“Orange Is the New Black” and the Realities of a Women’s Prison

By Callie Kittredge

orangeWhen I first began watching Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s original comedy/drama series created by Jenji Kohan (who also produced Weeds), I was shocked. Shocked by the complete lack of censorship, foreign concepts and odd characters. I was compelled to watch it, after hearing so many mixed reviews. Some of my friends called it “nothing but a lesbian porno” while others called it “a modern Great Escape.”

I decided to vicariously enter the world of a women’s federal prison.

Orange is based on Piper Kerman’s best-selling memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison.” The Netflix show begins with “Piper Chapman,” a pretty, waspy blonde and her ideal life right before her leave. She lives in New York, in a nice home with her loving husband Larry. Chapman has been sentenced to 15 months in “Litchfield Federal Prison” for helping transport a suitcase of drug money for an international drug dealer, ten years before. You come to realize the drug dealer is Alex Vause, Chapman’s first lesbian lover/affair — who is in the same federal prison. The show explores Chapman and Vause’s relationship in prison, as well as the stories of other inmates.

Orange premiered on Netflix in July 2013 and received interesting reviews. The New York Times review said that “Jenji Kohan has proved herself the master of an odd but successful narrative ploy: putting well-behaved middle-class white women in the middle of stories that typically feature rough nonwhite men.” Other critiques, such as that by Allison Samuels in The Daily Beast, described Orange as stereotyping, featuring black people in prison.

As for me, I binge-watched the two seasons of Orange within weeks because I was fascinated. Never before had I seen such an innovative and creative idea in television. It was an exciting drama without repetitive plot lines or issues. There wasn’t a time at all where I felt bored.

One of the biggest critiques people had with the show, was that although it is based on a true story, it is highly exaggerated. For example, in April of this year, Vanity Fair had an interview with the real Alex Vause, Catherine Cleary Wolters, and her take on the show. She described key details that were inaccurate or untrue.

Despite critics who seemed upset that much of the show was actually fictional. I found this humorous: Well obviously! What television show isn’t amplified with intense plot twists and sensationalized? Clearly Orange is going to be different from the book – it has to keep the public entertained episode after episode. So of course Kohan is going to make jail seem “entertaining” and full of gossip.

In addition, some critics claimed that Orange stereotyped minorities and had bad portrayals of men and lesbians.

I disagree. I think what made the show so captivating was that it didn’t have all picture-perfect characters. If anything, I find that it is a show about the empowerment and strength of realistic  women, not men, for once.

Orange had real people, such as Lavern Cox and Lea DeLaria. Cox is an openly transgendered person who plays “Sophia” in Orange, a transgender hairstylist at Litchfield. DeLaria is an openly gay comedian who plays “Big Boo” in Orange, a butch lesbian who goes around Litchfield talking about sex. If anything, this show is seen through Piper’s eyes: You first notice all the stereotypes (the fearful portrayal of men, black women, Hispanic women, lesbians, etc.), but then throughout the show, the stereotypes fade away, just as they do for Piper. As Piper befriends her fellow inmates, a viewer can too. Orange is filled with raw emotions and witty, shocking dialogue while opening up issues that some find taboo. I think Orange makes people uncomfortable.

And that’s a good thing.

Although Piper is considered the main character, I wouldn’t call her the protagonist. Each episode features an inmate’s background and story on how they got to prison. It gives fresh perspective, as you realize how every person is completely different. Moreover, it is amazing how easily you can relate to every character. You can get the same panicked feeling they get when they don’t have control over their life, such as monitored phone calls or being sent to isolation.

I see a few flaws in the show (there don’t seem to be many guards for such a large prison, for example), Orange is a nice change from a popular cultural focus on blockbuster movies, reality TV or the adventures of teen vampires.

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