison in this case is merely a narrative device that is used to force these characters into self-realization.
Chapman, for instance, is serving 15 months in prison for drug trafficking, but the show informs us in the first episode that Chapman did this ten years ago, and she is now in prison because an anonymous source turned Chapman in to receive a lesser sentence. This information is crucial as it allows us to feel sympathy for Chapman from the very beginning. It might be harder to care for a mother who murders her child in cold blood, but most people would probably agree that a drug trafficking scheme ten years ago isn’t the worst thing in the world. That is, Chapman’s prison sentence might be understood as the result of a confusing and often contradictory American legal system that, most of the time, functions as a bureaucratic business. Chapman engaged in this activity with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), her girlfriend at the time and runner of the operation. In a flashback, Chapman and Vause separate, and the present day finds Chapman’s finance Larry (Jason Biggs) driving her to prison like it is her first day of kindergarten. To make matters more complicated, Alex is serving a sentence at the same prison, and she may or may not have been the one to turn Chapman in.
As the episodes progress, however, Chapman gradually loses our sympathy. We begin to find her selfish and narcissistic and it soon becomes clear that she has issues far worse and more complex than smuggling drug money.
In her discussion of Brett Martin’s recent book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men and ‘Breaking Bad,’ Emily Nussbaum questions why the focus is on male television characters. For Nussbaum, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City is a complicated character worthy of our discussion, and Nussbaum argues that she can be classified as television’s first female anti-hero. It may be a stretch to call Bradshaw the first, especially if we consider Jane Tennison, but Bradshaw is definitely the more complicated woman we love to hate. Therefore, Nussbaum might be relieved to discover that we have another female anti-hero in Piper Chapman, and that Chapman might become the most complicated of them all.
And what a relief it is to stumble upon a television series that features a complicated woman at its center and doesn’t mock or condescend her complexities. Kohan depicts Chapman’s past life as a lesbian with the same level of seriousness as she does Chapman’s current life with Larry and the struggle the two face to maintain their relationship during her absence. Chapman’s love affair with Vause is not represented as a quirky phase but an important period in her life that still profoundly impacts her worldview. Larry represents the safety and security whereas Vause signifies excitement and adventure, and Kohan is wise to show how complicated it still is for Chapman to choose between one or the other.
While all of that is wonderful, what makes Orange is the New Black truly revolutionary, aside from being the first great Netflix original series, is its willingness to feature an all female cast of many sizes, ages, and races in this increasingly male-driven-youth-obsessed-skinny-white American culture. Moreover, shows that do depict the lives of women tend to focus on the burdens of white privilege or white girls/women who are privileged but don’t realize it. For instance, Girls is a fantastic show, but there is no denying that it speaks for a minority group of women–the twenty-something city dweller who thinks she suffers. Tough lives, perhaps, but Orange is the New Black is about minorities of a different kind. That is, Orange is the New Black is about the nameless women who fall through the cracks of a cruel American justice system and live on the fringes of society. Not all of these women are African-American or Latino. In fact, the show makes clear that about half are as white as Chapman. Most are poor, however, and most have been abandoned and forgotten about by the people who were supposed to care for them. Some screwed up, to be sure, but the vast majority of them got screwed, and it is hard to truly appreciate the series without understanding Kohan’s political stance.
The stance, while honorable, might be hard to swallow: Prison sucks, but for most of these women, it beats the real world. The irony is that most of them don’t belong in prison yet many of them prefer to be there because there is nothing and nobody waiting for them on the outside. To some, this sobering truth may be a tired prison cliche, but that does not make it any less true, nor does it make it easier for us to come to terms with our own good fortune. And then there is Chapman, who isn’t quite sure where she belongs.
And could it be, then, that Orange is the New Black is ultimately a series about trying and wanting to fit in? About coming to terms with yourself in a world that may not like what you have become? About realizing who you are and how far that takes you away from where you once were? I don’t want to jump to conclusions after the first season, but to me, the series suggests that each of these women have demons to wrestle with and that they have avoided these demons because these demons can tell them who they really are.
The tragedy of prison isn’t that it harbors so-called criminals who could have had so-called real lives if only they made the so-called right decisions. The tragedy of prison is that it harbors human beings who had no chance in the so-called real world. For Kohan, the question is simple to pose but complicated to answer: Where do these women go when no one else wants them?
Where does, for instance, Sophia (Laverne Cox) go after she tells her wife and son that she wants to live as a woman after years of living as a man? What about Tasha (Danielle Brooks) who is released from prison to a place that doesn’t need her and ultimately decides that she is happier and more comfortable back behind bars? The tragedy is that for a great many of people in America, prison becomes a sanctuary and a refuge.
In prison, these women form a community in which they can find peace and comfort in such confining conditions. They can be understood for who they are as opposed to judged. Even Chapman, who arguably has the most fortunate life out of all of the inmates, and whose future will not be affected by her prison sentence in the way that it impacts the other inmates (see the memoir upon which this series is based), becomes aware of herself. Her feelings for Vause resurface and they begin another affair, and she questions the one she has with Larry.
And not all of this is good, either. In Chapman’s case, her true colors may reveal extreme levels of selfishness and narcissism, and the season finale ends on a powerful cliffhanger that suggests she may not be worthy of our sympathy. It implies that Chapman may not be the pitiable woman she presents herself as to her family and friends, and that she may have more in common with the woman she was in her twenties when she carried on an impulsive lesbian relationship, smuggled drugs, and ultimately abandoned that for the next great thrill. The disturbing implication of the series is that Chapman’s life with Larry and their circle of friends may be the facade and that her prison sentence is slowly forcing her and allowing us to realize that the real Piper Chapman is the selfish, cruel woman of her past who only cares about herself. I hope I’m not the only one who finds the irony in that Chapman’s crime is the less serious out of the inmates, she is the most educated and most privileged and cared for, and yet she is also the most damaged with the most unattractive personality.
Further, Kohan makes it clear that while Chapman suffers, her suffering is minor compared to the tragic lives of her fellow inmates. By contrasting Chapman with the other inmates, Kohan demonstrates the social disconnect between the wealthy elite and the poor minorities, and how Chapman’s social standing gives her an advantage to deal with prison by default. This is a brilliant creative choice, because Kohan could have taken the easy way out by depicting all of the inmates’ suffering as equal. Instead, she tackles the harsh truth head on: For wealthy people in America, prison isn’t necessarily a problem. Or, to put it another way, people like Chapman have a life waiting for them when they get out of prison, whereas many of the other inmates have nothing and view prison as their only option.
The thing about prison is that there is no running away. Sooner or later, these women have to face themselves. The scary part, it seems, is not the realization per se, but what the realization reveals. What happens, for example, when Tasha learns that the real world doesn’t care about her, or when Sophia discovers that her family wants to forget about her? And what happens when Chapman begins a relationship with her former lesbian lover while her fiance waits for her on the outside?
After all, some of these women might never leave, but Chapman is out in 15 months. If prison only brings out her selfishness and carelessness, and if it brings her closer to Vause and further away from Larry, what will become of her when she is released?
What will become of the rest of these women when they come to terms with who they are, where they come from, and where they might be going?
What do you think? Leave a comment.