Netflix’s new prison dramedy tackles race relations, sexism and America’s dubious promise of social mobility.
Women’s prisons on screen are often depicted only for cheap thrills, shock value and voyeuristic sexploitation— not with the purpose of examining the social problems present in the lives of the incarcerated or the prison system at large. Reality programs like Biography’s “Women Behind Bars” give moral superiority to the guards who shepherd faceless criminals through strip searches, while most other scripted dramas about women’s prisons are really just soft core porn. Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” however, is not that kind of show.
Based on the Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name and adapted for Netflix by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, “Orange is the New Black” is a triumph for the streaming service and is perhaps the most watchable and thoughtful show ever to be set in federal women’s prison.
With the world of the Litchfield Federal Correction Facility, Kohan has crafted a peerless situation dramedy populated by a robustly eccentric ensemble cast. While on paper, “The Litch” is a patriarchal society governed ostensibly by a band of dim-witted male prison guards, the women inmates are truly the ones calling the shots in this 13-episode series which explores their lives both during and before their life behind bars.
This power structure, and its narrative implications for the show’s exploration of privilege, has already left many viewers spellbound. Inmates like Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the WASP-turned-convict protagonist serving fifteen months for laundering drug money, is one of the prison’s privileged-turned-powerless, and in leaving behind her privileged Connecticut breeding, Chapman quickly finds that her assumptions about prison life are completely wrong.
After turning herself in to the authorities, Piper Chapman comments that her government issued shoes look like Toms, betraying her otherwise bourgeois existence and opening wide the doors for the show’s masterful exploration of class and race. A middle-class woman who once studied the sociology of prisons, Piper, now only referred to as Chapman, is now subordinate the very women those outside the prison scorn.
Two of these women are Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), Litch’s most sought-after hairdresser, and Red (Kate Mulgrew), it’s chef. Sophia, a trans female ostracized in pre-incarceration life, finds a level of acceptance from fellow inmates that value her for her skills.
Red is Litchfield’s true matriarch. In a series of flashbacks that examine how Galina Reznikov became Red, the overwhelmed former restaurant owner cries, “no matter how hard we try, there are the people who eat the bread, and the people who serve the bread, and for once I wish it was on my side.” But in the Litch, power is on Sophia and Red’s side. But the tragedy is its power that’s only enjoyed behind bars.
Her relationships with Red and Sophia not withstanding, Chapman is also forced to contend with the ongoing stigma of her race. Attempting to join three other black inmates in a giddy gossip session, Chapman’s friendly advances are rejected by the group, leaving her with stinging embarrassment and the troubling recognition of her pigmentation.
At another point, Piper’s expresses concerns over her final cell placement. Her worries are dismissed by Nicky, one of her temporary cell mates. Nicky chides Piper, saying “They’re gonna put you in the suburbs with all the other white people,” and despite Nicky’s own whiteness, it becomes clear that in the Litch, “white” is a race-based class, with its own sub sects and code switching.
In these and so many other instances, “Orange is the New Black” proves itself as a sophisticated exploration of white privilege—a rarity in American television. “Orange” doesn’t define white privilege, but it leads viewers to question their own status vicariously through the racial and class-based drama that unfolds.
Despite the fact that many its characters’ are stereotypical in ways that prevail throughout television, “Orange” is one of the few shows that deals with the politics of race and class in ways more fitting for the contemporary social climate. With the dubious promise of social mobility and prevailing legal and cultural trends that engender racist thinking, “Orange is the New Black” is an allegory for the era of the differed American Dream.