Feminism is the new black: Why Orange is the most important show on TV
James R | On 10, Jun 2014
“Everything is different the second time around…”
Those are the words to Regina Spektor’s You’ve Got Time, the theme song for Orange Is the New Black. The tune is accompanied by striking close-ups of inmates in Litchfield prison. “Remember all their faces / Remember all their voices…” sings Spektor, a challenge that the TV show gamely takes up. And that is what makes Netflix’s original show live up to its moniker.
One thing those faces have in common? They’re all women. In a time where men dominate everything from directing to TV panel shows, having a programme which centres on women is a rare thing.
Sure, we’ve had strong female leads – *bangs head into table at awfulness of phrase* – in the past, many times, but we still live in an age where major Hollywood studios seem to think a female superhero movie wouldn’t be successful – as though male audiences are only able to identify with men and female audiences are only able to identity with women. Even when it comes to celebrity gossip, there is an absurd double standard taught to us by the media: that when George Clooney settles down, he’s a stud coming home to rest, but when a single woman does the same, she’s been tamed or somehow become wiser.
An ensemble piece focussing entirely on women and told from a female perspective, then, isn’t exactly on-trend.
Orange Is the New Black is based on Piper Kerman’s memoirs about her own 15 months behind federal bars. Jenji Kohan (the creator of Weeds) unsurprisingly changed Piper’s name to Chapman but made one, altogether more unexpected, alteration: where Kerman’s story is told from her POV, Orange zooms out to put Chapman’s tale into perspective. More specifically, multiple perspectives.
Throughout Season 1 and 2, each episode takes a different character and flashes back into their past to find out how they ended up in prison. It sounds like a corny gimmick, but Kohan pulls it off with just the right amount of heart and honesty. At no point do these inmates feel like formulaic devices or narrative padding; they feel like real people.
The sheer diversity of the cast, too, is something quietly groundbreaking. “There were just so many great Latina actress and black actresses that hadn’t had the opportunity to really do this thing,” Kohan said in one interview. And yet once behind bars, although there are tribal elements to their social interactions, the characters are all the same: they’re all human, and they all wear orange jumpsuits (or, once they’ve been around for a while, beige). Make-up? Even that’s a rarity; we’re a long way from The Daily Mail here.
The diversity applies to the types of people in jail as well. While the flashbacks could risk a bland apologetic approach inviting sympathy for each inmate, Johan gives them enough depth for us to choose whom to support for ourselves. Pennsatucky’s extremist Christian, for example, gets a moving moment of conversion, but remains a potential villain, while Suzanne, aka “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), could have been a scary wannabe-wife posing a sexual threat, but evolves into a tragic, enigmatic cellmate with a knack for reciting Coriolanus.
Others, such as the institutionalised Taystee, show how the system doesn’t work in their favour. “I made bad decisions,” says Piper several times, emphasising her own guilt in her incarceration. For many, though, they don’t have a choice in which path to take. When they do, such as Daya’s decision to frame someone for her pregnancy with nice guard Bennett (proof that men can have depth and sympathy too), the result is an awkward moment that you could either consider sympathetically justified or morally wrong.
“So what?” you might say. “There are black, Hispanic and Chinese women in it.” But how many other shows can say the same, where all these characters aren’t primarily defined by their sex or race?
Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black premiered at the same time as the film Fruitvale Station, which is based on a violent altercation at a subway station involving a young man, Oscar (played by the excellent Michael B. Jordan). Recreating the 24 hours leading up the event, it focuses on Oscar’s personal life and human qualities. Some people responded to such a favourable depiction as manipulative.
“What’s so unrealistic and manipulative about a Black man loving his daughter, and having real, emotional moments with his family?” Jordan told the Guardian in an interview on Saturday. “Is it because African-Americans aren’t allowed to be real people? Is it because we’re not allowed to be human and have human interactions with our family? Is that not allowed? Is it being manipulative to show those moments on screen?”
“Would you rather see us with a gun in our hand and a bandana on our face, acting like thugs?” he continues. “Because here, you ain’t going to get that.”
You ain’t going to get that from Orange Is the New Black either. It doesn’t manipulate or conform to stereotypes; it simply lines up human faces and gets to know them. Most importantly, though, it never makes a big deal out of it. It’s feminist, anti-racist but never heavy-handed. This is feminism without a capital “F”; a piece of humanist art where equality is the aim but never an issue.
“The thing that I have noticed is people want to talk to me about something else for the first time since American Pie came out,” Jason Biggs (who plays Piper’s fiancée) told us at Season 2’s London premiere. “There has been a real cross-section of people who respond to the show, who want to talk to me about it.”
That universal appeal sums up just how much Orange Is the New Black matters: society is, in part, defined by the narratives and conventions presented to it through the media. In the grand scheme of things, Netflix’s original series is just a TV show about a bunch of women, but that’s what makes it something special; it’s a show about women and that’s it. Nothing more. Just three-dimensional, well-written and superbly-performed humans. Who happen to have breasts.
“Everything is different the second time around,” sings Regina as Season 2 starts. The introduction of a whole host of new inmates in Episode 1 – and the old remembered faces of Litchfield in Episode 2 – suggests that, for Kohan, nothing has changed at all. Which is why Orange Is the New Black is the most important show on TV right now. It really is a true Netflix original.