English 1102: Television and Feminism

Dr. Casey Alane Wilson • Georgia Institute of Technology

Tag: Orange Is the New Black Page 1 of 2

Beige is the New Orange is the New Black

Saved the best for last. For this final blog post, I’m going to be writing about the cinematography of Orange is the New Black, focusing on the seventh episode of Season 1, ”Blood Donut.”

The color scheme of the show has the most visual definition, or lack thereof, of any of the other aspects of visual design in the show. The show features very little orange or black, in fact, the most prominent color present is beige. Beige is not only the color of the prisoners’ uniforms, but it also saturates the walls and floors of Litchfield. Even the grass within the prison fences is slightly dead rendering it brown, and the trees surrounding the prison are winterized. Even outside, muted earth tones remain the dominant color scheme. In the outside world, colors are far more pronounced and are clearly brighter. Earth tones seemingly remain the primary color scheme, dark brown and beige being replaced with cream and yellow, but there are flashes of bright colors that break this monotony. These are absent in the prison. Lighting contributes to this visual difference between the two places: in the prison lighting is almost constantly white fluorescent, which is colder, and natural light is almost always absent. Outside of prison, lighting is either warm natural daylight or warm, dim, and yellow incandescent lighting.

So much beige

Another visual choice that greatly impacts the show is its shot selection. The show uses a lot of close up shots, framing the faces of its characters. This is effective as Orange is the New Black is, at its core, a show that focuses on all of its characters, their stories, and their experiences, with their being in prison serving as merely a plot device. Even during dialogue, characters are often framed individually while speaking, letting the audience focus more on what they’re saying. Another aspect of shot selection the show uses well is intermittent long takes. These are used not to increase dramatic effect as they normally are, but to highlight the monotony of prison life by lingering on more mundane moments.

Orange is the New Black is a show that revolves around its excellent visual design and character development. It may miss the target in terms of short term plot as a result of looking long term, but sticking with the show makes the viewers appreciate its core tenets. Using this, the show makes important points about the prison system and the lives of women, while remaining entertaining.

“‘Orange Is the New Black’ Blood Donut.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt2595996/mediaindex?ref_=tt_mv_close.

Is Everyone Gay or Just Lonely?

Sexuality and love are two things that permeate every aspect of Orange is the New Black, and they are portrayed in often conflicting yet also related ways. For many characters, feeling alone in prison leads them to seek physical intimacy without a romantic attachment yet while continuing to hold on to outside feelings; this makes their sexuality, often convoluted on its own, both something they seek for the physical connection to others as well as a point of its own identity, even when it interferes with romantic feelings.

The best example of this is in Piper herself. Once Alex, her former girlfriend who got Piper sent to prison in the first place, arrives at Litchfield, the two begin a sexual relationship that hints at potential romantic feelings but never directly are mentioned. However, Piper’s attempts to also cling on to her feelings for her fiancé create a point of contention between all three, and Piper eventually loses both of them for her lack of commitment to either. As Piper’s family struggles to deal with this new turn – just as they struggled to deal with Piper having dated a woman in the first place – they try to put a label on her, asking questions like, “Are you a lesbian now? Were you straight when you got engaged to Larry?” Piper eventually tells her best friend that you cannot be “either straight or gay” and that there is a spectrum, leading viewers to infer that Piper knows her sexuality is something that defines her, although she is not sure how to define it.

Other examples of sexuality as an identity yet using it for comfort are clear in many other characters. Morello, a prisoner who is obsessed with a man that has filed a restraining order against her, has an ongoing same-sex physical relationship for much of the first season but eventually ends it because she “wants to be loyal to Christopher”, leaving viewers to assume that she is heteroromantic but questioning sexually.

Morello and Nicky

Daya begins a physical relationship with Bennett, a prison guard, initially to be able to ask for things from him, and eventually she experiences conflicting feelings of romantic interest and desire for her situation to go away. Although her sexuality is less obviously convoluted, her use of it and then subsequent questioning of why she chose to use it falls clearly into a similar category. Countless other prison hookups, especially amongst friends, are depicted as “experimental”, hinting that they are being done simply because they can and because the prisoners are missing their traditional intimacy. And, most glaringly, Sophia’s wife remains with her former husband after she transitions to female, despite the fact that she is heterosexual, out of a desire for comfort and support. In this way, viewers of OITNB can see clearly that the fluid, often unlabellable sexualities of the prisoners stem mainly from loneliness and a desire to be connected with someone, even at the expense of outside, “more real” connections.

A Show About Today

Many shows and movies are set in crazy environmentsones on alien planets, on uninhabitable climates, in war struck zones, and more. However, despite their absurdity, viewers often accept the abstract characteristics as normal for relatively anything can happen in the entertainment industry (as long as producers approve). Despite the ease and prevalence of such variation, relatively few shows are set in the same time and in the current society where they are broadcasted, simply because it is difficult to write, film, and produce shows or movies before the current, dynamics of modern life change. In the sixth season Orange Is the New Black, however, this is not the case.

I was very surprised to see the characters in the sixth season of this show discussing the same issues that I am talking about with my friends. In one of the early episodes of this season, Blanca is depicted discussing Trump’s idea of building a border wall. Later in the episodes, people discuss the “MeToo” movement that has been on the forefront of the news lately. Because the writers included such references to current events in the scripts, they make the characters seem like people who are somewhere out there living in an American prison in the current political system right now. Sadly, people just like the characters in the show actually are living a similar reality. Therefore, the writing makes viewers reflect not only on the politics referred to in the show but also on the state of affairs of the prison system. It brings the story the show tells about a corrupt system into the real world (where it does actually exist too) and places it in the setting of the same place we live today. Before the sixth season, it was apparent that the show was set somewhere in modern America but it was not really tied explicitly to what is going on today. By including references to events that have been hot topics in the past few months, the writers took the show from a vague setting to real time, specifically, making the injustices seen in the show just as current and urgent as the other references.

A prisoner being beaten by a guard—something not uncommon in the modern US prison system.

Visitation

In my first blog post I mentioned that I chose to write about Orange is the New Black due in part to the excellent job the show’s writers do with character and plot development throughout the season. As the season progresses, it gets more and more clear that the relationships Piper Chapman has with people outside the walls of Litchfield are becoming tenuous. While there have been hints since Episode 1, Episodes 5 and 6 are the first in which there are obvious signs of distrust and frustration between Piper and her friends and family. For this post, I’ll be focusing on Episode 6, “WAC Pack.”

In Piper’s first appearance in this episode, she is being visited by her mother Carol, who has already been set up to be a judgmental and distant character. We see both in the interaction between the two. Carol starts off mentioning an event from Episode 5, in which Piper goes chasing after a chicken and leaves Polly hanging on an important business call. Carol does not understand what occurred there at all, and questions Piper’s mental state.

I, personally, believe the chicken was real.

This is one major reason that Piper’s relationships are being tested: a lack of understanding of the world inside the prison. Time flows a lot faster outside Litchfield, and in terms of everyone else’s fast-paced lives, Piper is seen as slowing them down. This is especially true in terms of Piper and Polly’s budding business. Piper wants to contribute as much as she used to, but with all of the obstacles in the way, Polly is doing more are more on her own. This leads to a rift between the two best friends as well, which is only partially patched up by phone call in this episode.

But it is Piper’s relationship with her fiancé Larry that appears to be breaking down the fastest. There is clear distrust between them, and they have not been honest with each other, with Piper failing to tell Larry about Alex being in prison with her, and Larry falsely telling Piper that Alex did not name her in the indictment in a misguided attempt to keep them apart. This comes to a head in Larry’s visit later in the episode, where Piper and Larry have a brief fight about Larry wanting to write an article about Piper being in prison.

Works Cited: “WAC Pack.” Orange Is the New Black Wiki, orange-is-the-new-black.fandom.com/wiki/WAC_Pack.

A Clear Indictment of the Prison System

The theme of Orange is the New Black is overwhelmingly obvious – the American justice system serves primarily to debilitate, not to rehabilitate. However, it is the portrayal of it, in showing the way that the prison appears to be helping but really is serving no beneficial purpose, that makes the message being portrayed a bit subtler.

The prison system serves only to punish and remove “undesirables” from society.

Listed in the prison’s budget are GED classes, fitness classes and healthcare. Yet, once money becomes a question, the administration cuts the GED classes and shuts down the track, limiting the “fitness classes” to a yoga class taught by an inmate. Counselors are on staff in name only, and they are anything but a friendly presence to their “patients”. Medical staff cut off Sophia’s (a transgender woman’s) hormones after they switch to more generic medications, putting her in a dangerous position both physically and mentally, and the doctors can only see inmates in cases of “emergencies”. These are all very clear examples of the prison attempting to look as if it cares for its inmates in case someone asks, but it turns out that they are wildly unprepared for the real world.

Although the prison has a law library that is accessible to inmates, very few understand the legal proceedings and even fewer yet can do something with that understanding. After the inmates learn that Piper is fairly literate, they all bring her their appeals that they have written for her to edit, since they cannot do it themselves, and she eventually exclaims in disgust that none of the women have a chance or “even understand how this system works”.

Throughout the show, multiple characters are released and then later return to prison, having had little way to survive. Tastee, a young, strong woman, tells her friends after being put back into prison that she had nobody, nothing and no way to get anything – at least in prison, she was fed and clothed. Although her friends get angry at her for sacrificing her freedom again, the argument is clear – after being in prison, the system casts its former inmates out in the real world to figure it out. Especially after long sentences, it is very likely that they are cut off from the world, their pre-prison life has moved on without them and they no longer have any idea how to make it. Their only option appears to be a life of crime again, which could either be profitable or put them back in jail, the only life that many habitual offenders have ever known.

By showing the prison’s agenda of pretending to care while showing the audience exactly how little they do, the writers of the show make it abundantly clear that they are indicting the prison system for failing to help the people it holds. Instead, it just collects individuals and profits off of them for as long as it can convince the public it is a good thing.

More Than Just Criminals

I thought I was going to have to search really deep in order to find a central theme of a single Orange is the New Black episode, as episodes of the show often feature several plotlines that each try to advance a certain theme or narrative, something the show is able to do in its 55 minute format without seeming too scattered. In comes Episode 4 of Season 1, “Imaginary Enemies.” The episode, while still featuring multiple plotlines with only surface level overlap as far as characters go, relates these plotlines by using them to drive home an overarching theme.

Get it, drive home, because they lose a screwdriver in the episode haha I’m hilarious

This show does not want you to judge its characters before knowing their stories, their backgrounds, and their motivations first. Where this episode pushes this theme most blatantly is in this episode’s flashback storyline, which features Piper Chapman’s new roommate, Miss Claudette. Throughout previous episodes, Miss Claudette has been portrayed as mean without reason and overly controlling. The first two flashbacks explain why this is. We first see her as a young girl who, it can be assumed, is subject to indentured servitude as a way to pay off her parent’s debt. In the second flashback she is a grown woman whom we see has risen the ranks and now runs the cleaning service she worked for. She is shown in the second flashback being as stern with her young workers as her boss was to her in the first flashback. Her reason for asking discipline of others in prison is now understood; it is what she has known her whole life. Outside of flashbacks, the episode also shows that Miss Claudette is capable of sympathy, something that most in the prison thought impossible, after Piper stands up to her.

The episode also approaches this theme from another angle, dealing with some of the mental health issues that inmates deal with and how they often stay hidden. The lunchtime conversation that occurs between Piper and Nichols reveals that both of them are having a hard time coping with their conditions, and Piper even assume Nichols has found a way to deal with them, asking her when the depression ends, to which she responds “I’ll let you know.” Nichols also has a conversation with Alex, in which Alex breaks down and reveals that she too is experiencing depression.

This theme is tied in with the rest of show through the storyline involving the lost screwdriver, which shows that inmates are often dehumanized and thought of as nothing more than criminals. Caputo even explicitly emphasizes that the women in the prison are criminals during the search for the screwdriver as a way to ensure the guards do not show them sympathy. This is something the entire show combats: by following the lives of the women in this prison, we see how they are human and can be sympathized with.

Finding Everyday Women in Litchfield’s Guards

Gender plays an interesting role in Orange is the New Black, since almost everyone in the show is female. All prisoners at Litchfield are female, and most of the guards are male. Obviously, since the story is told from Piper’s point of view, all the guards are seen as antagonists (and all of the male guards are portrayed as perverted and sex-obsessed in some way), but the three female correctional workers also play a significant role in examining the stereotypes of working women.

Officer Fischer is very empathetic towards the prisoners, as seen in her buying Miss Rosa a Coke at her chemotherapy appointment. Her voice is often soft and kind, she is new to the prison and she is willing to let the prisoners bend some rules. However, she is choked by a prisoner after trying to enforce a rule, a product of both the strong emotions at the time and, likely, the image of the officer as someone that could be an easy target. In this way she is seen as the caring one, yet also someone that can be taken advantage of and manipulated, as are many women beginning their career. They are uncertain of their future or concerned about causing others to dislike them, so they “play nice” to avoid creating hostility, instead compromising their respectability.

Officer Fischer is known for being kind to the prisoners – arguably to a fault.

The other female guard is older, has a hardened face and a sharp tone. She is the foil to Fischer and snaps at prisoners over tiny infractions. However, even she is empathetic to the fact that the female prisoners have specific needs and expresses concern for kids’ futures when Scared Straight visits Litchfield. She represents the women who have worked long enough in a male-dominated career or job that they recognize they have to overcompensate to prove themselves, yet still care.

Another female guard is much less caring, yet still views the prisoners as human.

Finally, Fig, the warden, is a power-happy, cold female who is unsympathetic to anyone, even the other administrators. She repeatedly tells the prisoners that she doesn’t care about their complaints and takes actions only to improve the prison when journalists begin asking questions. She represents the stereotypical powerful female, someone a bit like Petra from Jane the Virgin, who has had to harden herself and get good at manipulating others in order to achieve success.

FIg is cold and cares only about the prison avoiding the spotlight.

Looking at these three women, all struggling to make themselves in a very male-heavy arena, it begs the question – is it possible for a kinder, caring female like Fischer to be rise to the success of someone like Fig? Does a woman have to be as uncaring as Fig in order to achieve success? And finally, is Fig a product of a system that forced her to be cold or was that how she was before, allowing her to be successful?

Religion Is Power

Orange Is the New Black is a show set in a women’s prison. Due to the show’s environment, themes of power and submission are always at play and evident in many different forms. In Orange Is the New Black, religion is portrayed to be a force that binds people to a leader and is used to force others into submission. This show highlights how religion has been used to mobilize and brainwash people throughout history.

All throughout the first season, Tiffany Doggett (dubbed Pennsatucky) leads a small group of other inmates in prayer and other Christian rituals. She views the people who believe her teachings as intelligent, moral, and superior to all the other “sinners” in the prison who do not. These views are manifested as dangerous threats in Episode 12 of Season 1 when Pennsatucky threatens to kill Piper Chapman, another inmate, for not believing in Christianity. Claiming that Jesus wants her to kill Piper for not believing in God, Pennsatucky continually threatens Piper’s life throughout the episode. Once, she, with the help of her unquestioning followers, corners Piper in a shower and threatens her with a shiv. Piper was only saved from injury because a guard happened to be nearby. Later in the episode, however, Pennsatucky finds Piper again alone in the dark and corners her outside (where no one can hear her) and begins to jab at her with a sharp stick (that is the end point of a cross). There is a lot of symbolism and allusion to how people abuse religion to carry out actions that are contradictory to the religion in this show. Here, for example, Pennsatucky tries to kill Piper with a cross–a symbol of a religion that values peace and considers murder a sin. Despite the apparent hypocrisy, the comment about religion is relevant because it is an accurate representation and critique of what often happens in society, both in the past and still today.

 

Pennsatucky dressed as an angel showing Piper her cross shiv

 

The Traditional Minority as a Capable Majority

In the show Orange Is the New Black gender is not very diversified. Shows characterized with “low diversity” are generally assumed to showcase hetersexual white men with few women or queer people. On the other hand, in Orange is the New Black there is not much diversity but the cast is dominated by women—many who are homosexual—and many who are African American and Latina. Because the plot takes place in a women’s prison, it makes sense to have the focus on women instead of men. The dominating groups in this show are the groups that are marginalized in most television.

In this show, almost all of the characters that have agency are women. Piper Chapman, the main character who is thrown in jail and forced to sort out her life both inside and outside of the system, is a woman who relies on herself, her own strengths, and her true character to survive. Her ex-girlfriend, Alex, also has a lot of agency in the show as she is the reason Piper was put in jail and tempts Piper into an affair with her (while Piper has a fiance). Although many of the jail staff (counselors and guards) are men, they do not have much say in the direction the plot twists, despite their relative power within the prison system compared to the inmates. In fact, the head of the prison where Piper stays in the first season is a woman who controls the subordinate men staff mainly with manipulation, threats, and cutting insults. Women make the major choices in the show and take on the traditional male heroic and dominating role within the plot lines.   

Aside from being their own heroes in the show, women take on other roles that are traditionally male dominated (both in television and in the real world). Piper’s job, for example, within the prison system is to be a repair-person—a technical job that is typically dominated by men. Other jobs that women have, however, reinforce the stereotypical female image. Alex, for example, has to work in the laundry room, washing, drying, and folding others’ clothes. By both reinforcing and subverting women’s typical position in this prison community, the writers convey the theme that women are able to fill all roles—those that they usually fulfill and those that they usually don’t. Women are just as capable as men and thus, can have just the same opportunities as them in all positions.

An image that shows the domination of the cast by women of various races and ethnicities

Gender in a Women’s Prison

When I first read this assignment, I was wondering how I would be able to write a post about gender representation in Orange is the New Black, a show about a women’s prison where the vast majority of characters are women. And then I re-watched Season 1 Episode 3, which by itself deals with gender enough for me to write multiple posts about it (only doing this one though).

Within the nearly all female cast of characters in the show, both inside and outside of prison, there is a great amount of diversity, not just demographically but also in terms of personality and background. No two female characters in the show so far, who have been fleshed out to any extent, share the same blueprint. The same can’t be said of the few significant male characters, who are either perverted or apathetic prison guards (with the notable exception of Bennett), or boring like Larry (at least I think that’s his name, I don’t know. He’s boring).

“Lesbian request denied.”

The title of this episode is “Lesbian Request Denied,” which lets you know pretty clearly that it is going to deal with sexual orientation. LGBT representation and issues are heavily shown throughout the first three episodes, with Piper having been in a relationship with Alex before the events of the show, the presence of many lesbian inmates, a handful of lesbian sex scenes, and homophobic attitudes coming from multiple characters. In this specific episode, Piper is pursued/stalked by “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne, and Piper turns her down, but not before Crazy Eyes turns in a request for them to be moved in together, which the apparently homophobic Officer Healy strikes down with the line, “lesbian request denied.”

Pre-transition Sophia, a.k.a Marcus, was played by Laverne Cox’s identical twin brother.

But as is the case with many episodes of Orange is the New Black, the focus of this episode isn’t Piper, but the show’s transgender character, Sophia, and her struggles. The arc follows Sophia’s dose of estrogen being reduced and then canceled altogether, leading to her asking her wife to smuggle some in, a request which causes tension between them. As in the first episode, flashbacks help to establish the story of Sophia’s transition and the reason she is in prison. Sophia’s son, Michael, does not cope well with his father making the transition, and reports her to the police committing credit card fraud, which she did to pay for the surgery. Her wife remains supportive through the transition, but not without some resistance to the idea of her getting sexual reassignment surgery. When Sophia asks her to smuggle in estrogen, she bristles at the idea and tells Sophia to “man up.” She also mentions that her decision to support Sophia has led to her becoming distant from her family, which shows their transphobic attitudes, something Sophia will deal with throughout the show.

A New Safety, Scenery, Screwdriver

For this blog entry, I will be focusing on the cinematography of the episode “Imaginary Enemies”. In this episode, there are a lot of major plot twists and surprises. Piper is struggling especially adjusting to prison life, she seems to be at a low point, hallucinating, but is pulling through day by day. We get a glimpse of Piper’s new roommate Mrs. Claudette and her backstory of how she got here. At first, Piper was afraid of Mrs. Claudette as a result of her serious demeanor and brevity to call out whoever she likes. Mrs.Claudette is well-known for her seemingly wise personality and courage as a person. Piper’s issue with the screwdriver and constant memory loss suggests her mental health may continue to decline and suffer as the show goes on. One of the inmates Mercy has gotten an appeal accepted for her case and was released at the end of the episode, creating a flush of emotions and change throughout this entire plot. This helped the prisoners see that there is possible hope in their cases, and to never give up.

With the cinematography, scenes in the prison were shot pretty blandly. There are numerous long takes when focusing on a specific person’s important commentary, likely shot to help viewers concentrate more on each individual’s traits and details they contribute to the overall plot. However, in the midst of sensitive scenes dealing with racism or stereotyping where the details aren’t as important to the whole plot, I noticed that there are much more quick cuts and switches to different parts of the environment.

A large detail noticed in this episode is the lighting of various scenes. In the prison scenes, the lighting was dull and it was clear enough to see items clearly and distinguish faces easily, yet it was obvious those scenes weren’t well-lit or anything like that. On the other hand, in the scenes where they throw it back to Mrs.Claudette’s past, the house present in the scene was extremely bright, and immediately lightened up the mood of the plot. Also, in Mercy’s farewell scene at the end of the episode, the lobby room was unusually more lit up than the other scenes in the prison. I believe the screenwriter intentionally did this to signify two different scenarios and that emphasize the fact that although all of these women are dangerous and potentially bad characters, the portrayal of these scenes reminded the viewers that the women had a previous happy life and the actions that led them into where they are right now(prison) are not necessarily just.

Boo with Piper’s stolen screwdriver

Making Prison Feel Like… Prison

A typical episode of Orange is the New Black goes like this: we open a relevant scene from Piper’s pre-prison life. Flash to Piper’s life now, in Litchfield. Plotline begins to develop, related to another character as well. Flash to that character’s past life. Flash back to Piper, in prison, with said plotline. More flashbacks to reveal the background of the other character. Repeat.

Although difficult to follow sometimes, the transitioning back and forth through different scenes does wonders for how the story is told and for the viewers’ understandings of each character. Episodes tend to follow one character and their involvement with Piper heavily, so the exposition of each character comes out by episode. For example, while Piper fights back and forth with Red, the kitchen boss, we see scenes of Red’s past life in Russia where she is alienated and rejected by upper class society. These flashback scenes allow us to understand Red’s deep pride, which Piper repeatedly accidentally insults, and to empathize a bit more with her. She is no longer a crazy, evil Russian lady but instead someone who has also loved and lost and is suffering her punishment.

We love a humanized character.

Flashing back to Larry, Piper’s fiancé, and the rest of her family and friends allows the audience to also remember that life is continuing without Piper, bringing up a very real conflict that many long-time prisoners experience – they are disconnected from their families, friends, jobs and all other aspects of their life, leaving them with very little left of what they had before when they are finally released. Although Larry attempts to continue to involve Piper, including trying to have her listen in to a call with a Barney’s executive regarding her soap line, there are small signs that he is beginning to re-adjust to life without her, including hiding her picture as he watches Mad Men without her (something that he had promised not to do).

Notable also is the lighting, and the stark variance of the lighting between real-life and flashback. While showing prison scenes, the lighting is fluorescent and sterile; it gives the impression that the inmates are just that, and there is no coziness. Even at night, the highlighting that allows the audience to observe what is occurring is white and cold instead of yellow and warm, as a night light would be. In contrast, almost all flashbacks have softer lighting. They feel homier, friendlier and happier, even when the events depicted may not be. Here, the filming clearly aims to invoke feelings of emptiness, general hopelessness and longing for freedom while the inmates are shown in prison and aims at showing their happiness and satisfaction with life outside of prison.

Through this method of storytelling, viewers find themselves respecting and empathizing with each character, not just the protagonists, and they can begin to see the events of the show unfolding from different perspectives. It is genius, really – and we get sucked into it every time.

She Really Wasn’t

Revisiting Orange is the New Black (kind of) after watching the first season during my junior year of high school, watching the first episode is jarring. Specifically, seeing the Piper Chapman of the pilot after seeing the Piper Chapman of later in the season is jarring.

I chose to focus on the writing of the pilot episode of the show because I want to break down the ways the rest of Orange is the New Black is set up through it (and definitely not because I didn’t have time to re-watch any other episodes). In reviewing the writing of “I Wasn’t Ready,” I will try to keep my focus on this episode, but I may have to write about future episodes. You have been warned.

“I Wasn’t Ready” was written by Jenji Kohan and Liz Friedman. Save for the opening voiceover monologue, the episode is heavily dialogue driven. In a monologue-heavy show, we learn a lot about the protagonist, so much so that all other characters serve only as auxiliaries. By depending on dialogue, the show ensures that, even if the protagonist is clearly Piper, other characters can be developed and can change as much as Piper will, and can affect Piper’s own character development. The decision to depend on dialogue allows for the existence of more multi-dimensional and fluid characters.

Image result for orange is the new black characters season 1

Piper is the clear protagonist but that doesn’t stop the other characters from being almost as fleshed out as she is.

The structure of the episode bears many similarities to shows such as The Good Place in its dependence on flashbacks to provide background information on the plot in small, often non-linear fragments. In Orange is the New Black, this tactic is also used to give viewers details about Piper’s past involvement with the drug cartel in small parcels, in order to keep the viewer hooked. By not revealing everything about Piper’s past in the first episode, the show writers ensure that they can continue to use it to drive the show along and reveal more about Piper throughout the course of the show. The pilot uses these two technical details to great effect, making for an episode that serves as an excellent foundation for the show.

However, this is only evident in retrospect. The pilot fails to stand on its own, depending way too much on the final cliffhanger to keep viewers watching the show. In many ways, the episode plays it safe (which is typical of a pilot). For example, it addresses racial division in the prison, but only with a surface level mention of it. Perhaps this is an intentional choice, made in order to accentuate how the show dives into these topics later on. But despite the writing having a limited immediate effect, Kohan and Friedman did an excellent job of setting the tone for the rest of the show.

Works Cited

“‘Orange Is the New Black’ I Wasn’t Ready (TV Episode 2013).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt2400770/.

#2: “Orange is the New Black” Implies There Was Black Before…

I doubt there is any show with as diverse a cast as Orange is the New Black. You get an award-winning trans actress. Groups of genuinely Dominican and Puerto Rican actresses (as opposed to the typical white stand-ins). And many women who are genuinely lesbian outside of the characters they may play on the show.

But yet, the diversity pretty much ends there.

After season four came out in 2016, many people were shocked at the lack of black writers for the show, especially given that the end of the season has a clear reference to the Black Lives Matter movement (or so I accidentally spoiled for myself in researching the writing team for this blog, ugh) that is supposedly handled insensitively. In fact, there are no black writers of any gender, nor any Latina writers, despite the large number of Latina actresses in the show.

The writing crew for “Orange is the New Black”

All is not entirely lost. The lead producer, Sara Hess, is a Korean-American, and the head showrunner, Jenji Kohan, is a Jewish American whose grandfather was a Romanian immigrant. Yet Kohan – who graduated from Columbia University – is not exactly the representative of the average American and especially not one that is residing in the custody of the judicial system, nor someone who regularly faces the injustices of American society.

Kohan got her start writing episodes for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to mild success and eventually went on to work as head showrunner for Weeds, a show about a mother who sells marijuana to help keep her family afloat. Both Weeds and Orange is the New Black feature strong suburban female leads struggling to deal with illegal issues and their consequences and stay strong through these ordeals. But Kohan recognizes that these are not real-life situations that she has been confronted with: “I can shoot off my big mouth and write my shows and run my shows, and I can recognize how lucky I am because my position is rare and my position is privileged.”

And while the show follows the backbone of the memoir written by Piper Kerman and aims at accuracy in portraying Piper’s – the main character’s – experiences in prison, not every issue that is tackled is handled correctly, and there are some heavy topics that come up. This stems mainly from a lack of diversity of background in the writers’ room. Regardless of the talent of a white writer, she has significantly less experience with institutionalized racism than a black writer, and she can therefore write less accurately or empathetically about it. The same can be said for many of the issues facing America today – without hearing the voices of those who live with the reality every day, we are not hearing the correct story.

And we all want to hear the correct story, to understand the characters as deeply as possible. Even the theme song reminds us, with a group of diverse faces flashing on the screen, to do so.

MLA Citations:

  • Aran, Isha. “Go Ahead, Guess How Many Black Writers Work on ‘Orange Is the New Black’.” Splinter, Splinternews.com, 24 July 2017, splinternews.com/go-ahead-guess-how-many-black-writers-work-on-orange-1793857745. Accessed 10 September 2018.
  • “Jenji Kohan | TV Guide.” TVGuide.com, TV Guide, www.tvguide.com/celebrities/jenji-kohan/bio/194196/. Accessed 10 September 2018.
  • Morelli, Lauren. “While Writing for ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ I Realized I Am Gay.” Mic, Mic Network Inc., 21 May 2014, mic.com/articles/89727/while-writing-for-orange-is-the-new-black-i-realized-i-am-gay#.ZOfJRCFm5. Accessed 10 September 2018.
  • Reign, April. “Orange Is the New Black, But Where Are the Black Writers? Essence.” Essence.com, Essence.com, 24 June 2016, www.essence.com/entertainment/orange-new-black-except-its-writers/. Accessed 10 September 2018.
  • Shipley, Diane. “When Good TV Turns Bad: How Weeds Made a Right Hash of Things.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 Apr. 2018, www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/apr/30/when-good-tv-turns-bad-weeds. Accessed 10 September 2018.

Prison Power Struggles

For a show that takes place in prison, it would be expected to see a running theme of a “weak class” serving the powerful. In Orange Is the New Black, however, there is an added layer to this power dynamic. Within the prison system of this show, those in power are almost always men and those obeying them are women (inclusively speaking).

In the third episode of the first season, this connection between gender and the amount of power one has is highlighted from the start where a police officer blatantly objectifies the women in the prison, referring to them as a means to his pleasure instead of as actual people. He further proceeds to yell at a transgender women and taunt her with a McDonald’s mealsomething he knows she wants but cannot have. When she refuses to express her hurt by his offensive behavior, he again begins to yell at her for standing too close to him. The subordinate status of the women is evident by the police officer’s blatant disrespect of her and his ability to do so without consequences.

A quote from the show that highlights how men make all of the rules for the women in the prison.

This episode is further littered with offensive jabs at women that, although hurtful, provide an accurate representation of our modern society’s perspective. For example, one girl calls Piper a “real woman” because she doesn’t sweatan allusion to the fact that women are expected to be clean and perfect all the time. At other times, women are told to “man up”, referring to the belief that men are generally stronger and can handle problems better than women. Furthermore, when the women question certain aspects of the legal system, they are often answered with something on the lines of “you have to do this because the white man said so”. Such statements refer to the fact that in the past and still in present day, many aspects of the government, our laws, our workplaces, and our everyday lives are shaped by one small facet of society and are not influenced by all members equally. This running theme that women have less power than men factors into the show by highlighting Piper’s inferior and relatively helpless situation, allowing viewers to understand the challenges she faces and the complications of why she has them as a woman. More importantly, however, this theme comments on the current position of women in society and unapologetically points out that women are in an unfair disadvantage in many different areas of their liveseven in a prison where they are surrounded by people of the same gender.

 

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