By Sophie Crispin
If you had a Netflix account and the least amount of free time last summer, chances are you probably watched Orange is the New Black. Then you probably emerged from a television-induced stupor two days later, after binge-watching all 13 episodes of the first season.
The drama/comedy produced by Netflix was adapted from a novel called “Orange is the New Black: My Time in a Women’s Prison” by Piper Kerman.
A summer hit, the Netflix adaptation follows fictional Piper Chapman into a women’s prison in upstate New York.
Chapman is instantly relatable to the initial 18-25 year-old viewer: she’s young, idyllic albeit a little lost, and she and her boyfriend are still somewhat dependent on their parents for financial support.
She’s also easy to forgive. She screwed up once, a long time ago. Who hasn’t? She’s not really a criminal. It’s easier for an audience to see themselves in her, and then they can’t help but want to be on her side. Piper Chapman is easy for the average viewer to cheer for because, well, she’s white. And that’s exactly how producer Jenji Kohan expects us to see her.
In an interview with NPR, Kohan described Chapman as her ‘trojan horse,’ claiming “you’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”
This honest, raw, and sometimes uncomfortable portrayal of race, class, and gender discrimination is why you should watch it. Yes, it may have scenes that will make you choke on your 2:00 AM ice cream sundae, accompanied by lesbian sex scenes that are far more explicit than cable.
But the real impact of ‘Orange’ comes from its exploration into the background of a different character in each episode. These stories — from the transwoman who is serving time for credit card fraud because most health insurance providers refuse to cover sex reassignment surgeries, to the Latina woman who is in prison because she had little other choice but to let her abusive boyfriend use her kitchen as a drug hub — force the audience to examine circumstances that real-world Piper Chapmans can easily go through life ignoring.
‘Orange is the New Black’ juxtaposes the complaints of Chapman and her middle class, white friends with the harsh realities faced by those who live in urban poverty in way that makes you pay attention. And it showcases the way that privilege, be it based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or class, plays a role in every aspect of someone’s life – whether they’re aware of it or just passively benefitting.
It also raises some serious questions about our prison system and the role it plays in perpetuating the circle of poverty, especially among marginalized populations. And lastly, it’s hilarious. This mostly-female cast walks the tightrope of a dramedy like they were born to be there. And with its incredible success this summer, clearly this diverse, smart storytelling has an audience.
When you consider the underwhelming representation of dynamic women or people of color (or most notably absent, women of color) portrayed in mainstream media, it’s easier to understand why ‘Orange is the New Black’ is turning so many heads. It provides a long overdue portrayal of something other than the white guy who’s smooth and intriguing, excessively violent, stupid/funny, and always sexual.
And hopefully, it’s a sign of a new era of television.