In advance of the second season of Netflix’s original series, Orange Is the New Black, which will be released on Friday, June 6, we asked Public Books contributors to share their views on the show’s representation of race, gender, sexuality, incarceration, and the women-in-prison genre.
—Heather Love: Made For TV
—Megan Comfort: The Two Pipers
—Laurent Dubois: Haiti on the Small Screen
—Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Piper’s Adventures in Blackness
—Noah Berlatsky: Orange Is the New Caged
—Eric A. Stanley: Abolition and Trans Resistance
—Rebecca McLennan: Why Prison Stories Matter
—Kaveh Landsverk: Doing Time
Like boarding schools, convents, rooming houses, and brothels, prison is a classic setting for scenes of lesbian eroticism. When it comes to sex, proximity and opportunity count for a lot, and lesbianism has flourished in single-sex institutions. But even more so, these institutions have served as backdrops for popular, scientific, and pornographic fantasies about lesbianism. From sober investigations of the social problem of “situational homosexuality” to hazy, sympathetic portraits of girlhood intimacies, these all-female worlds have been the subject of anxiety, moralizing, entertainment, and gratification.
Prison is central to the history of homosexuality. Along with the medical clinic and the psychiatrist’s office, it is one of the sites where modern lesbian and gay identities were made. Through the criminalization of homosexuality, prisons have served as holding cells and correctional facilities for gender and sexual outsiders. But they have also served as dream worlds, sites for the production of fantasies about sexual excess and disorder, desire, and domination. In addition to “making up lesbians”—in the sense suggested by Ian Hacking in his classic article on the productive effects of categorization, “Making Up People”—prison has also been good at making up lesbians in the sense of make-believe. It has produced some of lesbianism’s most familiar stock images (the violent and possessive butch dyke; the spiteful, sexually frustrated warden; the naive straight woman) as well as key plots (the corruption of an innocent; dramas of sexual ownership; and psychotic overinvestment).
The prison topos has ideological and erotic appeal; it is also highly cinematic. Group sex, shower scenes, riots, strip searches, voyeurism, forced labor, rape, and erotic bullying have all provided spectacular material for the women-in-prison genre. These scenes recur in films from the mid-20th century on, from the classics So Young, So Bad (1950) and Caged (1950) to ’70s and ’80s exploitation films such as Black Mama, White Mama (1973), Caged Heat (1974), The Women in Cellblock 9 (1977), Chained Heat (1983), and Caged Fury (1989) to Lady Gaga’s music video “Telephone” (2009). With a strong sense of both the erotic and the comic possibilities of the genre, Orange Is the New Black offers lots of pulpy pleasures.
Season 1 opens, aptly enough, with a shower scene, or actually with a montage of shower scenes. We see Piper Chapman—the blond innocent at the center of the show—grow from an infant sitting in a sudsy kitchen sink to a convicted criminal shivering in a concrete stall in a few quick cuts. The montage includes a typical soft-core scene of the adult Piper (Taylor Schilling), slicked up and soapy, making out in the shower with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). The iconography recalls a hundred other such scenes, as the blond ingénue gives herself to the dark, sensual noir heroine. David Lynch drew on a similar visual repertoire by casting Naomi Watts as the ingénue and Laura Harring as his femme fatale in Mulholland Drive (2001); both of these Lauras are, in turn, indebted to Gene Tierney’s performance in Otto Preminger’s 1944 Laura. This moment is followed by a scene of Piper taking a bath with her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs)—the Williams-Sonoma mise-en-scene as well as the gentle eroticism remind us not only that the heroine of Orange goes both ways, but also that, generically, the show is a mash-up: women-in-prison plus chick lit.
A loud buzzer signals a cut to the prison bathroom, where most of the bathing, some of the sex, and quite a bit of the drama in the series will take place. Piper is standing under a thin stream of lukewarm water, partly hidden behind a torn, dirty curtain, sanitary napkins rubber-banded to her feet. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) approaches the shower, her slow pace allowing for a long shot of a young woman dressing — suggesting that, despite the come-down in décor, the series will still offer eyefuls of ladyparts for those who are interested. After Taystee hurries Piper out of the shower, we get another look. Taystee comments, “Oooh! You got some nice titties!” Piper thanks her, and Taystee elaborates, “You got them TV titties, they stand on their own, all perky and everything.”
Piper’s titties, along with everything else in this show, are made for TV. As one of Netflix’s original series, Orange represents “customer preferences” with an unusually high level of confidence, because of the company’s tracking of microgenres and of their subscribers’ viewing habits. But you don’t need Big Data to tell you that people want to see the girls getting it on in Cellblock A. Of course, feminist critics have long bemoaned the popularity of lesbian representation created, in Adrienne Rich’s words, “for the male voyeuristic eye,” and “devoid of emotional context or individual personality.” Orange cannily draws on this tradition, but updates it significantly—in part through funny, knowing engagement with the genre, and in part by juxtaposing camp fantasies of lesbianism with its banal, everyday existence in a moment of much more widespread tolerance and visibility.
The central irony of Orange, and of the memoir on which it was based, is that Piper—the wrongly imprisoned innocent—is already a lesbian, or more specifically, a hasbian, when she goes to prison. The melodrama of her corruption is significantly diminished since Piper has already indulged on the outside—if you can call the environs of Smith College the outside. The series incorporates many camp elements, but its casting choices—including dyke comedian Lea DeLaria and transgender actress Laverne Cox—suggest new possibilities for social and psychological realism. Orange offers as much cheesecake and catfights as anyone could ask for, but it also suggest more unspectacular representations of lesbians—who don’t in fact spend all that much time mud wrestling, being sprayed by fire hoses, or playing elaborate games of psychological manipulation.
Orange represents a significant update to the women-in-prison genre, one made possible by the fact that lesbian representation has recently found other channels outside the prison, the convent, and the reformatory. But if the image-repertoire of lesbianism and the prison has grown less entangled, the material and social entanglements of lesbians—and of women more broadly, especially women of color and transwomen—with the criminal justice system are growing in an era of mass incarceration. The series’s flickering attention to race, ethnicity, and class—addressed more explicitly but without much more insight in the memoir—suggests how much better Orange is at tweaking genre conventions than at representing social reality.
Even though Orange engages critically and self-consciously with the women-in-prison genre, it lacks perspective on the social reality of women in prison. An event like the recent BFI “Caged Lesbians Afterparty” that urges guests “Get ready for your mugshot” might alert us to the difference between camping on the genre and camping on the reality. The emergence of more self-conscious, nuanced, and critical versions of the women-in-prison genre is an advance in the history of lesbian representation, but what the impact of such representations is beyond the closed loop of made-for-TV reality is not clear.
Jump to remarks:
I’ll be honest: I cringe at television shows about
prison. I have spent nearly 20 years studying how correctional facilities and
the criminal justice system more broadly are entwined with a tremendous amount
of suffering in our society. I have observed time and again how “the pains of
imprisonment” affect those
behind bars and their loved ones, first as a staff member at a community-based
organization assisting people visiting prisoners in California’s San Quentin State Prison
and then as a researcher interested in the ways that incarceration transforms
intimate relationships and family life. Over the years, I have sat face-to-face
with hundreds of formerly incarcerated people and their family members, as they
spoke of the devastatingly harsh realities of their lives in the long shadow of
the penitentiary. The stories I’ve heard, and the anguish I have witnessed, don’t
make me inclined to think of prison as funny, sexy, or otherwise entertaining. Instead,
I grit my teeth when the punishment levied on millions of Americans makes yet
another airbrushed appearance in the guise of escapism, comedy, and leisure.
Unsurprisingly, then, when I agreed to contribute to this roundtable, I hadn’t actually seen the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. I eased in by reading the book on which the series is based, followed by a swift dive through all 13 episodes of season 1. I capped off this immersion by attending the book’s author Piper Kerman’s live interview for the City Arts & Lectures program in San Francisco. Once an Orange novice, I went from 0 to 60 in a few short weeks.
Hands down, my favorite part of this crash course was listening to Kerman speak. After gamely answering several pointless and offensive questions about sex in prison and her own lesbian relationships, Kerman took the wheel and directed the conversation toward the issues she wanted to address: the “school-to-prison pipeline” in underfunded public schools that criminalizes youth for behavior that is treated as benign and age-appropriate among their wealthier peers; the routine practice of shackling women prisoners during labor and childbirth that leads to health complications for mothers and babies; the inadequate legal representation provided to indigent defendants that virtually assures that they will accept unacceptable plea bargains and serve hefty prison sentences or otherwise acquire criminal records that will hamper them for the rest of their lives. For an author ostensibly speaking about her memoir, Kerman maintained a strong focus on a spectrum of issues completely outside of her own experience. She did so without dodging personal questions or ignoring her position as the person occupying center stage. But she was clearly intent on moving the spotlight from her unique tale of the failure of class privilege to completely protect a white, college-educated woman from the consequences of poor decision-making to the crushingly common and typically overlooked injustices wrought upon the poor and the darker skinned.
As I listened to Kerman speak, it was not lost on me that this event owed its existence to the show. The book Orange Is the New Black was published in 2010. Like many others, I first heard of it during the summer of 2013, when Netflix released its adaptation. Undeniably, Piper Chapman, the heroine of the Netflix series, has given Piper Kerman a much more visible platform from which to share the “completely reality-based sense of inequality” that she gained during her incarceration.
Kerman is the first to acknowledge that her opportunity to reach lecture-attending, NPR-listening, Washington Post–reading audiences with such a message is inextricably linked to this very inequality. During the City Arts & Lectures interview, she explained that she was trying to reach a new audience of “people for whom the criminal justice system was largely outside of their experience” and to attract readers who would not pick up a book about prison unless it were written by someone who, as the Los Angeles Times gushes in a review quoted on the book’s back cover, “could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.” In this, it seems Kerman has been largely successful. If she can now parlay the attention she commands into advocacy for the millions of best friends, daughters, sons, siblings, parents, and partners of people for whom the criminal justice system is a dominant and insidious presence in their daily lives, she may bring much-needed allies into the struggle to reverse and repair one of the most catastrophic socio-political experiments of our time.
Meanwhile, the majority of people will only watch the series, without Kerman’s edifying segues. And although the show’s creator Jenji Kohan has strewn nuggets of “reality” throughout the storylines, I fear they are too easily drowned out in the melodramatic swirl of a product that is designed to distract and amuse, curtailing the possibilities for reflection or education. For example, the hardships of Chapman’s fiancé, Larry Bloom (modeled on Kerman’s now-husband Larry Smith, who stood by her during her entire ordeal), are largely reduced to self-centered sexual frustration and dalliances with quirky masturbation practices. In the “Fucksgiving” episode, Bloom arrives at the prison and learns that Chapman is in solitary confinement so he won’t be able to see her. His distressed efforts to liberate her from “the hole” set off a chain of events that zoom viewers into the explosive season finale. Now, yes, sexual contact is an important loss when a romantic partner is incarcerated—alongside other losses of help with child-rearing, taking care of household matters, and companionship. And it is completely possible that after driving for hours to attend a prison visit you could be told that your loved one will not be permitted to join you and you have to leave the facility, even if it is a holiday. But it is highly improbable that the reason for this is that she was performing a sexy dance with her stunning co-defendant at the raucous, music-filled going away party of yet another gorgeous prisoner. A sympathetic correctional officer probably won’t apologize to you, and your complaints will certainly not be communicated up the chain of command.
Instead, as I’ve heard repeatedly from people who have faced this situation, you might feel scared to make too many waves, in case your actions trigger more trouble for the prisoner. You will likely be given no explanation for days or weeks, and finally you will learn that your loved one has been transferred to a prison on the other side of the state, or that the state has curtailed visits due to budget constraints, or that the whole thing was an error and in fact you should have been able to see each other. In the interim, the stress and strain will cause you to have migraines, or high blood pressure, or anxiety attacks. But you will struggle to hold it together, knowing that people are depending on you, feeling the tremendous weight of responsibility for being the central human connection for someone who is literally trapped in an inhumane system. Because, as you and your family and friends know too well, prison is no joke.
Jump to remarks:
And though the word “Haiti” or “Haitian” is never uttered in the television series, it soon becomes clear that that is what Miss Claudette is. Among the various innovations made by Orange Is the New Black—its airing via Netflix, its representation of life in a women’s prison, its braiding of humor, sexuality, race and violence—there is also this: it is, to my knowledge, the first prime-time US television show to include a prominent Haitian character.
Orange Is the New Black, both as a memoir and the television show, is founded on a basic premise: that viewers will be surprised and intrigued by the idea of a white, college-educated woman going into the US prison system, and drawn in by the idea this specific experience will offer up danger, humor, and a particularly insightful vision of incarceration. In some ways, the memoir was marketed in a way that suggested its imagined readers were people similar to its main protagonist: a reviewer from the Los Angeles Times, whose comment was used as a blurb on the paperback, wrote: “This book is impossible to put down because she could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.” The memoir itself is, inevitably given the form, largely about Piper Kerman’s experience: the way she learned to handle prison, the solidarity she developed with prisoners from a wide range of backgrounds, and the broader moral lessons she learned about the absurdities and failures of the US carceral system.
The transformation of this memoir into a television drama created a set of aesthetic and narrative opportunities. While the basic premise and draw remains the same, this different form allowed for the development of other characters both through scenes within the prison—many of them based, though often rather loosely, on moments in the memoir—and through flashbacks to the lives of prisoners before their incarceration. Some critics of the show—including others writing for this roundtable—have been disappointed in the portrayals of these other characters. Here, I focus on one of them—Miss Claudette—in order to argue that her portrayal in fact represents a rather significant development within the particular context of the way Haiti has been represented within US popular culture.
The character of Miss Claudette is based on the woman who, in Piper Kerman’s memoir, she called Miss Malcolm—a resonant pseudonym—and gave the first name of Natalie. In the memoir, Malcolm plays one of the most pivotal roles in anchoring and in a sense securing Kerman’s experience in the prison: as a strict but respected and respectful bunk-mate, she accepts Kerman into a space of relative order and peace that she has clearly worked hard to secure for herself. “Natalie, I don’t know what I would have done without you,” Kerman tells her “bunkie” near the end of her time in prison. “I love you.”
Kerman describes their first meeting this way: “Miss Malcolm was waiting for me in her cube, a petite dark-skinned middle-aged woman with a heavy Caribbean accent. She was all business.” Kerman quickly realized that she has “won the bunkie lottery.” Natalie was “a reserve of quiet dignity and good counsel” who “never said anything unnecessary” and kept “largely to herself with a few select friends among the West Indian women and her kitchen coworkers.” In the memoir, we never learn her backstory: “She never said what had landed her there, and I never asked.” Their relationship is largely a tender and supportive one. One of the most moving moments in the memoir describes the day Natalie learned she had passed her GED, after many attempts over the years. She was “enveloped by people hugging and congratulating her,” and “looked overwhelmed.” Kerman found the sight of “so much collective happiness in that miserable place” so powerful that she felt like it could create a “tornado right inside the hall.”
The writers of the television show Orange Is the New Black clearly saw an opportunity in the character Miss Malcolm. She was an “enigmatic” and intriguing character who could help anchor the story of Piper Chapman’s integration into the prison. Furthermore, her backstory—unlike those of some of the other characters in the memoir—was a complete blank slate. As the show’s writers adapted the memoir to the screen, they made an interesting choice: they turned the character from a Jamaican into a Haitian. Miss Malcolm became Miss Claudette.
When Haiti makes it onscreen in the US, it is worth taking note. The country has long been part of popular culture in the US, of course, sometimes very openly and sometimes in more sublimated ways. These representations are extensive—perhaps no other country in the world has been so obsessively described and scrutinized by hostile observers during the past centuries—as well as layered and contradictory. Haitians have often been represented as either dangerously or comically savage, but many seemingly more innocuous tropes—of a people endlessly victimized but nevertheless startlingly resilient, of a people poor in resources but rich in culture—also can work in insidious ways. What unites many of them is a persistent sense that Haitians are deeply other, representing a kind of stubborn and incomprehensible difference. This broader context has long posed a profound challenge for Haitian writers and intellectuals. And, as Kaiama Glover has written in these pages, a new generation of Haitian and Haitian-American writers—notably Edwidge Danticat—have recently taken up the challenge of entering this saturated and hostile representational landscape and refusing a vision of a country “mired in perpetual crisis” and to insist on “a commonality of human experience that Haiti and Haitians are too often denied.”
But US popular culture has yet to catch up. Many of the old tropes and narratives remain extremely strong in US journalism and writing about Haiti. At the same time, however, the representational landscape has become a bit more complex and contradictory, layered with different valences, since the 2010 earthquake. In this regard, Miss Claudette might be more than accident: her presence in the show might be taken, in its small way, as the hint that new ways of representing and thinking about Haiti are beginning to be possible.
As with all the other characters in the series, we learn about Miss Claudette slowly, in fragments. Like Miss Malcolm in Kerman’s memoir, she is dignified and keeps largely to herself. Beyond her Caribbean accent, we get a few coded cultural clues about her. Early on one of the characters warns that she might have some kind of “black magic.” But on her bed table in one scene is a small Haitian flag, a subtle code but one obviously placed there for those who will recognize it. Then, in her flashback, we hear a language that, while it is extremely present in New York and Miami both on the streets and on the airwaves, is almost never heard on television in the US: Haitian Creole.
She is a young girl, being brought somewhere by a young man. She is frightened. She has never been in an elevator before and doesn’t want to step in, but the man reassures her. They go up and into an apartment full of other young girls, mostly in uniform. The woman who greets them is stern—just as the older Miss Claudette is—and orders her about. At the young man’s request, she relents a bit and offers them food in the kitchen. Claudette, we realize, is a young immigrant, alone, with just this older man named Baptiste. We sense that she trusts him, perhaps because she has no choice, but little else. He is placing her into a situation that is at once a form of home and of exploitation. Like the other girls she will be working, paying back the cost of her travel to the US—a kind of indentured immigrant.
As we later learn, she survives indenture and as an older woman even takes charge and becomes like the frightening woman who first greeted her. And it is this involvement, we come to understand, that has landed her in prison. When Piper ends up as Miss Claudette’s roommate, she is scared she might not make it through the night. No one seems to really know what Miss Claudette is in prison for. The worry is that it is for some kind of murder and that she might easily murder again inside. The character Nicky Nicholls tries to reassure Piper, but in her never-quite-reassuring way: “Miss Claudette was into some kind of slave trade shit. All that murder talk is rumor, if you ask me, bullshit. So, unless you’re worried she’s going to harbor you illegally, I wouldn’t sweat it.” The line slips by, except that it sticks too: Miss Claudette, a Haitian woman, is portrayed in her flashbacks as both the victim and a perpetrator of “some kind of slave trade shit.”
So it is that we learn who Miss Claudette is: a woman effectively indentured in order to escape her country, who comes to be a kind of master over other indentured girls. As we come to know her—at first as a frightening, dour figure and then as a somewhat tragic one—she simultaneously becomes more human and also more abstract. Most interestingly, perhaps, her story evokes key pillars of the Haitian historical experience: slavery, migration, and a search for escape. While some of the symbolism here borders on the stereotypical, the treatment of Miss Claudette is more nuanced and subtle than that previously afforded Haitian reality in Hollywood film, for instance. There is useful space offered up here for deeper readings of the link between particular Haitian social and historical contexts and the character of Miss Claudette.
The most striking—and also perhaps most problematic—part of Claudette’s story has to do with an act of violence she commits. In one of the flashbacks, we see Miss Claudette greeting and disciplining a new young arrival. But one day the girl comes home and shows Miss Claudette bruises on her body, which we realize she has received from an upper-class client who, beneath the façade of respectability is (we can infer) a rapist. In the next moment Miss Claudette is ringing the doorbell at a nice house, smiling, and a professional-looking white-haired white man in a blue shirt is opening the door. The regular girl is sick, she tells him, so she will do his cleaning. We then see her cleaning off a large knife, wearing rubber gloves, a grim but satisfied look on her face. As she places the cleaned blade back carefully in the knife block, the camera pans back to show the client crumpled on the floor in a pool of blood, stabbed multiple times and quite dead.
Claudette, having been both a victim and a participant in a situation of labor exploitation, is also ready to revolt in order to defend those in her charge. Some lines are clearly not to be crossed, and call for vengeance. Here again, there is space offered by the series for thinking about the place of violence and vengeance in the history of Haiti. The country’s revolution, a powerful point of reference for Haitian political and artistic culture, was in crucial ways the story of how individuals embedded in a system of oppression ultimately chose to use violence against it. Many of the early leaders of the 1791 revolt that launched the Haitian Revolution were enslaved people who were in the ambiguous position of working as drivers overseeing the work of other slaves and punishing them. Whether the writers of the show meant this intentionally or not, Claudette’s actions evoke this history, though in a subdued way largely illegible to many viewers.
This dramatic moment, resonant but also unresolved, moves by quickly in the series. Ultimately Miss Claudette’s arc focuses around something else, something more striking seemingly meant to resonate as universal: the fact that, in the end, what she wants is to be loved by the person she has always loved, the Baptiste who brought her to the home where she grew up. In prison, she keeps Baptiste’s photograph by her bed and waits for his letters. And when she learns that his wife has died, and he is finally ready to be with her, she is suddenly infused with hope: she launches an appeal for release she previously thought was pointless to pursue. When she explains what she wants to do when she gets out, it is pleasingly—if perhaps too obviously—unexpected: she wants to go to a little basement Italian place and eat at the right time (rather than at 6:00 pm in the cafeteria) like “a civilized person.” She dreams of love and dignity, like anyone.
That this, too, is denied her yields one of the more heart-rending sequences of the series. A concatenation of events ultimately drive her to a new violent act, one that will worsen and extend her imprisonment and exile and from the “civilization” she hopes for. Miss Claudette’s tragic story arc, interestingly, diverges here from Miss Malcolm’s, who in Kerman’s memoir serves out her term and is released around the same time as Kerman.
Miss Claudette is there, on screen, and she is carrying something for us. The very presence of Haiti and of Creole on screen is itself important. So is the fact that the plot also allows for a reading of Miss Claudette that both links to certain specific aspects of Haitian history and allows her to stand for a broader set of challenges and yearnings. The appearance of this character in the show is, of course, a small thing: and many viewers probably haven’t registered or made much of the fact she is Haitian. If she remains one of very few Haitian characters on screen, the broader tropes and silences around the country won’t be disrupted. But if the decision by the writers of the show to use this as part of their story of how oppression feeds reactions that are then used to justify more oppression, and if that opens up some new space for thinking and seeing Haiti, then one small thing will have been accomplished.
Jump to remarks:
What is it about wonderlands? They are rich with allegory, vibrant with social meaning tucked behind veneers of color and fun. Adventures in these places quell the amnesia of the privileged. They affirm the value of the self and the wonder and safety of home. It was true for Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and for L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy. And it is true for Piper Chapman, protagonist of Orange Is the New Black, the hit original series which premiered on Netflix last summer.
Like American literature’s best-known wonderland heroines, Piper is privileged, bored, and adventurous. As her brother explains, “she wants to feel like she’s different … [She] likes the whole ‘I’m risky’ thing.” Likewise, her drug smuggler ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause, sees her as a “boring little white girl from Connecticut who wanted to feel special and bad.” Incarceration, for Piper, is both a symptom of a thrill-seeking spirit and an opportunity to discover herself further through danger. When she calls home, panicked at the racial dynamics of her surroundings, her fiancé tells her that the best way to deal with prison is to think of it as “just a big adventure, with … racism.”
Black queer and black feminist analysis of Orange Is the New Black has been generous. When the series debuted, many critics praised it for its smart dialogue and its portrayal of black, brown, and queer women’s lives rarely seen on television; others rightly applauded the stellar performances of its women-of-color actors, especially Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley, and Laverne Cox. The most prominent critiques argued that the show relies on racist tropes in its exploration of prison life. A glance at any episode supports these critiques; stereotypes of black and brown womanhood on the show include a silent Asian-American woman with an exaggerated mustache; a Latina mother and daughter competing for the sexual attentions of two men, and a large black woman named Taystee who repeatedly declares her love of fried chicken. But, for me, it is the place of whiteness—not of blackness or brownness—that makes the show’s race politics most problematic. By centering Piper’s perspective on race and power, Orange Is the New Black constructs a fantasy of whiteness extremely useful in the candy land of the contemporary post-racial imaginary. It offers a fantastical landscape in which whiteness can interact more or less confidently with several racial others; can acknowledge and comment authoritatively on racial difference; and can observe, joke about, and benefit from racial, sexual, and gender power imbalances, all without relinquishing whiteness’s privileges, and, perhaps most importantly, without ever being accused of racism.
This indulgence in post-racial fantasy is a function of the show’s controlling narrative strategy. Each episode focuses on Piper’s trajectory at Litchfield Penitentiary, with frequent flashbacks to her glamorous, white-collar drug-dealing exploits with Alex, as well as consistent flashes to Piper’s mother, her fiancé, and her best friend, as their lives continue in the white, upper-middle-class world she leaves behind while incarcerated. Most of the13 episodes in season 1 also offer a self-contained narrative about another inmate with whom Piper has interacted, with three episodes featuring the show’s black characters. Vignettes about the circumstances of these characters’ incarceration are interspersed with scenes showing Piper’s family drama in privileged white New York and her own travails at Litchfield. Beyond these three characters’ vignettes, the black and brown women are presented in the present tense of the penitentiary, where they receive ample screen time, largely from Piper’s perspective. The final scene of each episode returns to Piper before culminating in a full-screen fade, first to orange and then to black, just before the closing credits roll. This structure mirrors the show’s adventure frame: it delves only briefly into the “dangerous” lives of poor people, immigrants, and people of color, and offers a constant retreat from the experience of prison into the comfortable white middle-class world that defines not only the show’s narrative arc, but also its racial worldview.
As a narrative device, the incarcerated Piper allows viewers to watch as she tries on raced and classed forms of powerlessness as a “risky” kind of fashion. As the title’s pun suggests, “blackness,” in the show’s dystopic wonderland, is dislodged from race and structural oppression. Instead, it becomes a metaphor for a powerlessness that is as instructive as it is painful, and that can be avoided with the sort of maturity, moral fortitude, and individual responsibility with which the adventurous Piper might have stayed out of her prison jumpsuit—the same qualities with which racist and classist rhetoric advises poor people and people of color to stay out of jail. The show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, acknowledges Piper’s narrative function as a tool for creating palatable discussions of race. Kohan refers to the Piper as her “Trojan horse,” a vehicle for subterfuge that allowed her to “sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women, and criminals” to networks. But despite the ample cast of black and brown characters, the “tales” that comprise the show’s narrative are not primarily about women of color or the dialogues on the interconnectedness of race, class, gender, sexuality and incarceration that these characters might make possible. Instead, they are about Piper, the “cool blonde,” as Kohan puts it, a self-professed “nice blonde lady” who must find a way to be comfortable in a land of difference and danger. Most of the show’s discussion of race is about whiteness, and, specifically the desirability of middle-class white femininity. Piper herself comments on race rarely throughout the first season—and almost never on blackness. Instead, comments about race are largely attributed to characters of color, usually in celebratory discussions of white female embodiment. In episode 1, Piper is lauded loudly for her “TV titties” by the chicken-loving Taystee, and complemented by Sophia, the black transwoman, on her “pretty hair.” This storyline continues in episode 2, when Taystee barters for a lock of Piper’s hair to wear in her weave, later bragging gleefully to a fellow inmate that “my hair is yellow as that corn right there!”
The show’s celebration of white female desirability is clearest in Piper’s exchange with “Crazy Eyes,” the black inmate who falls in love with Piper early in the show. Crazy Eyes serves both as general comic relief and as a humorous, racialized foil to a more legitimate white queer female desire. Though she is poised to be one of the more “fascinating” characters on the show, she gets no backstory in the first season. Instead, she serves to affirm Piper’s desirability, to represent whiteness’s undesirable opposite, and to add quirk and color to the show’s prison landscape. Like most of the show’s black inmates, Crazy Eyes is enchanted by Piper’s blonde hair (she decides to call her “dandelion,” because “they’re pretty and yellow, just like you”). She also admires Piper’s skin and her hygiene, saying wistfully, “you look all shiny… you don’t even smell funky.”
This is the show’s wonderland narrative at work. Crazy Eyes’s comedic dialogue is meant to obscure the racism at the comment’s core. Viewers are invited to read this critique of black hygiene both as funny (because a “crazy” woman says it) and as true (because a black woman says it). When Piper’s helplessly racist mother echoes the comment minutes later, remarking that “the people [at the prison] are much cleaner than I thought they’d be,” the statement becomes fully comedic; any tension it might have produced without Crazy Eyes’s authorization is now alleviated and released in a laugh, and so the narrative can continue.
In her persistent desire for Piper’s white femininity, Crazy Eyes offers a comic slant on the trope of predatory black queer female desire often seen in women-in-prison films. Crazy Eyes is repeatedly framed in terms of animalistic characteristics (in episode 3 she urinates on the floor of Piper’s sleeping area to “mark [her] territory”; in episode 11, she explains: “when I’m angry, sometimes I can’t control myself”; at several points, we see her punch herself in the head either to show her physical prowess or to punish herself for her failure to communicate). As the uncontrollable other, Crazy Eyes represents the comic cusp between racial nuisance and racial fear. As a Shakespeare buff and the child of white middle-class parents (a character detail revealed in a single shot presented from Piper’s perspective in episode 9), Crazy Eyes’s class identification is meant to shift these rhetorics of predation into comedy, evacuating them of the racist logics and histories they draw on.
Though she doesn’t pose any physical threat (at least not for Piper—she does repeatedly harm herself), what Crazy Eyes represents is dangerous enough that, as Piper explains to her homophobic white male corrections officer, Healy, “I want to stay as far away from that as possible.” That she discloses this feeling to the officer is telling. In the memoir on which the show is based, author Piper Kerman refers to Healy as “the closest thing to human [she] had encountered” in her early days as an inmate. This disavowal of Crazy Eyes and her humanity vis-à-vis the officer’s homophobia allows Piper to continue to pass for straight, and to benefit from the officer’s protection. Piper mobilizes fears of black sexual predation and queer female sexuality in order to protect her image as a respectable (straight) white woman, and thus to protect the more important and infinitely more nuanced story of queer love and sex that lies at the center of the first season’s storyline—her relationship with white femme drug runner Alex.
Like all wonderlands, the racial dystopia presented in Orange Is the New Black has its appeal. The best thing about the series is Laverne Cox, whose character presents groundbreaking discussions of trans-of-color experience. Ultimately, the show’s strength is in the range of subjectivities it represents.
But is representation really useful when power difference goes unnamed? Just as its title deploys “blackness” as a post-race metaphor for an ephemeral loss of power, the show uses Piper’s encounters with women of color to invoke rhetorics of racial sameness as the allegorical undercurrent of its “adventure” frame. In a moment of self-reflection in episode 5, Piper explains to her mother: “I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here. I made bad choices.… Being in here is nobody’s fault but my own.” This sameness is echoed by the working-class white female corrections officer who tells Piper, “you and me are the same… the only difference between us is when I made bad choices, I didn’t get caught.”
This logic of sameness is reflected in the show’s structure, both when Piper is present and when she is not. Episode 7 for example, offers the backstory of Janae Watson, a quiet, brooding black woman inmate who, as a high school student, aligns herself with the wrong crowd, risks a track scholarship, and ends up arrested for robbery. Her “bad choice” is symbolized by a bottle of beer she accepts from a nefarious gangster figure, pictured center screen as it enters her hands. The episode’s next shot opens on a different bottle of beer, also center screen, this time in Piper’s fiancé’s hands as he sits at a bar, flirting with the bartender, faced with the difficult choice whether to remain faithful to Piper while she’s in jail. The camera moves fluidly between these two scenes, creating a sense of continuity between the characters and their circumstances.
The analogy here is subtle but clear: the black scholarship student’s bad choices are “no different from” the fiancé’s potential bad choices, which are “no different from” the bad choices that have landed Piper in jail. There is no mention of what Janae has to choose from—why a track scholarship seems to be her only option for education, why she feels robbery is her best option for access to capital or community. Janae’s story does not go long enough or deep enough for that level of narrativity; the most important thing we are meant to know about Janae and the other inmates is what Piper tells us: that in the end, they (read we) are all alike, and if we find ourselves powerless, it is “nobody’s fault but [our] own.”
This is post-racial rhetoric at its most pernicious. Piper’s adventure in blackness allows her to project her own experience of privilege, power, and choice onto the other inmates. By disavowing the meaning of her “difference” she declares that race doesn’t matter. This is a classic denial of structural oppression, reducing each woman’s incarceration to her own “bad choices.” Ultimately, despite this fantasy of sameness, whiteness still takes the high ground; both within and beyond the show’s wonderland only Piper has the narrative authority to make that claim.
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A delicate blonde is incarcerated after she serves as an accomplice in her significant other’s crimes. The blonde forms ambivalent bonds with the other women in prison, a process that is implicitly linked to her relationship with lesbianism. After traumatic clashes with prison authorities, including a spell in solitary confinement, she reveals a startling capacity for violence.
A summary of the first season of Orange Is the New Black, you say? Not quite. It’s the plot of the classic 1950 women-in-prison film Caged. The cutting-edge Netflix series praised for its relevance and innovation lifted its plot practically wholesale from a now virtually forgotten 64-year-old melodrama.
Of course, there are a number of differences between Orange and its predecessor. Orange is a mix of comedy and drama. Piper’s confusion and fish-out-of-water plot arc are often played for laughs, as in the very first scene of the series in the prison showers where another inmate comments cheerfully on her perky breasts. Caged is somber in comparison; though its hour-and-a-half run time is only a fraction of Orange’s, it uses montages of routine—bells ringing, the female inmates getting out of bed, bells ringing again, the inmates lining up for the matron—to create a much more grinding sense of the passage of time, boredom, and despair.
Another distinction is that, as you’d expect, the 1950 film was thoroughly whitewashed; where Orange includes a diverse range of black and Hispanic inmates, Caged had to make due with a handful of Irish-Americans. However, rather surprisingly, Caged is the far more representative film when it comes to sex workers. In Orange, the women are in prison for murder, robbery, drug use, and drug trafficking, but nobody so much as mentions prostitution. In Caged, though, one of the key characters, Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick) is a “vice queen.” The film’s central blonde protagonist, Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), becomes one of Elvira’s girls at the end in return for Elvira’s help in getting out of jail.
To say Marie is one of “Elvira’s girls” can have more than one meaning here—and Caged, despite its age, is quite as aware of those double meanings as Orange. In fact, Caged underlines the extent to which images of prison lesbianism are not a 2010s innovation, but a long-standing film tradition. The prison Marie enters is a cornucopia of butchness. Elvira has handsome, chiseled features and looks the other women over with a masterful, appraising gaze—“She’s a nice trick,” she says about Marie. Elvira addresses that remark to the enormous, and enormously malevolent, matron Evelyn Harper, played by Hope Emerson. Harper, too, talks with oily suggestiveness about “my girls.” In one scene dripping with double entendre she enters the prisoners’ cage wearing a massive, gaudy, flowery dress and begins to tell them all about her plans for the night with her boyfriend, clearly reveling in the women’s stricken looks of desire. And then there’s Warden Benton (Agnes Moorehead) who paces outside the waiting room like an expectant father as Marie delivers her baby.
Marie herself starts out decidedly femme—she has soft hair that she fussily tries to comb for her mug shot and an earnest, doe-eyed expression forever trembling weepily on the verge of tears. She dotes painfully on the memory of her husband, who was killed in the robbery that landed her in jail. Her prison experience, however, soon knocks the softness and domesticity out of her. She begins to wear pants instead of skirts, and her diction becomes hard and clipped. The final straw is when, after Marie defies Harper, the matron shears Marie’s hair in a scene figured as a rape. Nearly bald, Marie looks like a pissed-off adolescent boy—especially in a scene where another inmate stabs Harper with a fork, and Marie starts to chant, with frightening enthusiasm, “Kill her! Kill her! Kill her!”
At the film’s conclusion, Marie’s transformation into butch/whore is cemented when she tosses her wedding ring into a garbage can before leaving the prison. Jail has de-feminized her; she is no longer domestic, but deviant, which here means both queer and prostitute. In the last scene, she gets into a car with two men, one of whom casually puts his hand on her knee. She is one of the boys and available to the boys; creature now of the prison she left, rather than of the hearth to which she'll never return.
In an era that has seen so many advances in gay marriage rights, you would think that the easy binary of domestic/queer would be unsustainable. But not so. In Orange, as in Caged, commitment, family, and marriage are juxtaposed against lesbianism and criminality. Piper is not corrupted by prison, it’s true. But that’s only because her deviance—her lesbian relationship with heroin-smuggler Alex—precedes her incarceration. In Caged, we watch Marie sink into degradation. In Orange, we discover that Piper was always, already degraded; always, already incapable of a committed idyll; always, already, as Crazy-Eyes tells her, “not a nice person.” Piper’s renewed relationship with Alex in prison ends her engagement with Larry, but there is never any question of a committed, long-term relationship with Alex, who is presented as wild, dangerous, and openly contemptuous of domesticity. Similarly, Morello has to end her relationship with Nicky in order to be able to dream of happiness with her male fiancé. In Orange and in Caged alike, gayness stands as a contrast to wedded normalcy.
That contrast isn’t necessarily always in domesticity’s favor. Alex’s forthright narcissism is much more appealing than Larry’s vacillating brand, just as the crisply bitter Marie who leaves prison is much more attractive, in every sense, than the drippy Marie who enters it. Deviance, like domesticity, has its appeal across the decades. But still it’s striking, across all that time, how persistent the tropes seem to be. Womanly women are domestic; women in prison are queer. So Piper’s counselor Healy might argue, and while Orange finds his homophobia repugnant, it’s not clear that the show ever quite manages to reject his logic. It makes one think that maybe he and the show’s creators have been watching the same movies.
Prisons are spaces of pure violence where the slow death of carceral life means existing without existence. Prisons are not simply places with transphobic, racist, ableist, classist, anti-black, and homophobic policies; they are constituted through these forms of power. This is the materiality of daily life for the 2.4 million people held in US prisons and the countless others in ICE detention and psychiatric facilities. As Angela Davis argues, this confusion allows the prison industrial complex (PIC) to expand under the cover of its own reform.
Orange Is the New Black is a television series loosely based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, a white cisgender woman, in which she recounts her time in prison on drug smuggling charges. Even though, and possibly because my work is in part about trans people and prisons, I came rather late to watching the show. Weary of the ways both imprisoned people and trans women of color are figured in visual culture, I feared the worst.
Much of the stir Orange has caused and the acclaim it has received in progressive circles is a result of Laverne Cox, a trans actress, being cast to play Sophia Burset, a trans woman incarcerated in the same prison as Piper. The history of trans representation in mainstream US culture (and in non-mainstream gay culture) congeals fantasies of trans people projected onto non-trans actors. One would have to look no further than this year’s Oscar darling, Dallas Buyers Club, with Jared Leto’s best supporting actor win, to understand that a non-trans man “playing” a trans woman is a risk worthy of great reward. To this end, Cox and her character Sophia are indeed the most radical aspect of the show.
In part because of Orange’s success and the ways Laverne Cox has utilized her own fame, coupled with the generations of activism by currently and formally incarcerated trans, gender non-confirming, and/or queer people, there is now a much larger and more visible conversation about trans incarceration. For example, I was recently at a convening of lawyers, academics, and formerly incarcerated people to discuss trans housing policies in jails and prisons. After two days of conversations and break-out groups it became clear that we were at an impasse—most believed policy reform could and would improve the life of those inside, while a small number of us wanted to work toward incarceration’s end. The majority of those at this gathering, like much of the media attention Orange has generated, still understood prison reform as the only possibility. In other words, the inevitability of the PIC itself was left unquestioned.
The most fantastical aspect of Orange is that Sophia is housed in the general population of a women’s prison. This is certainly not the norm, and it is virtually unheard of within trans and gender non-conforming communities on the inside. While housing trans women in women’s prisons might seem like an answer to the unmitigated violence trans women experience, trans activist and former political prisoner CeCe McDonald wants to reframe the conversation: “Prisons aren’t safe for anyone, and that’s the key issue.” We cannot allow the question simply to be about how to make prison safer for trans people. Instead, we must demand their release and an end to the “common sense” that naturalizes incarceration itself.
Janetta Johnson of the Transgender, Gender Variant, Intersex Justice Project, an organization of formerly incarcerated trans women of color, also argues that we need to demand more than policy initiatives and sensitivity trainings. “A cage is a cage is cage is a cage.” Her worlds rattle us into asking whether we want a kinder, gentler more inclusive system of brutality, or we want its end.
Orange’s powerful critique of imprisonment maintains the inevitability of the PIC by closing the spaces where the viewer might imagine something else beyond the frame. For example, we learn that Sophia was sent to prison for the credit card fraud that was necessary to fund her transition. However, instead of pushing us to understand issues of medical access or the fraud of credit, the narrative collapses into moralism. In the final instance, the show’s rapid shuttling between the structural and the interpersonal protects the viewer from the abject terror of prison. It traffics in reform narratives that suggest the quotidian violence faced by those inside can be mitigated through personnel changes, yoga, and self-love.
In contrast, those of us who organize through a prison abolitionist ethic believe that the prison system is not “broken” but is working exactly how it is designed—as a set of genocidal practices that liquidate specific populations, namely Black, Native, and Latin@ people, while proliferating ableist gendered violence and the violence of compulsory gender normativity. This does not mean that we do not work in solidarity with people on the inside in hopes of making their lives more survivable. Rather, we refuse to trade in our visions of a world without prisons for the lies the State wants us to endure under the banner of pragmatism.
Representation alone, even in a widely viewed series, does not create real liberation. In the spirit of the impossible we must produce visual cultures that defamiliarize the grammar that maintains the world as such. I’m waiting for the episode of Orange, possibly written by trans activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett, that finds Sophia and her friends collectively overthrowing the order of things by unlocking all the doors and setting fire to the prison. In doing so they would move us closer toward an abolitionist world where gender self-determination flourishes and where incarceration can only be pictured as historical fiction.
The morbid statistics associated with America’s four-decade-long incarceration binge are well known. For the past 15 years or so, the United States has had the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Approximately 1 in 35 adults are currently under correctional supervision (probation, parole, or incarceration) and 1 in 108 adults in prison or jail. Although women remain a small minority (8.8 percent) of the total correctional population of about 7 million adults, they are the fastest growing segment. The imprisonment boom has also come largely at the expense of black Americans, who are more than six times as likely as white people to serve a prison sentence in the course of their lifetime.
This familiar data indicates something of the brute scale of the disaster that has befallen the nation’s poor and minority communities since the early 1970s. But, as successive generations of prison activists and reformers have periodically rediscovered, when it comes to penal policy, recitation of numbers is never enough to jolt voters and politicians out of their dogmatic slumber. Historically, penal statistics have acquired social meaning and moral force only in tandem with humanistic forms of expression and representation—skillfully rendered stories, dramatic performances, music, and images that portray the lives and experiences of those caught up in the system. A century ago, at a time when the public seemed unmoved by statistical evidence of the prisons’ failure to reform offenders, John Galsworthy’s hit play, Justice, and Thomas Mott Osborne’s and Madeleine Z. Doty’s popular accounts of their voluntary incarceration in New York’s Auburn prison inspired a middle-class reform movement that, for all its limitations and prejudices, helped set many prisons on a rehabilitative route. More than a hundred years before that, the penal reformer John Howard had pricked the conscience of the freshly enlightened middle class with his exposés of the quotidian horrors of the British jail system (which precipitated the closure and sanitization of dozens of institutions). And, in 1967, the sordid scenes of everyday abjection captured in Frederick Wiseman’s Titicutt Follies, hastened reform at Massachusetts’s Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane where the documentary was shot.
This dialectic of disappearance and revelation has characterized the American prison system since the first generation of penal reformers advocated incarceration as a replacement for publicly humiliating punishments in the 1790s. So, too, have prison authorities continuously attempted to control representations of convicts and carceral life. Penologists have always been keenly aware of the positive correlations among disappearance, control, and deterrence, and of the power of stories and their potential for legitimating—or delegitimating—the prison regime. The first “penitentiary-houses” of the 1790s and 1800s, which were not cellular in character, were supposed to sequester offenders so perfectly from society that authorities would have an entirely free hand to perform a surgery on the soul of their inmates—as penitentiary advocate and Declaration of Independence signatory, Benjamin Rush, put it—as well as providing a cautionary tale for the public. In theory, citizens, uncertain of what transpired behind high penitential walls, would be left to imagine the “horrors” of imprisonment and children would “press upon the evening fire in listening to the tales that will be spread from this abode of misery.” The stories that were in fact told—about riotous penitentiaries run by inmates, who came and went as they pleased and openly enjoyed gambling, singing, swigging rum, and having sex whenever and wherever they pleased—caused a legitimation crisis that, ultimately, brought down the system.
The cellular prisons that succeeded the penitentiary-houses in the 1820s were believed to more effectively sever the link between civilians and inmates and separate prisoners from one another, thereby rendering them more docile. Inmates, in the words of New York prison warden Gershom Powers, were to be “literally buried from the world.” The prison’s cellular design and the forced hard labor to which its inmates were subjected made collaboration and leaving and entering the prisons far more difficult. Nonetheless, a steady stream of newspaper stories, prison narratives, and poems flowed in and out of the prison, escaping the best efforts of prison censors. (Inmates also staged dozens of strikes, literally causing the prisons to grind to a halt.) Much to administrators’ annoyance, convicts were frequently painted in these unsanctioned stories as human while the prison system was revealed as inhumane, socially inefficient, and fiscally corrupt. Many of the nation’s foremost writers, including the one-time Sing Sing prison aid worker Walt Whitman, the novelist George Washington Cable, and the leading black newspaper editor, T. Thomas Fortune, tackled the Gilded Age’s “prison problem” as it was called. The flood of empathetic images catalyzed the middle class prison reform movement that, together with the labor movement, brought about the abolition of both the South’s vicious convict lease system and the North’s abusive contract labor prisons.
One of the most disturbing aspects of our own system of incarceration is the extent to which it has revived and realized the 19th century’s fantasies of complete sequestration. The current scale of imprisonment and the degree of sequestration—both for the prison population as a whole and for individuals held in the SHU or isolation units—were unimaginable as recently as 1970. Back then, both the prison system and popular thinking about crime and punishment had been heading in a very different, emphatically ameliorative direction for well over half a century. The national incarceration rate had stabilized and was even declining in some states, chain gangs had been abolished, and the US Supreme Court had recognized the prisoner’s right to rights. Prison administrations had embraced, in theory if not always in practice, the goals of social and economic rehabilitation. Isolation cells or “dungeons,” typically located in prison cellars, had been condemned as inherently abusive and were in process of being ceremoniously demolished. On the left, convicted offenders Jean Genet and Huey Newton were feted by the white literati, who concurred with the latter that most prisoners were “political prisoners.” Anthologies of inmates’ writings were finding a substantial mainstream readership, and sociologists, neoliberals, and conservative lawmakers in Florida and elsewhere unexpectedly found common ground in promoting decarceration (closing large state prisons and moving non-violent offenders into low security, community-based halfway houses). In the mid-1970s, at least one leading scholar declared the cellular prison a relic of an outmoded and barbarous Victorian mode of punishment; another predicted that such institutions would soon disappear altogether.
The well-documented punitive turn in sentencing, drug, and repeat offender laws that began with the passage of New York’s Rockefeller drug laws in 1973 not only reversed decarceration but opened a wide social, physical, and imaginative gulf between the imprisoned (most of whom are poor and/or minority) and the middle class. In mass culture, the focus of stories about crime and punishment shifted from prisoners and the communities from which they were drawn to crime victims and crime fighters. Politicians in both parties vied for the title of top crime buster—recall not only George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton electoral campaign ads but Governor Bill Clinton’s return to Arkansas, midway through his presidential campaign, to oversee the execution of a convicted murderer, the severely mentally impaired Ricky Ray Rector. Reality shows like Cops portrayed poor offenders and their communities in unsympathetic ways, treating poverty and substance dependency as markers of criminality. Those rare empathetic portrayals of offenders, such as in The Shawshank Redemption, were typically set safely and remotely in the past. Hundreds of new, geographically far-flung prisons literalized the growing social and imaginative distance between the affluent, urbanizing classes and mostly poorer, underprivileged offenders (something that Orange picks up on, locating Litchfield in a remote rural area, far from the protagonists’ urban communities).
Orange shows how the banalities of institutional life make the prison system by turns soul crushing, counter-productive, unjust, and fiscally wasteful. But more importantly, it puts a face—or, more accurately, many faces—on the prison statistics. And rather than soft-pedaling the fact that prisoners (like all human beings) can be threatening, violent, and petty, the show initially portrays many of the inmates in a rather unsympathetic light, before presenting the backstory of how one or other came to be incarcerated. In repeating this narrative structure, Orange undoes, episode by episode, an essential part of the apparatus of alienation that has so successfully disappeared offenders from their communities and from middle-class consciousness. Giving back the prisoner her pre-prison home, her childhood, her neighborhood, her story—even so much as her first name—opens a vital space for social empathy and, potentially, political mobilization. Given the drought of human feeling towards offenders these past few decades, that’s no mean feat—and it’s a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for change.
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This choose-your-path moment neatly articulates the overarching logic of the show. Behind Door Number One: babies and bathroom tile. Behind Door Number Two: drugs, jet-setting, and a life of exciting unpredictability (with drag accoutrements!). Yasmin Nair has rightfully contended that Orange foregrounds individual choice at the cost of any sustained attention to the systemic factors that structure choices and render their ramifications hollow. Conversely, much of the show’s critical praise has focused on its ability to smuggle in complex queer and non-white characters not usually seen on TV under the cover of its conventional white female lead. To be sure, this representational strategy occasions remarkable performances from Samira Wiley, Natasha Lyonne, Laverne Cox and many more actresses who should get more work than is available in a television landscape overwhelmingly comprised of straight white protagonists and their motley crew of “diverse” sidekicks.
Yet the visual form through which these characters acquire substance resonates in a troubling way with Alex’s framing of Piper’s potential futures. The characters on Orange take shape through a series of retrospective narratives, each culminating in the prison. The pattern goes like this: Piper meets a woman in prison, then we see a string of flashbacks which illuminate the character’s route to criminality. The seeds of this sort of representation can be seen in the show’s opening credits. Presenting a rapid montage of individual faces as Regina Spektor sonically implores viewers to “Think of all the roads / Think of all their crossings,” the credits sequence imagines a diverse range of bodies whose paths eventually converge beneath an orange jumpsuit. Throughout the first season, in every single episode, the flashbacks aim to turn those briefly viewed faces into fully formed characters with backstories that explain their incarceration. Sophia steals credit cards to pay for her gender reassignment surgery and medications. Tiffany shoots a nurse who makes a rude comment after her abortion. Watson commits armed robbery in search of a romantic connection.
This is how we like to imagine the functioning of our legal system. In this fantasy schematic, prison exists as the automatic future for individuals who made bad decisions in the past. For all its prison reform credentials, the show’s segmented character arcs align with legal frameworks that divorce subjects from social context in the pursuit of a discrete, blameworthy offender for every crime.
Through its reliance on the flashback as an explicatory device, Orange makes individual women the singular agents of their own incarceration. We don’t, for instance, see states decide to build more prisons for women. We don’t see police decide to frisk certain bodies and not others. We don’t see women who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who look the wrong way at any time at all. We certainly don’t see anything like the recent sterilization campaign which coerced at least 148 imprisoned women in California into illegal tubal ligations from 2006 to 2010.
That kind of stuff is harder to plot. It is difficult, if not impossible, to represent the prison as a historicized technology of racialized state violence through a diverse range of quick flashbacks. This is not simply about the omission of specific potential plotlines, although it is surprising that we have not yet had a narrative dealing with child custody, an issue faced by a majority of incarcerated women; this has to be coming in season 2. The point is rather that the show’s mechanism for representing incarceration renders it incapable of adequately grappling with systemic violence. Just as Piper is free to choose between Larry and Alex, between a future of babies and a future of beaches, Daya is presumably free to enter into a consensual sexual relationship with one of her guards. This romance plot—premised upon a facile distinction between one Good and one Bad prison guard—is plausible only by the show’s elision of the violence constitutive of the inmate-guard encounter. Because it is structured around the individual as the decision-making agent of her own destiny, Orange has no language with which to account for social forms of compulsion and duress.
Searches for this sort of language do not need to stray far from the bounds of FCI Danbury, the federal prison within which Piper Kerman was incarcerated and upon which Orange is based. They might begin with Andrea James’s 2013 book Upper Bunkies Unite, written while she was imprisoned at Danbury; and they could pass through the “isms” of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Consumerism” (a 2013 track dropped on the eve of Hill’s release from Danbury). Vital engagements with our carceral present can also be imagined across the grain of Orange, in its silences and incapacities. The seventh episode of Orange opens with a scene that echoes Piper’s entrance into prison in the series premiere. Watson is sitting in the backseat of a van, being driven into the prison yard by Morello. Watson is in the same seat she occupies in the premiere, only this time Piper is not sitting next to her. Morello opens the door of the van, and Watson, as she did in the premiere, steps out. In the first episode, she is a blur in the background of Piper’s induction into prison life.
In the seventh episode, the camera’s focus is on Watson. Rather than entering the prison for the first time, she is returning from a two-week stint in solitary confinement following a refusal to be bodily searched by male officers.
“Think about what I’ve been through,” she tells Morello.
What has she been through? She’s been alone in a small cell, with no human
contact, for two weeks. We are left to speculate about her experience. Perhaps
she sat for a while, then she stood up, then she sat back down. Perhaps she
made choices and enacted them as best she could. Perhaps she imagined herself
doing X on a beach in Cambodia with three strangers in drag. Probably not. A
minute went by, then another. Who could keep track? Perhaps she began
hallucinating. This scene—a character alone, out of time, doing time, experiencing time as a durational punishment—falls
outside the bounds of Orange’s
representational technique. Piper is in solitary for less than 10 minutes of
screen time, and for much of that she is given a couple people to talk with.
Solitary is boring for a television audience to consume. It is a nothing that
happens over, and over, and over again. It doesn’t contribute to the
development of a minor character in immediately visible
ways. It might, in fact, enact the very dissolution of character. Flashback to
Watson in solitary, flash-forward to Watson in solitary, hold camera on Watson
in solitary: nothing exciting to see here. Not much happening onscreen. The
banal brutality of another black woman passing ceaseless time alone in a cell.
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