I’m extremely skeptical about television. I don’t have cable because, save for Breaking Bad, I’m generally not interested. So when I first saw the ads for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, I was quick to write it off as a scripted and gimmicky tale of a white girl in prison. But after watching it, I found that the show is an extremely entertaining, intersectional portrayal of a diverse group of women.
The recently released Netflix series tells the based-on-a-true story of Piper Chapman, an affluent white woman who is sentenced to a year in prison.
Not only is Orange is the New Black highly addicting—it was released on Netflix all at once, so many viewers binge-watched all 13 episodes—but on top of that, it tackles several controversial issues like sexuality, homophobia, patriarchy, class, and race, often simultaneously.
The show is not “about” any one of these things, and therefore it offers a fairly realistic, well-rounded view of all of them. In the feminist world, we call this intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the idea that things like racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate.
These are all sensitive topics, and for a show to address all of them simultaneously is a risky move. But Orange is the New Black’s prison setting is a natural space for these issues, and the show’s creators don’t seem hesitant to embrace them.
Sexuality is one area in which OITNB breaks the mold. It is a fluid concept in the show; although lesbian relationships are common, few characters are forced to identify with any one sexual orientation.
We learn that Piper used to date a woman and is now engaged to a man, but she’s never labeled as queer, straight, or bisexual. She’s allowed to just be what she is.
When she later confronts her ex, the drama surrounding the situation stems from their relationship as people, not from their sexual orientations. The show portrays sexuality as a spectrum, a viewpoint that is uncommon in society in general, and almost nonexistent in mainstream media.
In addition to portraying every type of sexuality, OITNB includes a variety of body types, ages, and personalities within its predominantly female cast. It’s rare that a show features this many women at all, let alone such a diverse group.
Characters like Red, a middle aged Russian cook with a great deal of influence on prison politics, Daya, a beautiful and voluptuously curvy Latina who falls for a prison guard, and Sophia, a transgender woman (played by transgender actress Laverne Cox), are types we rarely see portrayed in mainstream media, let alone given a great deal of backstory and depth.
Race in Orange is the New Black is a little trickier. The show has been criticized by those who think that its use of an affluent white woman as the main focus of a prison story is problematic.
This article compares the show to a classic slave narrative, in which the black experience must be validated by a white point of view.
The show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, has stated that Piper’s character is accessible to a wider audience. Kohan called Piper her “Trojan Horse”, because the character allowed her to tell a variety of stories while still appeasing the general public.
While this stance may be practically true, it’s disheartening to think that a show needs a young, white, conventionally attractive lead to appeal to everyone. Unfortunately, it’s also true that the representation of people of color in OITNB is stereotypical at times. Even worse, though several African American women and Latinas are represented, Asian women are notably absent.
Ultimately, though, the show’s racial stereotypes are outweighed by moments of genuine humanity. The prison is highly segregated, but moments of crossover do occur. Sophia’s Black transgender character connects with a white former nun over religion. A white hippie ex-pot grower shares her deepest secret with the Black inmate she previously fought with. These moments are where the true beauty of the show lies.
Even if the show isn’t perfect, it’s refreshing to see so many complicated and important topics addressed on a mainstream Netflix series, and it’s even more refreshing to see them addressed through the perspective of a dynamic group of women.
Sarah Hansel is a 23-year-old human female. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a minor in Women and Gender Studies from UC Davis. In her free time she likes to read, play video games, draw, and garden.
I LOVE this, Sarah. Great job discussing such a complex show. I, too, am disheartened by the fact that apparently a show needs a white main character in order to tell the stories of the women of color in the prison. It’s definitely problematic that Piper’s story even got a book deal, let alone an entire Netflix series, because we know if Piper was Black or Latina, that wouldn’t have happened. Despite that, I agree that the show handles important issues well. I especially like the fact that sexuality seems so fluid, and the show doesn’t spend too much time trying to categorize the characters sexualities, and instead just lets them be how they are.
Thanks Stacey 🙂 I know, I got a little annoyed at one point that we were focusing on Piper’s relatively insignificant problems (she missed a meeting to sell her artisanal bath products! oh no!) in lieu of probably way more interesting stories around the other characters.
But mostly the show is totally refreshing and I can’t wait to see more!
I’m reading the book right now and it’s interesting to see how much of the show is different from her true story.