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It's So Not 'Oz': Netflix's 'Orange Is the New Black' | The Nation

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Salamishah Tillet

Salamishah Tillet

Where race and gender meet, where politics and pop culture collide.

It's So Not 'Oz': Netflix's 'Orange Is the New Black'

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.

The majority of incarcerated women alongside Piper’s character are also white (reflecting the real demographics); however, African-American and Latina women disproportionately populate the show and America’s prisons.  

This is striking because, even though the main character probably had to be white and college-educated for the book and then show to be picked up, each episode focuses on another character’s backstory—often a woman of color—and offers the viewers some insight into the limited opportunities and restrictive relationships that plague these women inside and outside of prison’s walls.

The highly acclaimed show Oz differed from Orange because it provided a sustained critique of structural power. It did so by: (1) using narrative realism; (2) depicting prison as hyper-violent; and (3) setting it in “Emerald City,” which is both a play on the omnipresent wizard in The Wizard of Oz and a visualization of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism” in which a highly sophisticated, diffuse and seemingly anonymous system of discipline and surveillance maintains the order and control of prisoners (and these days most Americans).

”The problem with TV violence, it’s a lie,” said Tom Fontana, who writes most of the show’s episodes and was one of its executive producers, to The New York Times in 1999. ”People get shot and don’t bleed. They get hit and walk away. If you have to do it, you have to do it as horrifically as it really is.”

Part of the project of Oz (for better or worse) was to show how prisons systematically relegate people to the status of both animals and non-citizens. In Orange, all of the incarcerated women are guilty of making bad choices and the crimes for which they are sentenced. Its social critique is also tempered by its humorous representations of bureaucrats of the state (the warden, correctional officers, and prison doctors) as boorish and buffoons.

The show itself is also intentionally less violent. In a recent interview in Entertainment Weekly, the show’s creator Kohan said:

…women’s prison’s are different. It’s not Oz. I was talking to the warden at Chino, and he’d worked in women’s prisons and men’s prisons, and I said “What’s the difference?” and he said, “Women are communal. Men are out for themselves and they’re animals and they’ll kill. But women will form packs and try to be a family.”

Orange insists on showing how women—through wile, wisdom or wit—find solace in each other as they negotiate their constant invisibility and vulnerability in the prison system.

And it is here that the show succeeds and disappoints. Since Kerman was placed in a correctional facility (versus a maximum state penitentiary), we should not necessarily expect that same form of violence as Oz (or Alcatraz and The Wire for that matter).

But, it shows violence against women in prison as fleeting: when Piper is confined to the Special Housing Unit of the “SHU” for engaging in “lesbian activity” or another character is taken to psychiatric ward, strapped to the bed and forced to take anti-psychotic drugs.

Most troubling is its treatment of sexual violence.

Recently, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported that staff members rather than other prisoners commit 60 percent of the alleged acts of sexual abuse. Because incarcerated women cannot legally consent to sexual activity with prison staff member, all sexual interactions between them and guards are sexual assault.

While this is repeatedly mentioned by characters on Orange, sexual interactions between guards and prisoners do occur, and in two disturbing contexts: (1) the season-long “courtship” between one young Latina woman and a young white male correctional officer, which results in her pregnancy; and (2) when this same character has sex with another CO, in order to get him fired by reporting she was raped.

The show not only reproduces stereotypes that women in prison are untrustworthy and lie about sexual assault, but also cushions the real violence experienced by women in prison as romance.

Nevertheless, by the end of the season, Piper’s character has deteriorated so much because of her life in prison that she is barely recognizable to her family, friends, or even us the viewer. The final act of violence is both surprising, individualized, and to certain extent, excused.

The show was just picked up for a second season and has already garnered significant attention. At The Washington Post, Dylan Matthews called it “the best prison show ever made.” The Daily Beast gave it high praise for its depiction of Sophie Burset (played by Laverne Cox), a transgendered African-American woman who demands safe and equal healthcare access for all women in prison.

And this is what I think the show does well. The series begins with the privileged perspective of Kerman and slowly but surely, with each episode, I became more invested in stories of women we normally do not “see”: queer and straight women of color and working class women.

So, I will be back next season with hopes that the show provides the “agency” to these women (that critic Yasmin Nair has called for) and a more sustained argument about why they (as opposed to Piper Kerman) have so few life choices and are routinely victims of racially and socio-economically biased legal system.

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Until then, I will simply remain curious about the lives of some of its more novel characters: the misunderstood Haitian lifer, Miss Claudette; the sympathetic pot-selling yogi, Yoga Jones; and the backstories of best friends Tasha Jefferson and Poussey Washington.

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.)

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