Credit: Courtesy Netflix
Pop Culture
8 min

‘Orange is the New Black’ and incarceration as entertainment

The hit series broke ground with its diverse cast, queer love scenes and stories of life in prison. But what’s the line between spotlight and spectacle?

Many of us first learned how to binge-watch in July 2013, when Netflix released the entire 13-episode debut season of Orange is the New Black. It’s since become the streaming service’s most watched original series (according to Netflix, 105 million users have watched at least one episode). Now its historic run comes to a close with its seventh and final season premiering on July 26.

Adapted by showrunner and lead writer Jenji Kohan from Piper Kerman’s best-selling 2010 memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, the series signalled early its intention to present something different to audiences, both in form and in content. Through the show’s long list of characters and their constellations of flashbacks performed by a crop of fresh faces — of whom the standouts were largely Black and Latinx — the show illuminated some of the pathways that led to life behind bars.

Critics raved: “Kohan and her writers are obsessed with the million little details that form a believable and unembellished realm,” Hank Stuever wrote in the Washington Post. “Each episode contains fascinating revelations about the prison world, almost like a documentary report from within.” The cast ignited think-pieces and adorned magazine covers; in its first season, the show racked up 12 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series. Many found it revealing, offering a chance to humanize, or to give a second thought to, those who society so rarely considers worthy of the gesture. In Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote: “For all its comedy, this is a serious show, one that’s keenly attuned to the damage that women do to other women, and that men and women do to one another, and that the state does to its people before, during and after they go to prison.”

Serious it may be, but let’s not forget that both the comedy and the drama were primarily in service of entertainment. Beatrice Codianni, who was once incarcerated at the same prison as Kerman, noted in a 2014 op-ed the discrepancy between OITNB’s version of jail and her lived reality of it. She detailed her reaction to the glitz, gloss and humour of OITNB — what she called the prison’s “comic-book” portrayal.

In her inventory of inaccuracies, Codianni draws particular attention to the show’s failure to portray how prison continues to impact women’s lives beyond its walls. She writes, “Nowhere in the Netflix rendition of prison do we see the real-life collateral consequences that women and their children face when mom is incarcerated. Most of the women with whom I was in prison were nonviolent, low-level drug offenders. Nevertheless, many of these women lost custody of their children because of the draconian length of mandatory drug sentences.”

Codianni reminds us that the repercussions of incarceration for women aren’t temporary. They’re permanent. The show’s initial approach to foreground daily carceral drama while unfolding the stories of the characters’ pasts risked missing the point — which is prison’s far-reaching impact on the present and future. To the show’s credit, this improved in later seasons: for example, Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) gives birth in season one, and her lost opportunities for motherhood haunt her through to season six. That this evolution was affected by the show’s reclassification from a comedy to a drama series — a result of a 2015 change to the Emmys rules — is also possible.

From drama series to reality TV, there’s nothing novel about the American prison system being used as a setting for entertainment, but it is precisely this ordinariness that is troubling. Equally troubling is the complete absence of exposure — real or fictionalized — to the inside of the Canadian prison system. In both this hyper-visiblilty and utter invisibility lie similar dynamics that blind us to the realities of what it means to cage human beings and that caged human beings exist. Reflecting in 2014 on a fashion magazine spread featuring OITNB stars, prison justice organizer and educator Mariame Kaba tells a story about her friend Carolyn, who is in prison and who refers to herself as “ghost.” “Not I am a ghost but I am ghost,” Kaba writes. “Disembodied, not here/here, invisibly visible, dead/living, in between. Millions of prisoners are ghost.”

The narratives of those in prison are occluded by our own unwillingness to confront our culture of cruelty. To witness and handle these narratives not only takes commitment, it demands consideration for their invisibility as well as the weight of their presence. So when it comes to a series like OITNB, where exactly does one chart the line between illumination and spectacle?

OITNB centres around Kerman’s fictional counterpart: a white, middle-class, thirtysomething woman named Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Chapman finds herself in a minimum-security facility after she is convicted for the drug-trafficking she participated in while in a lesbian love-affair several years before. By comparison, the other prisoners, many of whom are poor Black and Latinx women, paint a picture of how unique Chapman’s experience is, and they also represent the most engrossing plot points in the form of bottomless pits of embodied racialized trauma. As writer and critic Roxane Gay once put it, the show is a “monument to White Girl Problems,” while the racialized characters, who make up the show’s much lauded diversity, only ever really amount to “planets orbiting Piper’s sun.”

Prison hairdresser Sophia Burset is sure to remain one of the most notable characters among the ensemble. Trans icon and activist Laverne Cox — in a role that would quickly catapult her to the world stage — portrays the trans prisoner, whose introductory plight includes fighting for the restoration of her full dose of exogenous estrogen, which had been reduced as a result of budget cuts. When we think back on Burset (and Cox’s remarkable performance), we will likely recall her uncompromising commitment to the fullest expression of herself, punctuated by moving flashbacks to her life pre-transition (when she is played by Cox’s twin brother, M Lamar), or the ongoing and refreshingly complex portrayal of her relationship with her wife, Crystal.

And yet the show’s writers still relied on Burset’s transness to make up the entirety of her character and her place in the series. In The Daily Beast, Samantha Allen wrote: “Most Orange is the New Black critics have been too entranced by the newness of a transgender character played by a transgender actress to scrutinize how that character is actually written and handled.” Allen noted that the arc of Burset’s story in the first four seasons had been a “brutal slog to watch,” almost exclusively consisting of systemic and interpersonal transphobic attacks that culminate in an indefinite sentence in solitary confinement and an eventual suicide attempt.

The prison riots of season five present little of Burset outside of brief scenes in the infirmary, where she employs her lifesaving training as a firefighter (though writers had her identify herself as a former “fireman” first). In season six, she gets what one might presume to be her happy ending — she accepts an offer of early release and $300,000 from the private corporation that owns the prison, in an effort to avoid a lawsuit — but still without the genuine substance that could foreshadow a potential season seven appearance.

There has been considerably more dimension in how the show has depicted queerness and queer characters, matter-of-factly placing them front and centre, season after season. That starts with Piper’s love-hate, on-again-off-again relationship with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), and extends to supporting roles that include hotshots Carrie “Big Boo” Black (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), resolute romantic Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), the bewitching Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), heartthrob fan favourite Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), and her die-hard lover Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn).

Generally, homophobia-as-spectacle takes a backseat on this ride — instead the show puts forth a plethora of steamy sex scenes featuring a mostly white selection of queer characters. But a deeper look reveals that, often, a character’s queerness is directly implicated in their criminalization. Had Chapman not fallen for Vause, she wouldn’t be in this mess. Washington’s troubles started with a youthful love affair that, when discovered, derailed her and her family’s plans for the future.

In an analysis of OITNB’s first two seasons, covered in their chapter of the 2015 book Feminist Theory and Pop Culture, Lauren J. Decarvalho and Nicole B. Cox highlight this connection, noting how Suzanne’s sexuality was pathologized alongside her mental health in her season one obsession with Chapman. Suzanne’s unrequited crush — evidenced by gifts of illustrative poetry, food and intervention in an argument between Chapman and Vause — ends in her rejection. Suzanne retaliates by peeing on the floor next to Chapman’s bed in the middle of the night.

Need one more example? How about the season six relationship between Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and Daddy (Vicci Martinez)? After being moved to a maximum security facility following the riots of season five, Dayanara faces regular assaults from the guards for her role in the killing of a correctional officer. She accepts a plea deal that upgrades her sentence to life in prison, then develops an addiction to the oxycontin supplied by Daddy originally used to manage pain. Somewhere along the way, the two become lovers.

What OITNB has done in its later seasons is grant space for the portrayal (and thus respect) of love in prison, a place where violence reigns supreme. Familial and romantic love alike are recurring. The enduring friendship between Burset and the pacifist nun, Sister Jane Ingalls, drives each of them to risk exposure to more harm for the chance to help the other, even if in the smallest way. Then there is the love story between Poussey and Soso before Poussey’s violent, crass and poorly written murder at the end of season four, followed by an outpouring of love and rage that ignites a riot in season five.

And yet, in her op-ed, Codianni rightfully cautions against any romantic notions about relationships in prison. Overt signs of love and affection can make people a target for further punishment by guards and administrators — maybe it’s a stint in solitary confinement; maybe it’s separation through transfers to different prisons. In the end, the house always wins.

The energy that ushered OITNB into the world — championing the call for improved on-screen diversity — will surely be diminished as the show wraps its final season and ends its cultural moment. It will leave behind an undeniable chunk of the legacy it aimed to establish by mainstreaming select queer and trans stories, however narrow, and proving to networks that these stories can sell.

I’ll admit, I truly wish I had better things to say about a show that has made a massive impact on (queer) culture and TV as we know it. But if blazing trails is set to be atop the list of legacy achievements, then the writers better have the range. Show me a series that can hold both drama and evolving cultural significance, and I’ll show you a series that can make a trans character more than just trans.

Art, in all its forms, has the power to bring us closer to our social reality, but far too often we look to it solely as a means of escape. Spotlighting stories from the margins entails a responsibility to reckon with our present condition. For us — yes, you, Canada — that means thinking about how these stories relate to our country’s own practice of mass incarceration, enduring police violence, criminalization of migrants and asylum seekers and mounting threats to reproductive justice.

Representation for representation’s sake will never be enough to achieve the widespread change (on screen or beyond) that so many are asking for. When the goal to increase visibility comes without context or depth, it results in a spectacle that is digestible and vapid. In the end, we deserve better from a show that dares to dance with reality to the extent that OITNB has.