For once, I’m ahead of the curve, or at least right on top of it. Orange is the New Black is one of the best shows not on TV right now. It’s a Netflix original series about a women’s prison, which means you can binge watch all thirteen episodes in a weekend. It stars Taylor Schilling, who plays Piper Chapman, a doe-eyed hasbian mega-WASP; Laura Prepon (better known as Donna from That ‘70s Show) as Piper’s vampy ex-girlfriend and professional drug smuggler, Alex Vause; Kate Mulgrew (better known as Captain Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek Voyager!!!!) as Red, the hardass Russian mama who runs the prison kitchens; and Jason Biggs (better known for his role as Jim in American Pie) as Piper’s aspiring journalist fiancé.
For the most part, I evaluate a show by sitting down in front of it and asking myself, “Okay, how are they going to screw this one up?” And when the show fails to screw up is when I decide to really like it. Orange is the New Black is well written, well acted, and conscious of on-screen politics, tropes, and stereotypes. Straight men like it. Straight women like it. Lesbians love it. The show is about a lot more than lesbianism, but while it doesn’t introduce or brand itself as a rebooted L Word (because only The L Word does that), it simultaneously puts hetero relationships in the back seat while also addressing a lot of issues the L Word exhibited. Namely that The L Word only showed the audience one type of lesbian (maybe two if you wanna fight about it): the type who lives in trendy West Hollywood, majorly WASP-y, fairly femme, has a cool and interesting career, makes at least $80,000 a year, and whose primary concerns are meeting women and establishing and maintaining relationships with them.
Orange is the New Black features a cast primarily from working class backgrounds, not college educated, and of all different races, ages, gender expressions, and sexual identities. What’s more is that it doesn’t feel like the tokenism of the 90s. It works because it’s not cheap. Very little of the show is. Premium subscription channels like HBO and Showtime often seem like they’re trying to meet a booby quota in order to give their subscribers their money’s worth. How many times have you watched a scene in Game of Thrones where two conventionally hot characters just finished having sex, and so are still naked for the camera for pretty much no reason? Don’t actually try to count, it’ll take all day. The nudity or sexual aspects of Orange is the New Black are still present, but it makes more sense within the context of the story. Also, if you expected to see perfect tits and ass in every episode, you won’t find it here. You might see bodies that seem vulgar, saggy, and untrimmed compared to what you’re used to seeing on television. The ones that come with not doing pilates every day. Does this make you uncomfortable? The show doesn’t care. It’s not for you. It’s not interested in what most people are used to seeing, or what is conventionally hot. What some people may find hot you might not care for. What you may find hot might not do anything for other viewers. Speaking of hot:
Even though The L Word had Bette Porter as their token biracial woman, it’s clear that she was chosen very carefully both to maintain the believability of her existence in Yuppiesville, LA, and to keep the show from getting slammed for lack of diversity without needing to include a character that would require writing too far beyond white American culture. The rest of the cast is lily white. In Orange is the New Black there are some characters who fit their stereotype, and some who subvert it. There are some who do both, as when Taystee Jefferson makes fried chicken her political platform to get elected for the Women’s Advisory Council by proclaiming, “I’m black! And she black! And we like fried chicken. That shit is delicious! Everybody likes it. Chicken for the people, I rest my case.”
This may leave the critical viewer confused, especially when, in a later episode, the same character can be seen deconstructing black movie tropes when she and a few others are trying to decide which hairstyle would make her more sympathetic for when she appeals for reduced prison time. Hair like Michelle Obama’s? Everybody loves her. Like Rihanna in 2009? Don’t we still hate Chris Brown? In the end they decide on a style of “the black best friend in every white girl movie” and have a laugh over tokenism and the absolute lack of representation of black women in film. The point is the show has such a great range of characters that there are some characters who will fit your preconceived notions going in, but plenty who won’t. There are some who will disappoint you, and some who will leave you pleasantly surprised. That’s what diversity is, and good writing allows us to face that nuance.
Orange is the New Black also deals with sexual fluidity in women, which has been studied and written about extensively by scholars like Lisa Diamond, and parroted endlessly through news outlets like Huffpo and NPR. A lot of the inmates, Piper included, are not exclusively gay or straight. Orange is the New Black is the first mainstream program, that I’ve seen, to address sexual fluidity, as when Piper’s friend warns her about “turning gay” in prison, and Piper says explicitly: “You don’t just turn gay. You fall somewhere on a spectrum, like a Kinsey scale.”
This is in stark contrast to The L Word’s Dana Fairbanks who says to her bisexual friend, “Christ, Alice, when are you going to make up your mind between dick and pussy? And spare us the gory bisexual details, please.” In the end, Alice’s bisexual identity dissolves and she decides to identify as lesbian. Which is fine because that happens, but it helps support the stereotype that people who identify as bisexual will end up choosing one side or the other. Another instance is when Tina chooses to be with a man and the response from her friend is “When you walk down the street with your boyfriend holding your boyfriend’s hands enjoying all the heterosexual privileges, you stopped being a lesbian.” The L Word has been criticized for struggling with characters whose sexuality is “hard to peg,” so to speak. When trans* characters like Moira (later Max) are written in, they’re filled with pages of bad character development (Max has been criticized for being a culmination of negative trans-masculine stereotypes) before being promptly written out. These are some of the reminders that HEY, this is a LESBIANS ONLY show. Anything outside of that is asking for trouble.
In Orange is the New Black, Piper’s sexuality is not explicitly labeled—and that’s okay! She deals with misconceptions all the time, but she resists ignorance, and she doesn’t try to hide her sexuality from her fellow inmates. She makes clear that she has a fiancé whom she cares for, but when her ex-girlfriend Alex talks about betrayal in romantic relationships, Piper walks out of the room saying, “You would know all about that, wouldn’t you?” making it very evident to the other inmates that they had a history. The series also introduces us to a trans* character early on named Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox. Cox was originally a contestant on VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy before producing and co-hosting a trans* makeover show, TRANSform Me. Both shows were nominated for GLAAD awards, and in addition to her work as an entertainer, Cox now speaks and writes about trans* rights and activism. The show also features Natasha Lyonne, best known for her roles in Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader. Director Jenji Kohan did her research. She wants good representation, and she wants it from the ground up. It’s also a good indication that Sophia is going nowhere (the fact that they’re all in prison together is another good indication of this).
The only real criticism I can think of here is that the star main character is still a rich white woman. And maybe one day this will be a rarity, but it’s annoying that a show like this (with all its nuance and attention to characters we don’t usually see on-screen) can’t be made until a rich white woman goes to prison and writes about her experience there. Thankfully, Orange is the New Black goes so far beyond her experience that when other characters tease her for complaining about an aspect of her privileged life, it carries weight. The show chooses to explore particular individuals, their trials, and their choices. It makes an effort to humanize everyone, and to give them a generous amount of screen time, so the viewer understands their subjectivity. It makes Piper’s life, in comparison, appear bland and silly. Their life journeys landed these women in prison. Piper’s 15 months in prison is her journey.