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Compassionate Release: The Agony and the Empathy in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

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by Amy Woolard
July 8, 2014 4:35 AM
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[This essay contains mild spoilers for Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black]

When US Weekly began its photo-driven series “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” it was a revelation in the art of Hollywood propaganda. The magazine rolled up the red carpet and instead offered readers a rare view of celebrities, not just in their own natural habitats, but in ours. “They recycle! They shop at Wal-Mart! They sell 100% organic lemonade at a homespun card-table stand outside their Brentwood mansions!” The series fashioned a different illusion of us vs. them: a shared world in which we’re all essentially the same people, but some of Us just happen to have a few million more dollars in our bank accounts than others.

This is a kind of reverse-empathy, a strange effort to level the playing field, to “humanize” celebrities—arguably the most privileged people on the planet (at least the true A-Listers), those for whom the odds are ever in their favor. It’s a compelling pitch—but it’s tough to ignore that many are still on the outside, peering in through the pages of a magazine that they probably didn’t even buy, shopping at the Dollar Store out of necessity in lieu of choice, grazing on photos that are glossy but not so shiny that they can actually see their own reflections staring back.  

Now that Season One of the Netflix Original series Orange Is the New Black is safely stitched into our pop culture quilt, the show has shed its initial hesitation and has its crazy eyes on its viewers just as much as they have theirs on it. Season Two feels emboldened by its newfound responsibility—to its characters, to its audience, and to actual women in actual prison. 

The show had its origin, of course, with an actual woman in actual prison—Piper Kerman, who served a year or so in federal prison for money laundering and drug trafficking, and then wrote the memoir on which the show is based. Kerman, like her fictional counterpart Piper Chapman, is white, blonde, a self-described WASP, educated at Smith, and born into wealth: the celebrity who’s just like us, except behind bars. But through Orange Is the New Black, she’s also the glossy magazine, our window into a world of women largely unseen, unexperienced by most people—most people, that is, who can afford the time and money needed to subscribe to and binge-watch Netflix.

Women not like us, except for when they are. 

Showrunner Jenji Kohan first described the character of Piper Chapman as her “Trojan Horse,” her spoonful-of-sugar access point to be able to sell a show—and have it received successfully—that is primarily about the lives of marginalized women: the elderly, women of color, women of varying sexualities and gender identities, and—it’s actually not an obvious point to make—women with criminal histories. Season One took a deserved hit for falling short in shifting our gaze away from Piper’s story, and while Season Two definitely improves upon the silence, it misses many opportunities to change the conversation, most importantly from “Can you believe this happens in prison?” to “You really need to know that this happens in prison.” Put another way, it’s the difference between a tweet and the linked article a tweet lures its reader into clicking.

Prison-themed shows and movies often trade in tropes the way their characters barter with cigarettes: shower violence, the uber-butch lesbian who spends the majority of her time looking for a submissive sex partner, prison breaks. Kohan does take on the greater cultural mantle of her subject matter—her indictment of the federal system and the prison industrial complex is not insignificant, especially in the confines of a comedy. But she often doesn’t let the punishment fit the crime: she exposes the issue of guard-on-inmate sexual assault, but then throws a blanket of romance and “consent” over it, derailing her focus on a real problem

Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, for example, is a black woman essentially raised in the foster care system before going into juvenile detention at the age of 16. In Season One, she actually wins her release from a parole panel, but because of a wholly inadequate re-entry plan, she quickly returns to prison—her only remaining family—to finish out her sentence. We learn in Season Two that she spent much of her time in foster care living in group homes. With just this handful of facts, Kohan has the opportunity to tell a very real, very common, very troublesome story: girls of color in foster care, especially those who live in group homes rather than families, and especially those who move from home to home, are much more likely than their peers outside the child welfare system to experience school dropout, early pregnancy, poor health and—as Taystee demonstrates—juvenile delinquency. Young people who go through both the foster care and juvenile justice systems (often called “crossover youth”) are most likely to be African-American girls, and they accumulate even more risk factors: they are more likely to be detained as a result of their court cases (rather than released with community-based consequences or dismissed), and they’re more likely to be given harsher sentences than youth who aren’t involved in both systems.

Taystee tells us these facts about her life, but we don’t grasp what makes her experience different or important in the context of our non-fictional lives. Instead, we’re given a troubling stereotype in Vee, the “evil foster mother” who intentionally takes on wards to exploit them into her drug ring. Through flashback, we see Vee scouting 11-year-old Taystee at a foster care/adoption ice cream social, knowing immediately that the facts are stacked against the young girl: Taystee is not a baby, lives in a group home, projects a self-assurance that reads as defiance, and tries too hard to be loved—traits, we learn, as Taystee is told directly by Vee, that will keep her from being any family’s choice. The nuance of Taystee’s struggles to define who is and isn’t her family is a truly admirable aspect of her character, but Kohan could have dug much deeper, given plot lines based on the actual, rich stories all around us, and still introduced the villain she needed in Vee.

The problem is not so much that OINTB’s back-stories are not to be believed; it’s more so that these less-common stories reinforce the general public’s confirmation bias about important social issues, and as such they betray the true widespread crises within the criminal justice system and society at large. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren is an entertaining, powerful, endearing character. But portraying her as so physically violent belies the experience of the majority of people with mental health issues: they are much more likely to be the victims of violence than to perpetrate it. To send the false message isn’t just artistic license; it’s actually damaging misinformation—especially in an era when nearly 45% of inmates in federal prison have symptoms of serious mental illness, such as major depressive symptoms like attempted suicide, extreme loss of appetite and extreme insomnia, and psychotic disorders that produce delusions or hallucinations, among others. Crazy Eyes’s suggestibility to violence, at the hands of Vee, becomes a much more heavy-handed theme of Season Two than the notion that Suzanne is being victimized and likely not receiving proper mental health treatment.

And don’t food stamps (the colloquial name for the SNAP program) get a bad enough (false) rap already? Do we need a character whose backstory rap sheet perpetuates the most overused, under-informed urban legend, that food stamp fraud is rampant, a story that politicians so often use to fear-monger against the poor? Audiences need to know that most people who depend on SNAP are children, the elderly, disabled people and working adults who still fall below the poverty line. Smart people who study these programs estimate that SNAP lifted nearly 4 million people out of poverty in 2011, all through a federal safety net program with a fraud rate of only about 2%. Storeowners like Gloria certainly exist, but Kohan should weigh the consequences of using that as her defense. Truth does not always equal responsibility, I s’pose.

This is not a call for Orange Is the New Black to function as a documentary, or to make its audience eat broccoli when there’s cake to be shared. There are fine moments when Kohan allows an important story to be told from the inside-out—as with Laverne Cox’s outstanding portrayal of transgender inmate Sophia Burset (which has led to more IRL advocacy opportunities for Cox), and there are further fine moments when Kohan does not equivocate. She makes no bones about her bold indictment of inadequate prison health care throughout both seasons: from Burset’s inability to receive proper hormone treatment and Tricia’s overdose in Season One to Season Two’s hunger strike demands and—perhaps the most moving subplot of all—Jimmy’s “compassionate release,” though she is addled with dementia

And there are times Kohan weaves policy and humor so effortlessly it’s dazzling. When the Latinas in the kitchen serve “special trays” to the Black women filled with food wretched with salt, Poussey, amongst the grumblings, snaps: “Man, they f*ckin' us this way 'cause they know our people's predisposition for hypertension.”  

And there are times Kohan's nuance is a deft jam: towards the end of Season Two, Piper—whether out of boredom or cunning or a way for Kohan to further highlight Piper’s book-smarts vs. her fellow inmates’ street-smarts—starts a prisoner-run newspaper. (+1 to Kohan, as these enterprises have an important history and role in U.S. prisons.) The show pulls such a fun sleight-of-hand in Caputo asking Piper to include a column featuring the guards. “Guards—They’re Just Like Us!” she brightly suggests, though Caputo misses her wink and edits it to “Guards—They’re People, Too.” The complexity is all the richer for delivering so much insight so quickly—having the prison focus support on a program designed to help inmates have empathy for their guards; the uneasy lack of distinction between those who wear orange jumpsuits and those who wear blue shirts; and even a sly gut-punch to our own ribs using the very same US Weekly shtick.  

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