People, I may be late to the prison party and I know Orange is the New Black premiered in 2013, but the relevance of this show is still so on-point in 2018, I just couldn’t stay silent.
About four years ago I overheard someone I considered a friend talking enthusiastically about the show and how amazing it was. At the time many people were talking about this ground-breaking series. Because I valued this friend’s opinion, I asked this friend if they thought I would like it. This person paused and then adamantly told me, “No, you wouldn’t like it. Don’t bother watching it. It’s not your style. It’s not your cup of tea.”
At that time, I trusted this person and didn’t think much about OITNB for years. CUT TO…About 6 months ago, I was looking through Netflix searching for something female-helmed and empowering and of course OITNB popped up as one of the top suggestions.
Remembering back to how I was so strongly discouraged not to watch it, I thought to myself, “Why did I so easily write this show off based on one person’s perspective of it? Just try one episode. If you don’t like it move on.” So, I pressed play and ensconced myself in a world set in a fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility somewhere in upstate New York.
For the few left who still haven’t seen it: The series begins revolving around Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), a woman in her thirties living in New York City who is sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield Penitentiary (a minimum-security women’s federal prison in upstate New York).
SIX MONTHS LATER – I’m finally all caught up and just binged watched Season 6. WOW.
Without getting into any explicit plotlines or spoilers, I just want to say the reason I’m obsessed with OITNB – and most definitely will watch it ALL OVER AGAIN – is because of the dynamic diversity of the cast.
For watching a TV show about a large group of oppressed women, as the viewer (and as a woman), I feel completely liberated. There are so many different ethnicities, races, ages, shapes and sizes with incredible storylines spotlighted on this show. At first for some viewers, I imagine this had a rather unsettling effect because our brains have become conditioned to seeing cis, white, thin women in the lead (albeit still limited) roles.
IN THE FIRST FEW SEASONS, we’re being introduced to all the other characters from the perspective of Piper, the poster child for WASP women. Based on looks and class alone, Piper’s clearly the fish out of water – the anomaly – while she *awkwardly* graces the minimum-security prison hallways.
With the exception of Piper, it’s as if the rest of the cast of OITNB is in prison for NOT being cis, white or thin. But it soon becomes clear these other women are feeling themselves. They’re feeling and experiencing a type of freedom that Piper herself is unable to tap into. Here, behind those concrete walls, the Litchfield prisoners are tucked away from the outside patriarchal standards, male glare and expectations of their outer appearance which makes them physically more comfortable in their own skin.
CAVEAT: There is still a social, racial and very misogynistic, intricate tier happening on the inside world but in terms of physicality, we are looking at 50 shades of non-white women, featuring and showcasing complex older women, giving people of color strong voices and blatantly empowering fat women.
We rarely, if ever, get to see this in any other body of work in film/tv/media. OITNB’s penetrating cinematography shamelessly expresses every nook and cranny of the prison – and the prisoner – collapsing the bridge between viewer and character so that we can experience every nook and cranny of prison life as if we are right there with them.
TELLINGLY: the lighting is far from flattering.
AND THE HAIR: Ohhhhhh precious Fantastic Sams – the hair on these ladies are a character unto themselves!
There is no shame in all types of free-flowing fly-away, frizz, curls, waves, fine, thick, shaggy, textures, grays, and hair colors on the tops of these ladies’ heads. Lastly, my personal favorite scenes of ultimate body empowerment (and at times most vulnerable) are when the characters are in the shower room. No other TV show has succeeded in showing so many naked women at one time in a normal, tasteful, naturalized state. Also, never has there ever been a time on the show when any nudity shown has come across as gratuitous or written to please the male gaze. Hardly anyone in this world gives a thought or a care of what they look like – because they’re just trying to survive. Much like every male dominated movie and tv show that’s ever been made.
Danielle Brooks, who plays the role of Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson, says it best in an article for NME: “It’s incredible to be part of a show that’s trailblazing Hollywood and how we view television from literally the inside out, from having a more diverse cast but also having a more diverse crew too – [that]has been really cool. You know, and really showing Hollywood that you can make a dollar and put women that are of all shapes, sizes, ages, and different sexual backgrounds on television and people will enjoy it. They will love it and eat it up and I think it’s really changing the face of Hollywood, and I think our show has definitely spoken about things – like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, the list really can go on and on, the topics that are ringing true to America but also the world, clearly. And I think we really are influencing people to change their views a lot.”
I TRULY BELIEVE THAT SOMEDAY the norm in film/tv will look very much like the cast and crew of OITNB – minus the orange suits.
In order for us to achieve this balance we need to make a conscious effort to continuously watch and support storytelling of characters that are not considered the majority. If there is a movie or TV series that is centered around a marginalized voice please give it a chance and watch it, share it – and talk about it with your friends.
Because sometimes the messenger IS (also) the message. Long live body diversity and inclusivity for all types of people!
Editor’s note: If you haven’t read our interview with Orange is the New Black’s Madeline Brewer, this is a must read! Check it out HERE.