It’s a cardinal rule of pop culture criticism that you’re allowed to like something and find it problematic at the same time. On the subject of critique, Voltaire once wrote, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” which has been popularly translated to “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” This is the principle that allows for former liberal arts students or Women’s Studies majors to be able to enjoy television without your brain exploding. What would watching a Disney movie be without a little Voltairean distance? After any class on Edward Said, Aladdin would otherwise be impossible to sit through without experiencing rage blindness.
With that in mind, I wholeheartedly recommend Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original show that your Facebook news feed can’t stop raving about — for very good reason. From the creator of Weeds, Jenji Kohan, the show is arguably Kohan’s finest yet, a show almost Altmanesque in its embarrassment of great characters and performances. I don’t envy the PR team assigned to the show’s Emmy submissions next year, because picking who gets submitted and who gets left out will be tough. My vote is for Laverne Cox, whose flashback episode is easily the season’s best dramatic showcase, but the show gets the best performances yet out of Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne (glad to have you back), Kate Mulgrew and Taryn Manning, who is practically unrecognizable as the show’s makeshift villain.
The show isn’t just shamelessly entertaining, milking a chicken catch as one of the funniest running jokes you’ll see all year, but an important look at life behind bars. For those of us interested in the prison system and the people inside it, Orange is the New Black humanizes prison life in a way that (mostly) feels honest. Kohan does a great job illuminating each character drama, from Piper’s past relationship with Alex to Daya’s ongoing strife with her mother and the social ostracizion and insecurity behind Red’s tough prison mama exterior. The show’s message is that people like Piper Chapman, a willowy WASP with a degree from Smith, aren’t any different from anyone else inside the prison walls. All of us are the sum of our choices, which make us who we are.
However, the problem with Orange is the New Black is that Piper is different, in ways that are blatantly obvious to anyone watching the show. In the show, Piper Chapman turned herself in after being named in a drug smuggling scandal by her ex-girlfriend, played with sensuous intensity by Laura Prepon. Her decision to self-surrender costs her the privilege that she enjoyed on the outside — which she laments — but that privilege doesn’t stop at the prison walls. She’s given a hard time for being the newbie by the other inmates, but the guards and the warden treat her with a respect not afforded to the other prisoners. Think about it: Who else gets to use their first name? Who else gets constant phone calls and wire transfers from their fiancee?
Even though the show insists that she’s a criminal and the same as everyone else, it’s clear that those around still see her as a pretty white lady, the Cindy Brady of the bunch. In one episode, Healy tells Chapman that they don’t often see inmates like her, with her wealth and education, and Healy feels like this is a privilege to be exploited. It means that she can be an advocate in the prison and speak for the other prisoners, even though it’s consistently shown that Chapman is a naive airhead and a flake. Healy isn’t talking about her credentials on the inside — where Red would be a much more natural leader, as she’s long won the respect of the penitentiary — but her background. You can’t turn privilege off. You take it with you.
As Against Equality‘s Yasmin Nair points out in her article for In These Times, this leads to a situation where the supporting characters’ politics are trivialized, as if this were more The Facts of Life than Oz. The show makes Chapman into the only character that seems to care about the “pressing issues” facing the prison, such as “the discontinuation of GED classes and the closing of a running track.” Kohan colors the other inmates demands as more of wacky antics than anything political, as Piper’s compatriots are more interested in doughnuts and Sriracha than education.
The show docks Chapman for her privilege when it’s convenient, especially in a prolonged hazing ritual where Red attempts to starve her out, but other than another notch in the prison’s diversity belt, that examination rarely goes more than skin deep. This is possibly because Chapman is everyone’s least favorite character, the McNulty of the bunch, but also because (outside of The Wire) television rarely does a decent job of systemic analysis.
Television isn’t usually for social justice; it’s for entertainment — which means that shows like Orange is the New Black often get off the hook when they lack critical focus. However, on a show that touches on the issues of our broken prison system and the prison industrial complex, that sort of analysis is needed — or it threatens to trivialize the show’s power to make a difference in the lives of these women, all of whom are based off characters in the real Chapman’s book (née Piper Kerman). As shown by Orange is the New Black, these inmates are disproportionately women of color, queer and lower-middle class or just plain poor. These are women who the system has already disadvantaged, who then wind up exploited and jailed within its walls.
Why does the system target these women for incarceration at such high rates? What are the social push factors that get them there in the first place? The prison system isn’t just about bad choices but whose choices are policed and targeted in the first place. People like Miss Claudette and Red, both of whom are recent immigrants, serve decades for their crimes — when Oscar Grant’s shooter got out after eleven months. If Piper had made Miss Claudette’s decisions, how would the system have treated her? Would their bad decisions be seen as equal? At a time when the Trayvon Martin case has shown just how unequal justice really is, these are the questions we need to be asking.
These are big issues for any show to tackle, and Orange is the New Black begins to examine these problems in moments where a former inmate lands back behind bars after finding out what life is like on the outside, a system that marks ex-cons with a giant red A. Even after you leave prison, this scene shows that for some there’s no escaping — with “constant surveillance by the state, the impossibility of finding jobs, her lack of a support system outside.” However, when Piper Chapman gets out, recidivism is not the reality she faces. Piper Kerman landed a book deal and her own critically acclaimed TV show. There’s a reason that folks like Red seem a lot less interested than leaving. The publishing industry isn’t waiting for them, just a hell that’s as real as the one they are already experiencing.
Piper Chapman’s story deserves to be told, as it can help put a face on the prison issue, but we must remember that Piper’s greatest privilege is that she gets to be that face in a way others do not. She might be everyone’s least favorite character on their new favorite show, but as the lead, it’s still Piper’s story we’re telling. As we collectively binge watch this enormously addictive new show, we need to ask ourselves why. When our media won’t go all the way for justice, it’s up to us to make up the difference.