Nov 21, 2014

Orange is the New Black: Power in Numbers

Orange is the New Black cast
Orange is the New Black: Power in Numbers
The Netflix series Orange is the New Black tells the story of Piper Chapman, a thirty-two year old woman who is sent to prison for fifteen months for having transported drug money a decade before. Piper is an upper middle-class New Yorker who was about to marry her boyfriend Larry and start a business with her best friend Polly; her offense comes to light because her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause, allegedly names her in her own trial. During her time in Litchfield Prison, Piper gets to know her fellow inmates — a large group of women from a variety of backgrounds — and reassess her relationships with Larry and Alex, as well as her current path in life.

I keep returning to my friend Aarti’s post on diversifying our reading (which goes for our media consumption in general): she tells us that only a wide range of stories can possibly hope to capture the variety of experiences of people who belong to underrepresented groups, and remind us that, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so well put it, there’s danger in relying on a single story. I bring this up again because Orange is the New Black’s diverse cast of characters has often been at the centre of critical discussions of the show — obviously with good reason. Before I go on to explain why I loved it, I would like to engage with some of the arguments I’ve come across.

Orange is the New Black: Piper and Alex

One of the first things I read about Orange is the New Black was an essay by Roxane Gay included in Bad Feminist, in which she argues that all the praise the series has received for being diverse goes to show how empty of stories featuring women of colour our cultural landscape really is. Gay is someone I very much look up to, and I could see her point that in the end, this is still a series where a white woman is the hero and the women of colour who surround her are mostly supporting characters who only appear in relation to her (though I think this is something that eventually changes, but I’ll get there in time). Additionally, Allison Samuels says in this moving piece that racial inequality in the criminal-justice system in America is too big an issue for her to be able to enjoy a series about black women in prison, no matter how critically acclaimed it is.

These are two positions I absolutely respect. The way we respond to the stories we encounter is informed by who we are, which is why I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that when I say that I loved Orange is the New Black and its array of stories about women, I do so as a white European lady who doesn’t have to live with the daily knowledge that people who look like me are unjustly incarcerated, or routinely killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I enjoyed it, in short, from a position of privilege. My love for this series is shaped by my context, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s important to me to be upfront about it and bear it in mind.

Orange is the New Black: Nicky

The perfectly legitimate problems critics like Gay or Samuels point out are in part due to the fact that Orange is the New Black is the popular and critically acclaimed diverse series featuring women we currently have. Again we go back to my favourite motto: all the stories, please. All the stereotypes Orange is the New Black may fail to subvert bear more weight because of our poor cultural landscape; all the things it may get wrong would grate less if there were more stories out there about a wide range of women.

Having said this, I still think Orange is the New Black’s greatest strength is the large number of women it presents us with. While it’s perfectly true that in our current media landscape a story about people of colour in prison runs the danger of becoming a single story, the series manages to give us nuance within that set-up, largely because it highlights the individual stories of so many different women. I remember reading a quote from a cast member many months ago (which, typically, I can no longer find) about how amazing the sheer number of women on set was. This was exactly how I felt as a viewer: ladies everywhere! It made my heart sing.

Orange is the New Black: Alex

There are a lot of women in Orange is the New Black, and there’s power in numbers. There are middle-class women and poor women; Latina women, black women, and Asian-American women; a trans woman played by the amazing Laverne Cox; older women; immigrant women; lesbian, straight and bisexual women; women coping with illnesses; and so on. The large cast helps ease the pressure to be all things to all people that inevitably befalls characters from underrepresented groups. The fact that there is, for the most part, more than one of them allows the focus to shift to these women’s individuality. This was wonderful and refreshing, and it’s something I always want to see more of in my media.

At the end of the series’ first season, Piper Chapman is given reasons to reassess her tendency to focus so much on how other people’s actions are likely to affect her, as well as on the potentially reductive and dehumanising consequences of this approach. I thought this was an interesting narrative choice, especially because of how it’s put into practice the following season. Orange is the New Black changes in noticeable ways from season one to season two, and the greatest change has to do with the point Roxane Gay makes in her essay. The focus moves away from Piper herself, and Orange is the New Black shifts from a story with a large supporting cast to a true ensemble series. We get more episodes that delve into different women’s back stories, and while Piper remains a key character, there are plenty of narrative arcs that don’t revolve around her, giving the rest of the characters more room to grow in complexity.

Orange is the New Black: Alex and Piper cuddling

In fact, I would say that Piper’s realisation that seeing herself as central to the story of Litchfield Prison is a result of her privilege is, in a nutshell, the plot arc of the first season. This was heartening to see, especially as Orange is the New Black often deals with issues of inequality. To give you another example, it’s noticeable from the very beginning that the fact that Piper is white and middle-class affects her experience in prison. Not only is she perceived differently (her counsellor, Mr Healey, constantly reminds Piper that she’s “not like those other women”), but she has resources and contacts on the outside that other women don’t necessarily have. Race and class divisions inform life in prison at every turn, and this is something Piper gains a better understanding of as the series progresses.

It’s also clear from the start that Orange is the New Black is committed to humanising its characters. Litchfield is a low security women’s prison, and we learn via flashbacks that a lot of the inmates were convicted for drug-consumption related offenses, for political protest, for self-defence against abusers — in short, for offenses in which their contexts play a large role. Many of the characters are women who were placed in positions of powerlessness and exploitation, or where they otherwise had very limited choices; Orange is the New Black approaches their stories with understanding and care. This is of course important — but I think it’s equally important that it’s not universally true. As J.M. Suarez points out in this Pop Matters piece,
While television has embraced the male antihero wholeheartedly, the women who exist alongside them are often vilified or dismissed as annoying, shrill, or just plain unnecessary. Either because writers choose to write women in such a way, or because audiences read them that way, it’s important to point out just how groundbreaking the representation is on Orange Is the New Black.
Orange is the New Black: Taystee and Poussey

For example, about halfway through season two one of the central characters is revealed to have committed a crime I personally find terrifying, and to which my immediate reaction is to recoil in horror. Although this revelation changed how I perceive this character, I nevertheless appreciated the fact that she had been humanised beforehand. As Suarez points out, this approach to female characters is still not something we see very often, and I enjoyed seeing a woman be allowed this level of ambiguity. Miss Rosa, too, is an anti-hero in a way that is usually reserved for men, and I loved the episodes that delved into her backstory. We don’t often get stories where women get to tread on ethically dubious terrain without being horribly punished for it in ways men are not.

Misogyny is often at the centre of the difficulties the women of Litchfield Prison have to deal with, and I appreciated that the series tackled this directly. The men who work at the prison — Mr Healey, Mr Caputo, Bennett and Mendez — are all complicit in inequality in different ways. One of the most sophisticated aspects of the series is that it understands sexism in structural ways that go beyond each individual character’s niceness or lack thereof. Healey, for example, is capable of acts of kindness, but he’s also a terrifying character who relies on traditional gendered power structures. Healey is at his most comfortable when his position of power over women allows him to be magnanimous — his The End of Men speech, his homophobia, and his outburst at his (female) counsellor are all part of this pattern. A world in which the comfort and wellbeing of women is not dependent on men like him choosing to be kind (but, crucially, having the power to withdraw that kindness) is not a world of which he can make sense.

Orange is the New Black: Bennett and Daya

Bennett is another interesting case. I hope and trust that the series will go on to show the dark underbelly of his relationship with Daya more and more clearly. He’s the “nice” one as opposed to Mendez, but hopefully the series won’t shy away from showing that sexual encounters between guards and inmates are always rape for very good reasons. You can’t give meaningful consent when the power differential between the two parties is so stark. I think there have been hints in that direction already — for example, Daya telling him “You wear the uniform, you call the shots” — and I really hope we’ll see more of that in season three.

Of course, none of this is to say that Orange is the New Black doesn’t sometimes mess up. I wasn’t a big fan of the Vee storyline in season two, for example, exactly because I felt it veered away from the structural approach I described above to present us with a simplified Big Baddie. Additionally, although there’s an understandable social reason why all the series’ main black women but Sophia and Poussey were lured into Vee’s gang, I did think it detracted some from the power in numbers I so liked about the series. Most disappointing of all (spoilers) was the revelation that Vee had orchestrated RJ’s shooting by a white police officer. We live in a world where black young men are frequently killed by white police officers without other black people plotting to make it happen, and where there’s no shortage of denial and victim-blaming surrounding that. This means I can’t approach a twist like this comfortably, or fail to see it as damaging — for much the same reasons why I give woman-manipulates-everyone-with-false-rape-allegations stories the stink eye every time.

But really, I just can’t overstate my appreciation for the fact that Orange is the New Black presents us with an overwhelmingly female universe. Needless to say, this means that relationships between women take centre stage. That they are never portrayed as subordinate to relationships with men is refreshing and amazing (and again we go back to our poor storytelling landscape). The friendships and romances in Orange is the New Black are rich and messy and human: if they’re sometimes complicated, it’s because people are complicated, not because the series is relying on toxic and damaging assumptions about how women interact. These women experience ups and downs; crises and moments of connection; tension and intimacy; conflict and reconciliation; gestures of support and joy. Like all the friends I’ve discussed the series with so far, I’ve had my heart completely and utterly stolen by Taystee and Poussey. But I also loved Red and Nicky and their surrogate mother and daughter dynamics; Red and Norma; the wild ride that is Piper and Alex; Alex and Nicky; Daya and Gloria and Aleida; Sophia and Sister Ingalls; Watson and Yoga Jones. They all develop emotional ties that matter, and the series shows us this plainly and unapologetically.

I loved Orange is the New Black because I found it human and moving and funny; smart and engaging and mostly aware of its potential pitfalls; and most of all because it was choke-full of women I loved getting to know. I watched the first two seasons compulsively, and I absolutely can’t wait for the third. I hope it will stick to the ensemble approach it introduced in season two, that it will have lots more Alex, and that, as I said above, it will continue to explore the implications of the power differential between Daya and Bennett.

I wanted to finish by asking any fellow Orange is the New Black fans, who’s your favourite lady? Personally I adore Nicky, Sophia, and most of all Poussey. I hope we get plenty of episodes about them in the next season.


  1. Hear, hear! I adore this show exactly because (as you say) the cast of women is so delightfully diverse. I was thrilled when the older women started getting a larger role as I think that particular group is remarkably underused in media. Underused may be a weird word to use there, but eh, it's early here. :)

  2. Ooooh, this sounds great! I've seen it on Netflix (which we now thankfully have in Germany, yay!) but I hadn't looked into it yet. What you write sounds great. I can see the points that critics of the series are making re: diversity. But on the other hand, baby steps, right? A show about women that's not a Sex and the City knock off or similar is a *huge* step in the right direction, in my view.

  3. It's impossible for me to have a favorite character on this show because they are all such interesting individuals in different ways.

  4. I haven't watched this show yet, but I have read the book and it's in my Netflix queue. I think it sounds great; I can understand the criticism, in light of the book too, but at the same time I think I'll appreciate it for all the reasons you mention. Looking forward to finding out who my favorite lady is :)

  5. Wonderful review, Ana. I have wanted to watch this series since it came out, but have not been able to. Now, after reading your post, I can't wait to get started. It is nice to know that the cast is so diverse and the series gives the required space to each of the characters and their stories. On diversity of characters,

  6. I always enjoy your brilliant, thoughtful articles. I watched the first couple of seasons of his show and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was hooked -- as you said -- by the irresistibly diverse group of characters and by the blending of humor and darkness.

  7. I still need to watch this, but your review is as thoughtful and even-handed as ever. <3

  8. I think my favorite is Poussey as well, although one of the things I love about OITNB is the dynamics. With so many interesting characters, I love when the writers play "mix-and-match" and throw a couple of characters together in a scene just to see how they interact.

    One of my favorite very minor storylines in the second season was a series of meetings between one of the prisoners and her husband/boyfriend and her baby. He starts off almost silent in these encounters and then there's this surprisingly emotional payoff at the end of the season.

    I hope the Latina characters get more prominent storylines next season - not just Daya/Bennett.

  9. Love this review, Ana. I've seen it listed on Netflix, and read the first chapters in the bookstore, but wasn't sure I wanted to read a book about a white woman in jail - that sense of privilege again, set against all the other women who were damned because of their race. However, your review has made me see that there is enough diversity and rich storytelling that this show is worth watching. A show where women get to be women and exist, NOT in the context of their relationship to men! Awesome! lol I'll give it a go :-)

  10. So much food for thought on one of my favorite shows. I liked that particularly in the second season he story really became less about Piper and more about the rest of the cast. There are so many characters I love, but Red has always been my favorite!

  11. I really love the series, moreso than the book, in fact. I think they've taken the criticism of Piper's privilege into consideration and made changes in the series overall - and particularly in season 2 - that try to address the issues and improve the series. There are still some issues like the ones you point out, yes, but there are so many good things about the series in comparison to anything else currently on TV that I just can't wait until it comes back.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.