by BRITTANY JULIOUS
Orange Is The New Black
creator Jenji Kohan
No one holds Piper Chapman’s hand. Not really. Instead, she is groped and ignored and ridiculed. This stays true to the fish out of water narrative of Orange Is The New Black and Piper is a classic fish out of water. Nice, quiet white ladies do not end up in prison. And if they do, it is because things happen “to” them rather than “because” of them. But as Orange Is The New Black unfolds, we soon learn that Piper is not hapless or innocent or quiet. She is certainly not nice. No, like the other women in the prison, Piper is a woman who made choices and must now face the consequences.
Piper (Taylor Schilling) is serving 13 months in prison for helping smuggle drugs across the border for her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause. It is no surprise then to learn that Piper must now serve her prison sentence with Alex. For the first few episodes, Piper makes her animosity toward Alex well known, ultimately blaming her for her prison sentence. In true Piper form, she has neglected to take responsibility for her own actions and her complicity in the crime.
Orange Is The New Black is about finding the humanity in people we often assume have none. We stigmatize the experiences of people in prison without knowing what led them to this environment. For Piper, the reality of prison has not sunk in. Her only possibility of survival is to accept both what she’s done and her true nature as a woman who is not as perfect and nice as she thinks she is.
It becomes evident as the show progresses that the most compelling characters and stories have little, if anything, to do with Piper. There are no magical negroes or spiritual guides for Piper’s experience in prison. The show is a powerful and overt representation of race relations both in and outside of prison. The stereotypes are thick with vitriol in the show’s initial episodes, though they dissipate as the show progresses. As Piper begins to acclimate herself to the culture of prison, there is a real possibility that for Piper’s sensibilities, even speaking openly about race (prejudiced or otherwise) is a shock.
Elsewhere we are drawn into the romantic yet troubling “relationship” of Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and correctional officer John Bennett (Matt McGorry). We are fascinated by Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Piper’s roommate and an older woman who must come to terms with the possibility of her own parole. And Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender woman and a truer protagonist of the show, is all glamour and wisdom and heart. She could certainly warrant a spin-off on her own.
The opening credits of Orange Is The New Black are particularly compelling. Featuring a theme song by Regina Spektor, we view a series of close-ups of different women’s faces. None are particularly “pretty” and really, that is not the point. The credits go on for a long time and they linger.
What we find ourselves more drawn to is the sheer abundance of faces – young and old, wrinkled and baby-faced – that represent the varying demographics of the prison system. Yes, jails are disproportionately filled with black and hispanic men and women. But there are many different “types” of prisoners, and the circumstances that led to their imprisonment are as diverse and distinct as their faces.
In a recent interview for Fresh Air, Orange Is The New Black creator Jenji Kohan noted that a show featuring a rich cast of multidimensional and racially and sexually diverse characters could not “sell” without a protagonist (a white and blonde and pretty protagonist) like Piper. Granted, the initial source material for the television show is the memoir of the same name written by Piper Kerman. But many elements (such as Piper “reuniting” with Alex) were created or altered specifically for the show.
In the interview, Kohan said:
In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. 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.
Still, Orange is the New Black represents a teachable moment for its lead. It is OK to hate Piper. In fact, as the show progresses, the writers and creators have made sure to highlight Piper’s flaws (and there are many). Within these walls Piper finds herself. And as nauseating as that reads, what she unwraps is someone who is not as great or insightful or “good” as she thought she was and what other people have told her she must be. In prison, Piper discovers what makes her like anyone else. That she must be locked up to understand this only speaks to the ways in which her privileged life has sheltered her from the realities of her own adulthood.
Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about a solitary existence.
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