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“Orange is the New Black” has shown considerable success over its five seasons. The show blends elements of a typical television drama with the rarely explored dynamics of incarcerated women, with the desire to connect viewers to an often marginalized portion of the population.
Prison, Angela Davis notes, is a common feature in American media. It can be used to evoke a wide variety of themes: freedom, justice, redemption, vengeance, and many others. Therefore, while it was a surprise to see a show featuring diverse female inmates come up in the writing room, it’s use of the ever-popular prison archetype helped ensure its success.
While this commercial success helped make OITNB a household name, from a critical perspective, it’s portrayal of the experiences of women in prison make it of interest. Given its large popularity, OITNB has significant power to effect society’s views on women and inmates. In some ways, the show has helped generate progress in this regard, while in other ways, it has done the opposite.
One of the shows greatest strengths is Sophia, a transgender woman portrayed by transgender actress Laverne Cox. As was covered extensively earlier in the course in “Reel Injun,” one of the key ways to ensuring minority groups are represented fairly is by giving them autonomy over their depictions. Transgender characters portrayed by transgender actors and actresses are a rarity in the industry, and Sophia’s character is a step in the right direction for trans representation.
The show also takes a firm stand against the many flaws of the United States prison system, most obviously, the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements which led Piper to take a plea bargain. This issue is extensively discussed in “13th,” where it is noted that these minimums prevent judges from exercising their discretion in sentencing. Combined with penalties criminals often face if convicted after rejecting a plea bargain, they serve to effectively deny the Constitutional right to a trial to many, especially drug offenders. The show clearly argues that Piper had already been rehabilitated, establishing a normal life, and did not need to serve a punishment for her actions. Her punishment is seen as something closer to bloodlust than justice, a view shared by many in regards to drug crime in the United States.
In other ways, however, the show falls short on its representation of women in prison. One of the biggest problems comes from its use of Piper, a white, middle class protagonist. While the creator of the show claims in Zerlina Maxwell’s article that Piper is used as a way to bridge the gap between a typical TV viewer and a prison inmate. In “White is the New White,” it is claimed that Piper serves instead to perpetuate stereotypes and allow white people to continue to profit on the lives and experiences of people of color. This is reinforced by subtle racist tones in the show’s storyline, creating the feeling of a white “damsel in distress” frightened to be surrounded by inherently scary people of color. While it’s not unreasonable for a woman like Piper to feel that way when arriving in prison, the characters’ behavior seems to enforce this stereotype rather than debunk it.
The shows also seems to fall short of “humanizing” the inmates, as it claims to do. Keri Blakinger noted that many of the women she met in prison were good people who made mistakes, and formed lasting friendships with many following their release. In OITNB, however, the majority of the inmates simply aren’t likeable. Piper cheats on her fiancé, Sophia selfishly ignores her wife’s sacrifices, Red and many others attack Sophia for her gender identity. The characters seem to fulfill the “fallen woman” archetype discussed in “Are Prisons Obsolete?” – that they are evil at the core, without possibility of salvation.
Overall, the portrayal of female inmates in “Orange is the New Black” represents progress, but is insufficient. While granting viewers a much more realistic glimpse into prison life than they will typically see, it still enforces several negative stereotypes about female inmates, especially inmates of color. OITNB is a step in the right direction, but there is still progress to be made.
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