Orange is the New Black: Setting a New Standard for Socially Conscious TV

Orange is the New Black is so overhyped that I wasn’t going to watch it, until my friend texted me that I look like a minor character in a passing episode that I could find zero information on without actually watching the show (#selfcentered). I’m so glad this text happened, because this show is so good, particularly re:social commentary/feminism! Shukriya, Patti!

Orange‘s protagonist a WASP who ends up in jail due a relationship she had 10 years ago with a girl who worked for an international drug cartel. Immediately prior to being thrown in jail, she thought her life going forward would be straightforward; she and her fiance are recently engaged and in general her life seemed stable. Then, jail happened, along with:

  • Really strong female characters. It’s a women’s prison, so, it pretty easily passes the Bechdel Test which is a good first step. There are strong females characters of color, strong female characters of all different religions, even a strong trans female character. It’s really phenomenal in this regard.
  • Racial tensions. The prison is pretty self-segregated racially, and from the very first episode WASP has other white ladies coming up to her and saying things like “gotta help my own kind” and we meet a Latina character who is criticized by the other Latinas for not knowing Spanish. Upper middle class white people, in general, expend a lot of effort trying not to be racist, without really knowing anything about the racism that is rampant in lower-class communities of all races and why people feel tension towards people of other races in the first place. I love that this show sheds light on this reality and (to an extent) where it comes from to it’s [presumably primarily] upper middle class white audiences. There is also a pretty great episode (WAC elections) where each of the racial groups just exudes their stereotypes about the other races; it pushes the limits, and is so real:

(for an excellent criticism of the above clip, read Adam Balm’s critique)

  • Blurred lines, re: sexuality. Again, from the very first episode this is very apparent – we do have a straight protagonist who had a long-term girlfriend in her early 20s. Her fiance and his parents can’t comprehend that she could possibly be attracted to this girl and to her male fiance, and either refer to her first relationship as a “fling” or are afraid of her “turning back” any time they acknowledge it. Plus, the whole show takes place in a women’s federal prison, where women are going to be locked up together for long periods of time, and naturally will be craving intimacy and human touch. Even if they can steal a phone and take crotch shots to send back and forth with their lovers/masturbate with a [again, stolen] screwdriver, they’re stuck in prison for a while and will naturally both enter sexual relationships with and fall in love with the people around them. The main character makes a statement at some point about just needing to be physically touched by another human, not even in any sort of sexual way – how this is a basic human need. I think anyone who has been in a long distance relationship (or who has just been single for long enough) knows how true this is, and at that point it doesn’t matter what sex your partner is or what sexual orientation you identify with yourself, because love and the desire to be loved just aren’t about some simple penis/vagina dichotomy.
  • Blurred lines, re: wrong vs right. We (where “we” is upper middle class white America) like to think that criminals go to jail because they are bad. We don’t care much about their reason for committing a crime, because breaking the law is bad and inexcusable. We like to think that police officers and other people involved in law enforcement are “good”, for keeping the criminals in their place [jail]. Orange does a fantastic job showing us that things aren’t that black and white. We get backstories about most of the women in the prison, that show us that in reality, all of them are good people that were thrown into bad circumstances: You can be the most morally sound person on the planet, but if your mom is involved with a guy who runs a meth lab out of your kitchen, there’s not much you can do to not end up in jail with her. The people who run the prison, on the other hand, tend to be sexist, objectifying, homophobic, narrow-minded, and in a few cases straight up corrupt.
  • A self-sufficient disabled person. This was in only one episode, but so few shows would even think to venture into this territory. Delinquent youth visit the prison, and one of the girls is in a wheelchair. She also has robbed a liquor store and has her own gang. What? A person can be disabled and successfully do things that most of us couldn’t even do if we tried? Is this a fake video? No, world, this isn’t just a fictional TV show. Paraplegics are capable of a lot; don’t let a wheelchair fool you into thinking someone is weak or incapable, of anything (not just robbing a liquor store).

Basically, there’s a reason this show is overhyped. From a feminist(/generally socially aware) perspective, this is easily the best show on television* right now. Yes, it’s cast comes from That 70’s Show and American Pie, and I’m not sure that I really “got” the season finale, but if it was any more perfect than it is it would probably just be too much for the world to handle, so I’ll just leave it at that and patiently wait for the next season.

*technically it’s not “on television” because it’s on Netflix only – “on the internet”? should I have just said “on Netflix”? I guess I’m using “on television” metaphorically; it seems to fit best.

9 responses to “Orange is the New Black: Setting a New Standard for Socially Conscious TV

  1. From your description and clips provided, this really reminds me a lot of HBO’s ‘The Wire,’ what with that show’s realistic, gritty depiction of people from all walks of life. I also see similarities in both shows’ analysis and criticism of the sociopolitical structures that surround their characters’ lives.

  2. I’ve heard that comparison made before! I have permanant bad memories associated with that show re: a less than ideal living situation I had with people who were obsessed with it, but if more people compare it to Orange ill get over that soon enough and start watching.

    • Lol I know what you mean about bad memories associated with pop culture art, but I highly recommend you give it a second chance. Tell you what, I’ll start watching ‘Orange’ if you give ‘The Wire’ a try! 🙂

  3. Great analysis! I totally forgot about the disabled girl and love where they took it as far as self sufficiency and determination to be a ‘bad ass’! I really love how this show twists and turns, really keeps me on my toes. Such a breath of fresh air compared to the usual crap out there. Take care. 🙂

    • Thanks! Anjali is a friend’s sister and the whole family is really doing remarkable things, definitely people I’m proud to know 🙂

  4. Pingback: Orange Is The New Black : essai d’une critique sur la 1ère saison | Ms. DreydFul·

  5. This is an excellent commentary, but you have claimed that Piper Chapman is a “straight character” who once had a girlfriend. It is confirmed throughout the series that she still has feelings for this woman as well as her fiancé, and that she likes men AND women. This clearly makes her bisexual, not straight, no matter what the ignorant straight people in the show say to/about her.

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