Maya Reddy is a senior at Claremont McKenna College and is gracing the Forum for the first time with her column MayaPinion, which will cover the latest in entertainment news and reviews. Warning: this review may contain slight spoilers.
Over the past two months I have found myself frequently thinking, “You know, prison doesn’t seem so bad”. Which is weird because 1) it’s prison, and 2) it’s prison. But all of a sudden, over a period of 13 hours in early July, prison became a pretty interesting place.
On July 11, Netflix released the latest in its cache of original programming — a thirteen episode show by Jenji Kohan that takes place in a women’s prison. In its first week, Orange is the New Black brought more viewers to Netflix than the fourth season of Arrested Development, which aired earlier in the summer. Orange is the New Black is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. Both follow the experiences of a middle class, white woman who carried drug money for her girlfriend (I mean, who hasn’t?). Ten years, 1 fiancée, and a thriving blog later, Piper’s crime catches up to her and she is thrown in jail. While the story is told through Piper Chapman, the brilliance of Kohan’s adaptation is the way in which Piper is subtly positioned as a vehicle through whom the stories of her colorful and strong fellow inmates are told. While this may have been a perfect strategy to sell the show to networks, it is an even better strategy to highlight the (far more interesting) stories of everyone else in prison. The show never shies away from controversial topics and treats each character on a level playing field. If you are familiar with Kohan’s previous work, namely Weeds, this does not feel new. Kohan has an incredible talent for taking people in desperate situations and making them shine, while simultaneously balancing humor and drama in an expert fashion.
Orange is the New Black is a show about women, but it’s also a show about humanity. It works from the basic idea that “we all make mistakes,” and sometimes those mistakes land us in jail. But is that what determines whether or not we are good people? Off the cuff, we often think of inmates as categorically bad people, but Orange is the New Black challenges that assumption. Kohan has woven an intricate quilt of stories in the world of Litchfield Women’s Prison in New York. Through meticulously placed flashbacks, Kohan explores the mistakes that each woman made landing them in prison.
Episode three, “Lesbian Request Denied” perfectly exemplifies the delicacy in which OITNB portrays the gray areas inherent in human morality and imprisonment. It dives into the story of Sophia, a trans woman with a wife and child, whose transition took everything from her, including her freedom. The beauty of the episode is derived through the incredible manner in which Sophia’s transition is demonstrated. OITNB never assumes omniscient knowledge of transition or the trans community in general, nor does it take a position of fear out of ignorance (as most films/shows with trans characters have). Instead it portrays Sophia as human and depicts her struggles vividly. The casting of a real life trans woman, Laverne Cox, contributes to this honest representation of a trans woman. Together, through the writing and portrayal, Cox and Kohan have created a character that is not apologetic, strong, and most importantly, not ashamed of who they are. While I cannot speak to the experiences of the trans community or trans women, I know that as a woman, Sophia’s story is incredibly inspiring — a woman, who, no matter what, refuses to give up who she is.
The rest of the inmates in Litchfield are equally incredible. There is a woman who is released from jail, only to return because she doesn’t know how to live anywhere but in prison. There is another woman who is in prison with her mother, and another who gives birth while in prison but cannot see her child until she serves the rest of her time. But are these women bad? Orange is the New Black takes a look into our own measure of morality and in just 13 hours transitions your frame of mind surrounding the word “criminal” — and also maybe has you contemplating going to prison yourself.
While I am anxiously waiting for the second season in the spring, and keeping tabs on its production through Instagram, the first season of Orange is the New Black on its own is a landmark in the portrayal of queer characters, women of color, and women in television. The first season as a standalone group of 13 episodes demonstrates a huge step forward in the unapologetic, dynamic, and hilarious portrayal of strong female characters that you can’t help but want to be best friends with. To quote Crazy Eyes, “Before I met Orange is the New Black, the sun was like a yellow grape, But now, it looks like fire in the sky. Why? Because you light a fire inside me.”