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Problematizing Orange is the New Black: Does It Get Everything Right?

By Chris Quach, Jaime Grant Research Fellow

In the past few weeks, much has been said about the groundbreaking nature of Orange is the New Black. Billed as “the best TV show about prison ever made,” the Netflix original series provides an honest look at life in a typical women’s prison. In many of the episodes, we see the manifestation of class privileges, racial tensions, and even homophobia and transphobia between inmates in a majority-minority prison system, all of which are portrayed with a sobering realness. However, I would argue that OITNB portrays each of these issues with varying success, and would do well to examine them further in future episodes.

Class gets perhaps the worst treatment on the show, with many issues left unexamined. The protagonist, Piper, is a WASP-y alumna of Smith College, a founder of a line of artisanal bath soaps, and prepares to endure prison life by reading everything on her Amazon wish list. Piper then hits a rude awakening when the grit of prison doesn’t quite match up with the glamour she anticipated. However, why is she one of the only ones willing to speak up for her fellow inmates? Why does she and no one else on the prison’s Women’s Advisory Council feel empowered enough to speak up? Even though she wears the same uniform and has the same living conditions as the other inmates, the show infuses Piper with a heightened consciousness of her bleak surroundings. Could this be because of her privileged upbringing or her quality women’s-college education? I would like to see the show examine this further.

The racial tensions in OITNB are well-portrayed, with clear divides amongst the black, Latina and white inmates. There are ubiquitous reminders to “defend one’s own” and stick with those that look like you. However, prison is still portrayed simply as the result of unfortunate choices that one makes, and that many people of color happen to make carelessly. In one scene, a female prison guard attempts to sympathize with Piper, explaining that she made the same mistakes in her life, just without getting caught. The show does not address prison as an issue of systemic inequality that disproportionately incriminates a majority of people of color and makes a profit off of their mass imprisonment.

I might also add that we see the same characters in this show as has been familiarized in past media portrayals of women: the black mammy who takes care of the white and the privileged, the loud Latina who lets off a dizzying mix of Spanish and English, and the uneducated “white trash” girl who preaches hate. In a show with a cast of mostly women, the cast only goes so far in showing a diversity of backgrounds and experiences before reverting back to the same stereotypes.

Finally, issues of LGBT people and sexual fluidity arguably receive the most attention, from lesbian trysts with various inmates to inadequate health care for transgender prisoners. In one scene, Piper reminds her friend Polly that her lesbian past was not a phase, but rather part of a fluid spectrum of sexuality. In another, we see the ambivalence that one of the inmates, Morello, experiences between experimenting with her queerness and being faithful to her fiancé on the outside. The show also received much buzz for devoting an entire episode to Sophia Burset, a transgender woman who encounters transphobic harassment and a bureaucracy that cannot provide her with the necessary hormone treatment. In Sophia we see intimate moments of her transition that humanize what many transgender people go through.

Despite all of its problems, I think OITNB ultimately puts faces to a system that much of the public is unfamiliar with. Being on Netflix and not having to worry about censorship or ratings certainly helps it provide an unflinching look into issues of race, class and gender. Why, I would ask, doesn’t it dare to dig even deeper? I can only hope that the show does so in the next season which began filming today.