It’s been a long time since I was as excited over as show as I am over Orange is the New Black. It is, at its heart, a show that tells the stories of women whose stories are never usually told.
If one of Orange is the New Black‘s inmate characters appeared in a show on a traditional channel, I would be smothering the show with praise. Even Piper, the white female “Trojan horse” that made the show more appealing to executives, is bisexual and deeply flawed, two things that are pretty rare for female characters on TV. But Orange is the New Black doesn’t only give us one or two of these “untraditional” characters. It gives us an entire cast. We have old women and young women. Straight women, gay women, bisexual women, women whose sexuality never comes up at all. Obsessively religious women and atheist women. Black women and Latina women. Women with mental problems. The show even includes a transgender actress playing a transgender character.
And every single one of them is flawed. The show’s protagonist, Piper, gets a lot of criticism from viewers as the “spoiled princess” in the prison world, but I think that’s somewhat unfair. Piper is terribly privileged. She’s selfish and self-absorbed and says the most ignorant or oblivious things at times. But her story arc is all about recognizing that and growing from it. She can do terrible, selfish things, but she can also do selfless things. She’s willing to help others, she’s willing to learn, and she develops self-awareness as the show goes on. And even though she continues to screw up right through to the end of the season, that’s kind of the point of the show. All of the characters screw up. They’re human, with multiple dimensions and the capacity to be both wonderful and horrible. And, as a result, their relationships with each other are equally multi-dimensional. They defend each other and sell each other out. They hurt one another, accidentally and on purpose, and they support and comfort one another.
And these characters allow the show to explore some really serious and heavy issues, but issues that you rarely if ever see explored on TV. What happens if you’re a transgender woman in prison and the government stops your hormone treatment? What happens to women when they’re released from prison and have nowhere to go? These are realistic female characters telling realistic female stories.
It all makes using the Bechdel test seem like some kind of ridiculous joke. Only two women? Who have to talk to each other once? About anything other than a man? Please.
Depressingly, Orange is the New Black is a show that I could never see airing on a mainstream channel, or even on HBO. But thanks to Netflix and the rise of Internet TV, it does exist, and it’s amazing.
I’m going to have a lot more to say about this show in the next few weeks, especially about specific character arcs, once I’ve had the chance to rewatch it and really take it all in. In the meantime, I highly recommend that everybody gives watching it a shot!