I took a break from reading and writing (and sleeping and eating and wearing clothes that aren’t sweatpants) so I could binge-watch Orange is the New Black, which, to be fair, was only 13 hours. The rest of the time was needed to process my emotional reaction to the sucker punch of a season.
I’m a bad bookworm. I’ve never read Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the memoir upon which the show is based. But since it’s a show based on a woman’s memoir, run by a woman, staffed by women writers, and starring one of the most diverse groups of women ever (young women! old women! middle-aged women! fat women! butch women! Black women! Latinx women! queer women playing queer characters! a trans* woman playing a trans* character!) this seemed an appropriate place to highlight the feminist ups and downs of the season.
So many spoilers.
Seriously with the spoilers.
Apart from the first season, which focused on author expy Piper Chapman navigating a minimum security federal prison as a wealthy, well-educated, white (oh yes that’s important) woman who got busted on a decade-old minor drug trafficking charge, Orange is the New Black has spent each season peeling back the layers of social structures through the microcosm of prison life.
The prison is segregated by race, even when it comes to bunk assignments. For the most part, the inmates get along, until outside forces (prison privatization and overcrowding) stoke the latent fires of “us vs. them” mentalities to a boiling point. When Piper starts a prison business, mostly out of boredom, the inmates she employs are almost to a one destitute, desperate, and without options once their sentences are filled. So when the Latinx crew starts a rival business (selling used panties, for the record), Piper uses her privilege (white, pretty, upper class) to muscle in on their territory, an incident that escalates into a full-on race war.
Orange is the New Black is better when it’s subtle. A minor plot point involves established character, Black Cindy, who recently converted to Judaism, struggling to maintain control over her space when her new bunkmate, Alison, a devout Muslim, arrives and immediately asserts her right to take up space in her new, grim, home. The two women engage in both direct confrontation and escalating pranks to assert dominance, with true escalation averted at the last minute when they discover how much they have in common.
Contrast with the over the top speech given by one of the white supremacists, who claims she doesn’t read and launches into a detailed description of how reading encourages empathy and expresses multiple points of view, an argument too articulate and reasonable to come from a real life skinhead.
OitNB‘s ambitions frequently exceed its abilities, and in such cases the point being made has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. In this season alone, the show tackles the problems of corporate profit taking the hard line over inmate safety, abuses of power, white privilege, the core difference between systemic and personal racism, the “luxury” of menstruation, and the failure of the mental health system all in thirteen hours.
Some of the better done storylines involve Judy King, a fictional domestic doyenne in the vein of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen. A celebrity, she is given special treatment without asking, such as a private bunk while the remaining women are stuffed four deep, or the power to reassign prison staff on a whim. These privileges are extended to her without so much as a request on her part, but how does Judy, who could change the prison dynamic with a phone call, use that gift? To get soft sheets and a roll in the hay. She dispenses little pellets of generosity among her fellows–a seltzer machine, some legal assistance, public displays of favor–but not once does it occur to her that she should use her power to affect change.
While Judy spends privilege like a right, Sophia Burset, who was sent to solitary at the end of season three after she was the target of a transphobic hate crime, needs the combined machinations of herself, her wife, two fellow inmates, a former prison corporate bigwig turned whistleblower, and the morally conflicted warden just to be returned to the general population. Black, trans, and a face among many, her rights are treated like privileges she hasn’t yet earned.
Meanwhile, the old guard are changed for a crew of combat veterans that was almost to a man, surely dishonorably discharged (never established except through my own head canon), and they use their authority to enact petty power plays against the inmates for perceived slights and minor infractions, with heavy doses of racial profiling, that by season’s end has amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
When the inmates engage in peaceful protest to get the captain of the guard, the cruelest and most calculating of the bunch, deposed, Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), an inmate who has long needed psychiatric treatment, whose crimes in backstory are due to her lack of understanding and supervision, becomes overwhelmed by the escalating tension when a timid guard tries to redirect her to her room, and turns violent. When her friend Poussey tries to intervene, the guard, an ill-trained novice cowed by his superiors, becomes panicked and distracted, an incident that ends with him inadvertently crushing the tiny Poussey to death.
Poussey, a fan favorite, was the brightest, cutest, most moral character in the span of the show. One of few characters with a somewhat bright future–she had a supportive father, a highly stamped passport, and was well-educated–Poussey spent the season falling in love and securing a job from the aforementioned Judy King, which made her death hit all the harder.
In real life, Poussey’s death echoed those of Eric Garner (suffocated by an LEO while saying she couldn’t breathe) and Sandra Bland (a black woman who died in custody and has her name and dignity sacrificed in the interest of protecting the prison’s legal interests). It’s a chilling moment, not only for the implications but because the fans have spent four years falling in love with Poussey–her friendship with fellow inmate Taystee provided much of the show’s heart and comic relief, and she was as beloved in-universe as out.
Of course, this is the point. Sandra Bland and Eric Garner were not news headlines, at least, not until they died. They were people with friends, families, hobbies, bad habits, quirks, even favorite tv shows, identities that have since been subsumed by the media, where everyone weighs in except the people who matter. And, like Poussey, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that the responsible parties will not be held accountable, because they were individuals victimized by unjust power structures.
Unless, of course, we who do hold privilege do something about it.
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman