‘Orange is the New Black’: Criminals are People, Too

orangeThis post is the second of two pieces that I originally wrote as part of the application process for a TV recapping position on a pop culture website. Obviously, I didn’t get the job, but I’m actually pretty happy with how both of them turned out. It seems like a waste for me to have spent hours and hours writing them (and have nervous anxiety breakdowns about them) and have nobody except Heather Anne to read them (she was kind enough to give me some feedback before I submitted them). This particular piece I wrote before OITNB creator Jenji Kohan did most of her press, and in particular, explained how she used Piper very purposefully as a safe gateway for viewers to get into her show (clearly, it worked). I’d also like to note that I did indeed finish the series by the very next day, and it only got better. If you haven’t watched it, yet, do. It’s wonderful. (If you’re anywhere near as obsessed with this show as I am, you’ll be interested to know that Vulture has been running a series of off-color interviews with all the cast members of the show. My personal favorite so far is Kate Mulgrew‘s, but they’re all wonderful.)

My number one favorite thing about television — about all stories, really — is the way it allows us as viewers to experience things we never have before, and maybe never will. I believe it was good old George R.R. Martin who wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . The man who never reads lives only one.” He was talking about books, of course, but I’d argue the principle is the same. There are as many types of stories as there are people who want to experience them. Stories can be an escape or a balm for a weary soul. Stories can fire our imaginations and even invoke us to action. And stories can act as a bridge between worlds, and between people as well. Stories are vicarious experiences, and hearing about them is almost as good as experiencing them. It’s that last one I’m most concerned with today.

o-ORANGE-IS-THE-NEW-BLACK-facebook-6724I’m not going to lie to you. The first five minutes of Netflix’s new original series, Orange is the New Black are pretty harrowing. We’re introduced to our protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as she takes her first shower as an inmate of the women’s federal prison in Litchfield, NY, for — as we learn later — carrying a bag of drug money for her then girlfriend (who is played by the magnetic Laura Prepon). She is very much set up — by the show and by herself — as a good person who always does the right thing, and that whole drug smuggling thing (and dating, and falling in love with, a drug smuggler) was just a phase and has nothing do with — ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH — who she is as a person. She’s turning herself in, you see, because that’s what she’s supposed to do. And anyway, the only reason she got caught is because her ex-girlfriend must have named her during her trial. Logically, for Piper, this means Piper is not guilty and doesn’t deserve to be there in the first place.

So that’s her headspace when she’s taking that shower, wearing maxi pads on her feet in place of shower shoes — that she’s a victim of a bad situation living temporarily and nobly against her will in a hostile environment — and everything about the way the show is filmed, written, scored, and acted for the entire first episode reinforces that opinion for her, and for us as viewers. Everything about the prison feels hostile to Piper’s eyes. The walls are drab and bare of color. The inmates crouch and glare silently at her. Walking in the bathroom, one inmate who appears to have been talking to herself yells ‘Boo’ and Piper jumps a mile, then she spots a wild-haired woman in an open shower stall doing very naughty things to the woman who drove the transfer van (a woman who professed to have a straight fiance). The wild-haired woman, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), knows exactly how badly this display has freaked Piper out, and smiles wickedly. And this was after her shower ended with what, to the freaked out Piper, must have seemed like sexual assault, as a fellow inmate Taystee openly compliments Piper’s small breasts and then pulls her towel off repeatedly. And that’s not even mentioning the humiliating ‘spread your buttcheeks’ moment before she was allowed into the prison. Every scene is built to showcase Piper’s trepidation, from her first encounters with inmates to the interview with her counselor, Healy, who appears to have a strange obsession with lesbian behavior in his prison. “There are lesbians. They will try to be your friend. Stay away from them,” he tells her. By this point we as viewers are well aware that Piper had previously fallen in love with a woman, so even a piece of advice that he means to be reassuring thus comes across as threatening to her as well. By the end of her first day, Piper is quite literally a quivering mass of nerves, convinced prison is the worst place in the world.

What’s really interesting about Orange is the New Black is how the show so deftly moves us away from Piper’s initial point of view, both through flashbacks and scenes in the present day. Even as early as the second episode (which I feel I must point out to you is titled “Tit Punch”), characters who seemed scary, criminal, and unfamiliar, instead begin to feel like people. The inmate prison cook, Red (the scene-stealing Kate Mulgrew), for instance, does something truly disgusting to Piper, but by the end of the second episode, you not only understand why she did it, but you can’t help but start to fall in love with her as well. And Red isn’t the only one who gets this treatment. Other inmates, Nicky, Taystee, the transsexual Sophia, and a wonderful character named Crazy Eyes all have their moments. . . by the time the show is done with them, they’re no longer scary criminals who screw each other in the showers, they’re people.

After having watched the first nine episodes, it seems clear to me that the show is almost entirely engaged in a re-humanizing of the criminal. Unraveling how that process is simultaneously affected in us as viewers, and in its protagonist, Chapman, has turned out to be one of the main pleasures of the show. As Chapman gets to know all of these women, spending day after day with them enduring prison life, she no longer sees them as threats (well, most of them). This is the most clear when her fiance Larry (a perfectly cast Jason Biggs) comes to visit, and she admits aloud for the first time that she is in prison because she made a bad decision, and now she has to pay for it. Prison for her is no longer a place where bad people go to be punished, and where she doesn’t deserve to be (not really) — instead, it’s a place where she’s forced to look at her life and her choices and decide which version of herself she wants to be: the well-to-do white girl with the perfect life, the lesbian with a drug smuggling girlfriend, or some version in between.

A clarifying moment comes midway through the season when Chapman is fixing a light and Fischer, one of the only two women guards, offers to hold the ladder for her. After discovering that Fischer used to bag Chapman’s groceries at Whole Foods, she tells Chapman that she has a different view from most people about prison and its prisoners. She figures that the only difference between the prisoners and herself is that they had the misfortune to be caught when making their stupid mistakes. From what I’ve seen so far, Fischer’s view is emblematic of the show’s view as well, an assertion which I think holds up when we consider that Fischer is one of the only guards (again, so far) who is kind and respectful, and who doesn’t abuse the power inherent in her position, which makes everything she says automatically more trustworthy, and thus more important for the overall narrative of the show. The behavior of the other guards certainly plays this out as well, and though I’m not entirely sure where they’re going with lesbian-hating Healy, Bennett (spoiler: who we learn gets an inmate pregnant) and Pornstache, who is lecherous, and brings drugs into the prison for his own profit. All of them do things that would land them in cells of their own if they were caught, and yet they’re the ones who look down on every woman incarcerated under their ‘care.’

I’ll be sad to finish those last four episodes, let’s be honest here, probably by tomorrow afternoon at the latest, because it has been a complete joy to experience the ride this show has led me on, even if the story I was experiencing wasn’t all that joyful. I won’t make the ludicrous claim that spending thirteen hours watching a fictionalized television program about life in a women’s prison is at all like actually having been to prison, but in terms of forming opinions about what going to prison means in our culture, what types of people go there and why, and what happens to them there, yes, watching a fictionalized television program does feel like a significant way to explore these and other uncomfortable questions like them. We love, like, and hate things and people on our televisions the same way we love, like, and hate things in real life, so to take this emotional journey with Piper is a little bit like taking it ourselves.

This kind of storytelling, the kind that hits you square in the gut, is edgy and asks us hard questions in provocative ways. Any version of this story told without sex and drugs and smuggling and harassment and everything you might think a prison story would entail, would not be worth telling, and not just for the value of accurate representation. If prison guard Fischer is to be believed (and to paraphrase Ms. Rowling), the world isn’t split into good people and criminals: we’re all transgressive in one form or another, and like PIper, we’re lying to ourselves if we think otherwise. In the world of Orange is the New Black, it doesn’t seem to matter how far along the criminal spectrum these characters actually are, only that they crossed the line into punishable offense, and they got caught. What Orange is the New Black does is move us from watching these characters as a form of spectacle — as outsiders looking in and being abhorred or shocked or disgusted, even amused (pick your own adjective and insert here) — to watching them as people we care for. In the end, we love Red because she punched a woman in the tit and then became a mobster. We love Nicky for her struggles to overcome her addiction. We love Piper for finally taking the blame for her own stupid mistakes. In loving the transgressive felons on this show, as Piper learns to do, we too accept the fact that we’re human and we fuck up everyone once in awhile, and even though we may have to accept the consequences of those mistakes, it doesn’t make us any less human.

7 Responses to “‘Orange is the New Black’: Criminals are People, Too”
  1. Jen says:

    I haven’t been here in so long since I dropped off the face of the internet! I miss you! I’ll be reading the backlog minus the Defiance post because I haven’t watched that show yet. It’s on my list!

    I love Orange is the New Black. I watched all of it in 2 days and cursed netflix for releasing shows with all the episodes at once! It is satisfying, and actually the way I prefer to watch TV, but extremely productivity-consuming.

    I love Red, and not just because I already adored Kate Mulgrew in Voyager. She is definitely my favorite. I see a lot of themes and pacing similar to Weeds in this show, but I think I like it better. Maybe it’s just because I was burnt out (no pun intended) on Weeds after so many seasons. At the anxiety-filled beginning, my first thought was “oh my, is it going to be like this all the time???” but the development of characters, friendships, and the infusion of humor into the storylines really hooked me.

    • Ashley says:

      Awww. Well, there isn’t much backlog. I’ve been slacking. (Or rather, most of my writing energy is now devoted to book blogging over at Cannonball Read.)

      I’ve never seen Weeds, so I can’t really compare the two. Red is my favorite, as well, with probably Taystee coming in second. Kate Mulgrew is a complete badass. Previous to this, I’d only ever seen her in Warehouse 13 as Pete’s mom. (I’m still working on making my way through the entire ST canon. I’m mid-way through DS9 right now.)

  2. albumbly says:

    LOOOVE this. Thank you, Dumpling. You inspired me today.

  3. eporter70 says:

    Love this show. By turns both hilarious bad heartbreaking.

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  1. […] of this show, but since I try to keep this blog on the lighter side, I’ll just point you to Ashley’s awesome writeup about it instead. She does it more eloquently than I ever could […]

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