Thursday, February 27, 2014

Seeing the Gray in Orange is the New Black

Praise for the groundbreaking show, while acknowledging the murkiness of portraying life in prison.

By: Emily Ostrowski

(Contains some spoilers for Season 1 of Orange is the New Black) 

Like many fans of Netflix sensation Orange is the New Black (OitNB), I was thrilled when they announced the show’s second season will be available to stream June 6th, 2014. After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, a return date is in sight for the show that has become something of a cultural phenomenon, and because Netflix allows for every episode of the season to be available at once, it’s essentially redefined the concept of “binge-watching.” In fact, OitNB is the most watched original Netflix show, beating out House of Cards and the re-vamped fourth season of Arrested Development. It’s garnered critical praise, as well as a slew of award nominations, but perhaps more than anything OitNB has been lauded for what many see as its societal impact.

 For starters it stars a predominantly female cast, meaning it clearly passes the Bechdel Test (a test named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel that requires any work of fiction to have at least two female characters interact with one another about something other than a man.) The show has also earned praise for its racial diversity, as well as its inclusion of numerous LGBT characters. The series’ main love triangle revolves around recently imprisoned main character Piper Chapman (Taylor Shilling), her fiancĂ© on the outside, Larry (Jason Biggs), and her former girlfriend and current fellow inmate, Alex (Laura Prepon). Piper’s feelings for Alex are shown to be every bit as legitimate as hers towards Larry, and while the show could have played their relationship as nothing more than a titillating distraction, throughout the course of the season Alex and Piper’s relationship became deeply rooted in sustained emotional connection and persevering attraction they feel towards one another. OitNB also prominently features openly transgender actress Laverne Cox, who has used her popularity on the show to become an outspoken advocate for transgender rights. 

Having said that, the show’s premise is based around the everyday lives of women in prison. In this particular area I fear I, like many viewers while good intentioned, don’t know much about prison life aside from what we’ve gleaned from previous media depictions. To learn more, I reached out to Michael Sutcliffe, a PhD student and activist who volunteers with YWCA’s WORTH Program. He shared his thoughts on the show, about what they’re getting right and, and unfortunately quite wrong about life in prison.

“There are some things about Orange is the New Black that I was pleased to see.” says Sutcliffe, “The writer and producers do seem to acknowledge the prison as both a manifestation and a producer of systemic racism, and they do try to demonstrate just how powerful the privileges of the main character are.”

Indeed Piper’s privileges are often plain to see in the show, such as the early preferential treatment she receives from her correctional officer, Mr. Healy, because she is a white, upper class, educated, and (he presumes) heterosexual woman. The show also notes how Piper is both uncomfortable with her privilege, while at other times seemingly unaware of it, which I believe is an honest and unflattering reflection of how privilege often works.

Sutcliffe also gives the show some credit for attempting to portray the different power dynamics and social structures of people imprisoned, but as he notes is the case with all TV, “They compress time so much that it seems like every day is a roller coaster of politics, gossip, and social maneuvering.”

There is also an inherent quirkiness to OitNB, that while undoubtedly makes the show more entertaining, also contributes to what Sutcliffe sees as the “quiet dulling of the emotions” in what are the more intense scenes of the show. He elaborates, “What I mean is that while they show the women being scared, angry, frustrated, and try to hint at desperation, they accompany the scenes with goofy or happy music that lightens the mood and makes light of the situations the women are in. There is no theme music in tense moments in (real-life) prison and the silence (as well as the extreme noise) can be a powerful component part of a moment.”  He references the early episodes where Piper was effectively “starved out” by the kitchen staff for unknowingly criticizing the cook’s food in front of her. In real life, this is undoubtedly a serious issue, but in the show, it was largely played for laughs.

This bothers Sutcliffe, in no small part because he believes OitNB sells itself as a type of docudrama, but by portraying those scenes the way the show does, it under-emphasizes the fear and legitimate threat of violence real prisoners often face. While I’m not sure if I completely agree that the show markets itself in such a way, I understand where the assertion is coming from. After all, the show is loosely based on the real-life incarceration of Piper Kerman, former inmate turned prison reform advocate, who wrote about her experiences in her memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. For a casual viewer, knowing that the story is based on certain real-life events may make them susceptible to believing that the show’s portrayal of prison is a fairly accurate one.

All of this I suppose raises the question as to whether it is the show’s responsibility to portray prison life more realistically, or that of the viewer to be able to discern between entertainment and reality? Ultimately, I believe the answer lies, so often as it does, somewhere in the middle.

In an article for the Chicago Tribune former inmates were asked to weigh in on OitNB’s accuracy. Like Sutcliffe, the women had mixed reactions.

 One woman praised the show for enriching these characters by “having a great sense of humor” and portraying them as “amazingly inventive” in the ways in which they get through the day. She also had this to say:

“If this were a truly realistic portrayal, it would be depressing. It may be the show I want to see. But I’m not confident that a lot of other people would want to see it.”

A television show’s main job after all, is to attract viewers. It’s not the nicest truth, but it’s a truth, nonetheless, and despite OitNB’s flaws, I’m still happy it’s out there, and am not ashamed for finding it compelling.

Yet there was one criticism of Sutcliffe’s that resonated, not just about OitNB, but about the way in which we as a society tend to consume all media:

“I don’t think OitNB really shows people what prison is like. While it definitely has some good acting moments and some entertaining situations, I think OitNB has to be taken with a HUGE grain of salt, and we need to ask why/how we can use the ruination of people’s lives as entertainment while doing nothing to help them?”

In this digital age it’s easy to feel like because we watch a certain TV show or post a story on Facebook that we’re actively engaging in political and societal discourse. In reality many of us are failing to take any real steps to change the injustices we claim to care about, and I’m as guilty of this inaction as any.

 In an effort to change that, I invite all of you interested in learning more about our criminal justice system to take a look at YWCA’s WORTH Program, as well as the list below where Michael gives us a few of his recommendations for films and documentaries that give a more realistic portrayal of life in prison. Also keep an eye out for our next newsletter, in which Michael and I will have a more in-depth conversation on activism and the failures of our current prison system.

Additional Resources

 Michael especially enjoys Michelle Alexander on Mass Incarceration and The New Jim Crow as well as the NPR interview and review. He also suggests the feature documentaries "Visions of Abolition" and "It’s More Expensive to do Nothing" (link unavailable). Finally, Michael recommends this video interview with Dr Carl Hart about drug addiction, and a this post on the Prison Industrial Complex.

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