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Orange is the New Black


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!


Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

5 thoughts on “Orange is the New Black

  1. I really agree with you about Piper. The character gets a lot of hate (of course, she’s an egocentric WASP!), but I liked to see her evolution, when she lose all her possession/comfort, when she gets her head out of her ass, when all things around her falls apart.
    It was refreshing to hear about so many women issues! I especially loved to learn about their past, to understand them a bit better. I hope this opens the way for more shows like this!

  2. I appreciate what you wrote about Piper. I agree with a lot of viewers that she is very privileged and naive, and I liked what Jenji Kohan said about her being the show’s “Trojan Horse” but I think people often gloss over Piper as a character with their criticism. I’m a WOC, but as someone from a moderately affluent, privileged, and well-educated background I related to her much more than several other characters. I’m glad the show emphasized how privileged she was though. That’s very important.

  3. SPOILERS! The show’s greatest appeal is just parsing out bits of information and not filling in the details with every character. Piper is the audience surrogate (particularly the much-desired white women 18-35 demographic). I wouldn’t say she grows or changes. It’s really about us learning about her throughout the season. To me, she becomes less sympathetic. Her prison experience may be just peeling back the layers of who she really is.

    We learn about a few other characters, but most characters just come off as tokens (lgbt, other than wasp, immigrant, religious, poor, new age, etc) and props for social messages. There’s a scene on the perils of poverty-prison culture, which contains “a very special episode” style dialogue.

    Others, such as Claudette, are half written. So much unseen. So much unsaid. I have a huge fan theories about Claudette. I hope she returns.

    And others who became discovered gems such as “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne. The writers squeezed her into the rest of the season after she served time as Piper’s prop. I believe is Piper’s double. Near the end of the season, Suzanne in a few choice words sums up Piper. Piper despite the good she does is not a nice person. Suzanne despite her flaws is a nice person. I hope viewers got that point.

    Coincidentally, in the past few years, I’ve seen a number of women in prison TV shows. To highlight a few: The Australian series “Prisoner” (1979-1986). The British series “Bad Girls” (1999-2006). The French-Canadian series “Unite 9” (2013). I do find it odd to find ‘serious female drama’ often equates to ‘women in prison.’ Although I accept “Orange is the New Black” on its on merits — this genre tends to be weighed down by well-worn cliches and tropes — many of the show’s style and plots seem lifted from “Prisoner.”

  4. Well, I really liked miss Claudette. What happens to her was really sad. Anyway, I’m not sure that she’s half written. I think it’s more that we only see glimpses of her. We don’t really “know” her… yet. And I also would like that she comes back.

    Suzanne it’s an example of the more you see from a character, the more you realice that there’s a lot of things you don’t know of them.

    And since Pippers character it’s being used as a “proxy” for the audience, and they want to add drama to the show, she behaves badly and in weird ways.


    I mean, most people from a priviledge background would have lied to the warden and not insult him. It’s self preservation and common sense. Also, why she did’nt let Pensatucky baptise her afeter she agreed? I mean, either you let her and you lie to preserve peace or you stay away from her. But I guess that this way we get a better ending for the season.

    Same with Taystee, it’s sad that she end coming back to prison, but that way, the character stays in the show. Though I would have liked see her outside visiting the others.

  5. But they keep implying all of the women are there because they made a “bad choice”! Completely ignores that a large portion of WOC –and POC!– are incarcerated because of racism.

    Also, almost every WOC character is a trope: the Hispanic woman ignores the well-being of her children, almost all the black women are ‘angry’ or ‘aggressive’. Ugh. And I noticed that almost all of the white women are way less aggressive, nicer to the rest, etc. I don’t know, the writer seems so mired in stereotypes!

    And the writer seems to anti-woman. It’s always the mother who’s focused on, the mothers who are ‘nag’, etc. And having Alex threaten another woman –however horrid as she may be– with sexual violence??

    I wanted to like the show. I really did. However, I really did not!

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