I’ll begin by saying the best investment I’ve ever made was Netflix. As a girl who sometimes skips meals just to avoid spending my hard-earned cash, monthly expenses are not the way I thought I’d go, but Netflix is very worth it, and the release of their newest original program, Orange is the New Black only made me feel better about my decision to subscribe (especially after I subjected myself to the train wreck that was Hemlock Grove).
Based on the memoir of nice white lady Piper Kerman, OITNB follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), also a nice white lady who heads to prison to serve time for carrying drug money once at the request of her then girlfriend, drug importer Alex (Laura Prepon looking absolutely fantastic in a pair of glasses). Of all the women in the cast of this show, Piper may be the least interesting, but that’s really saying something because Piper’s still really interesting.
Initially I worried this show would be another example of the ongoing inability of television programs to write well for women, particularly women who aren’t young, straight and white, and the cast is populated with women who are varied in age, race and sexuality. Even Piper, despite her initial statements to the contrary, isn’t straight, and her complicated feelings for Alex and fiance Larry (Jason Biggs) are a large part of the show. The privilege afforded to Piper as an upper middle class white woman is understood and acknowledged constantly by the show, especially in comparison to the other inmates who lack the resources Piper has. It’s Piper’s privilege and her self-absorption that makes her into a well-rounded character but it’s the narrative’s acknowledgement of those traits (and Piper’s continuous calling out by other characters) that keeps her from being tiresome and unlikable.
My concern was that OITNB would be told through the Piper’s privileged’s lens while exploiting the other women and their stories, turning them into a mechanism by which only Piper would be further characterized. Imagine what a nice surprise it was to watch and see the many women of this show existing outside of her. Though she does interact with all of them at one point or another, Piper isn’t the only vehicle through which we watch the other women live. Once the pilot episode concludes, the other women of the prison exist on their own. They have – and develop – relationships outside of Piper, and some don’t speak to her again after their initial introductions.
It would be easy for the OITNB to throw in a few subplots here or there for Piper to interact with the other women simultaneously revealing their backstories and then move on in the next episode so Piper can grapple with some new trouble with another character. But the subplots are just as serialized as Piper’s larger arc, and we are allowed to follow the other women throughout the season, even if Piper isn’t following them herself. We follow transgender woman Sophia (Laverne Cox) as she’s denied her hormones and copes with her complicated relationship with her wife and son, we keep up with Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) secret affair with a guard, and we accompany Red (Kate Mulgrew) in her attempts to keep control of the prison’s kitchen. And none of those arcs involve Piper who’s dealing with her own batch of problems.
OITNB is very much an ensemble show, and its characters are the best representation of womanhood that I’ve ever seen on television. Because of the many women on this show, all of various backgrounds, stereotypes could have run rampant. Other shows would have made Taystee and Poussey (Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley) into Hollywood’s favorite depiction of black people – dumb, loud and “ghetto” – but OITNB makes them into complex women, who are smart (though their intelligence isn’t one that’s readily embraced by society) with hopes, dreams, fears and a strong friendship that was for me, one of the highlights of the show. All of these women are much more than what they initially appear to be, and much more than the caricatures often depicted in television. They are allowed flaws and complications, to be educated and uneducated, selfish and self-sacrificing, gay or straight or something in between, soft-spoken and brash, weak willed and steel-spined, and they’re also allowed to be terrible (like Taryn Manning’s Pennsatucky who is pretty terrible).
In OITNB there is no ideal woman. There are just women.
There are also men and most of them are awful. There’s Larry, who spends most of the season making Piper’s prison experience about him. Bennett (Matt McGorry) is having an affair with inmate Daya. Still, they’re less offensive than OITNB’s other males. At the other end of the spectrum is Pornstache (Pablo Schrieber) who routinely feels up and intimidates the inmates. Somewhere in between but leaning toward awful are Healy (Michael Harney) and his fixation on making sure nice white lady Piper isn’t also a lesbian and Caputo (Nick Sandow), who I don’t really remember anything about.
It’s so rare to watch a show that knows the faults of its men and sides with the women. OITNB still presents the injustice of their treatment at the hands of men who have power over them, and the women know this as well. They take whatever measures necessary in order to ensure their own security sometimes at the expense of those men or their egos. Even with conflicts between subgroups, this show is full of women who are looking out for women. The first couple of episodes have Piper being helped by the other inmates during her transition into prison, and the season ending arcs push inmates who usually steer clear of one another together to achieve a common goal.
It almost makes me want to go to prison.