It doesn’t matter who we are or what relationship we are (or aren’t) in. There’s something we can learn from the women of OITNB.
Orange Is The New Black’s second season reveals more about the lives and crimes of its supporting characters. What lies at the heart of season two is not the misdeeds these women committed that accounts for their imprisonment, but the relationships surrounding them that ultimately contributed to it.
Where OITNB stands apart from conventional dramas is for its provocatively honest look at relationships and the roles people actively play within them. Typically, Rom-Coms and dramas push the idea that a woman’s value is found within a relationship. She is perceived as whole and positively defined once coupled.
OITNB rightly throws that notion in solitary confinement and throws away the key. In fact, it suggests that falling into that relationship-trap is exactly what gets people in trouble in the first place. After all, Jenji Kohan’s first breakthrough female character, Nancy Botwin became a drug dealer, only after realizing choosing to exist as a financially dependent housewife left her destitute. Like many women before her – Simone de Beauvoir to Betty Friedan, Kohan also seems to be suggesting that the real crime is the one where women allow their destinies to be controlled or manipulated by the relationships (both platonic and romantic) they keep and the poor decisions they make within them.
This is most evident with Season two newcomer, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) who has managed to manipulate several of the women. She represents the proverbial abuser in a relationship. She plays off the characters’ needs for family, connection and approval, like Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) who despite her book smarts, turns to drug dealing in the pursuit of motherly love. However, OITNB shows that even making the right relationship decisions and maintaining a sense of self is not easy, as Vee bullies Poussey (Samira Wiley).
When it comes to poor decisions though, Piper (Taylor Shilling) still stands as a flagship. Season two reveals how much her relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon) has negatively impacted her life from a jail sentence to sacrificing her freedom, ruining her engagement with Larry (Jason Biggs) to breaking up Alex’s previous relationship. However, we learn Piper is not committing crimes in the name of passion; the nature of her decisions stem from her relationship with her parents, their habit of obscuring the truth and her father’s infidelity. Analyzing the impact of nature versus nurture, OITNB’s back-stories and present day drama clearly lean more towards nurture as in indication of one’s future relationships and decision-making. But is it suggesting that women are victims of it?
Take for instance, adorable Lorna (Yael Stone) a modern day zeitgeist for Bridezillas. As a compulsive shopper, she’s a victim of the consumer industrial complex that taught her happiness and fulfillment can be bought. When a cute man rejects her after one date, she realizes she can’t buy or scam her way into love so it triggers a fatal attraction in her. Officer Healy, eager for love too, sought out a mail order bride only to realize too love can’t be bought. However, Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimental) fights this theory with the concept of choice begging her taciturn boyfriend to talk to their daughter so she grows into a well-adjusted child. As does Soso (Kimiko Glen) who declares, “We should be leaning on each other, finding support in our fellow prisoners, so we’re not isolated….I need a friend.”
Contrary to the victim theory, the show also actively shows that these characters often make conscious decisions. Formerly pro-choice Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) eager for affection from an inattentive boyfriend quickly switches sides when she realizes how to earn the esteem of the pro-lifers. She’s willing to permanently win their worship by taking the life of a clinic doctor. Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) continues to protest despite one’s from the Catholic Church. Miss Rosa’s (Barbara Rosenblat) boyfriend introduced her to bank robbing, but it was only afterward that she realized she had a passion for it. The question then becomes if these women are aware of the decisions they’re making and their potential consequences, then why are they being made in the first place?
The prison setting provides this answer for us. Stripped of life’s comforts, the prisoners are faced with meeting the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy. Meals and a roof are nominally provided, but their social needs remain elusive. It’s not that people in love do stupid things (though that can happen), but people are willing to assume certain risks if it means earning, winning or attaining that ultimate human need – connection. Viewers learn that community is necessary to survive inside prison, but more importantly outside too. The sexual benefits of relationships are only perks and even then can lead to complications like Officer Bennett (Matt McGorry) and Dayanara’s (Dascha Polanco) pregnancy. OITNB conveys that developed alliances and communities are only so good as the nature of them.
The most promising development comes from matriarch, Red (Kate Mulgrew), who has learned about family the hard way. Red mirrors the sentiment Kohan seems to be subtly reaching at – that failure is inevitable if we let unhealthy relationships define us. This becomes evident as she gathers with her estranged prison family to break bread and offer an olive branch. She’s finally arching as a character and standing up to the bad influences like frenemy, Vee. It’s rubbing off on her family too, such as when Nicky seeks help with her sobriety, who then offers Lorna the recognition of love she’s always desired (even if it’s platonic).
It would be easy to accuse OITNB viewer’s that when judging the inmates’ decision-making that they’re coming from a point of privilege on many levels. However, that is not why the OITNB is so compelling. The makeup of characters are not so different than the viewers’ every day lives – army brats, TSA officers, lovers, store clerks or mothers. It’s all relatable, because if we can be honest with ourselves who hasn’t been in a bad relationship or made bad decisions as a result of one. OITNB let’s its viewers understand that no one is perfect when it comes to making decisions of the heart but everyone can certainly learn from their mistakes.
OITNB teaches that relationships are only as solid and beneficial as the decisions made within them. It’s honest in admitting that having healthy, trustworthy, selfless and supportive relationships is as elusive for everyone as that freedom all the inmates’ desire. Kohan seems to be sending the message that bad relationships are like jail; they can easily hold people back.
The importance of survival through building good relationships is perfectly exemplified by the season’s final scene with Miss Rosa as she decides Vee’s fate, “Always so rude that one.”
Photo: Peabody Awards/flickr