This is part seven in my series on the global epidemic of violence against women. (Here are my posts on Serena Williams’s victim-blaming, the sexual assaults happening in Egypt, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women in California, rape and social media, George Zimmerman’s prior acts of violence against women, and mobile apps to end sexual violence.)
[Warning: This contains very minor plot spoilers from the series.]
From Marissa Alexander’s twenty-year sentence for firing off a warning shot to stave off her batterer to the forced sterilization of nearly 150 women by doctors in a California prison, the unfair treatment of incarcerated women is slowly making front-page news.
It is also the subject of Netflix’s hit new series—from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. The series explores Kerman’s experiences as a white, upper-middle-class Smith graduate who was found guilty for money laundering and drug trafficking for her former girlfriend six years prior to her serving a thirteen-month sentence in 1998.
Because of its daring topic, tone and setting, the show is frequently compared to Showtime’s Weeds and HBO’s Oz. Like Weeds, Orange Is the New Black also wrestles with the causes and consequences of women’s roles in the drug trade. But I must admit that I stopped watching Weeds after two seasons because I found the representations of Heylia and Vaneeta James to be caricatures of blackness rather than complex African-American women characters.
Not so much with Orange Is The New Black, for while the show appears to traffic in tired stereotypes about race, class and sexuality, it also, episode by episode, tries to challenge some of those assumptions by filling in the women’s stories through flashbacks and empathy. Sometimes it is successful, and sometimes it is not.
Moreover, there is something to be said that the most racially and sexually diverse show of 2013 is set in a women’s prison. When Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) enters prison, she is surprised by how racially segregated the women’s lives appear to be. The irony is that she seems unaware that her outside life (her friends and family) is even more racially homogenous.