Orange is the New Black
“Despite some racial stereotyping, the sheer breadth of representation vaults the show to heavyweight status in the realm of inclusive media.”
Title: Orange is the New Black
Episodes Reviewed: S01E01 - S05E02
Creator: Jenji Kohan 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Jenji Kohan 👩🏼🇺🇸 (67 eps), Piper Kerman 👩🏼🇺🇸 (original story and 39 eps), Jordan Harrison 👨🏼🇺🇸 (28 eps), Lauren Morelli 👩🏼🇺🇸🌈 (19 eps), Nick Jones 👨🏼🇺🇸 (18 eps), and others (9 women, 8 men)
Reviewed by Catherine of Think or Blue
Orange is the New Black is Netflix's most-watched original drama, and for good reason. When it aired in 2013, it was unlike any series I'd ever seen. Even now, after each new episode I wake up with the characters running through my mind.
Inspired by Piper Kerman's memoir, OITNB follows Piper Chapman, a privileged blonde twenty-something as she navigates federal prison after dabbling in drug trafficking. Fast-forward to the fourth season, which ends on a tense, heartbreaking note and leads us to the beginning of Season 5 where the inmates fight back against their oppressors. The plot advances rapidly and viewers are left wondering how the Litchfield gals will maintain control of the prison and its guards, who are currently captives themselves.
I would have scored this 5/5 but to compromise with Metacritic, which gives the first five seasons an average score of 81, I dropped the score half a point.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women make up the very core of this series and viewers quickly learn by Season 2 that, while Piper is technically the protagonist, it’s the brilliant, multi-layered inmates who create the sparkle. We see women of all shapes, colors, sizes, ages, and backgrounds. But what makes the show truly stand out is the female-centric storytelling, which portrays women as they see themselves and each other, often in unglamorous or even gritty moments. Flashbacks add richness and more dimension to each inmate, and even tertiary characters see more development in Seasons 3 and 4.
Though skewing female, when OITNB features men such as C.O./Counselor Healey, it does so deliberately. Yes, his history with a mentally ill mother drives him to "save" every woman. But the show recognizes that Healey's past doesn't excuse his deep-seated misogyny toward Red and Soso, his racism against Poussey and pretty much all women of color, or his homophobia of Piper. He has a mail-order bride yet continues to desperately seek companionship. He's unlikeable but sympathetic. It is with these complexities where OITNB finds its true power.
Race is one of the most controversial yet important elements of OITNB. One thing is true: they don't shy away from the topic.
On shows with “token” persons of color, they’re naturally seen as a proxy for an entire ethnicity. But with OITNB, we see a wide spectrum of women of every race. For starters, there's the big-hearted, reluctant leader Taystee; the deeply intellectual army brat Poussey; wise-cracking Cindy who converts to Judaism; the mentally-ill but poetic Suzanne ("Crazy Eyes"); and the compassionate, transgender inmate, Sophia.
Even within the Latina crowd, the show digs in beyond Spanish conversations and tight families. It portrays tensions between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, which sometimes threaten the cohesiveness of their crew. While characters like Daya and Blanca are drawn with complexities, OITNB has been criticized for sometimes falling back on stereotypes of Latinas, Asian women, and women of color in general. Overall, though, the viewers are well aware of the racial identities and experiences which heavily influence the characters, giving them, at the very least, some backstory and screen time.
When Piper arrives at Litchfield, she is initially shocked to learn that race dictates social circles, allegiances, and even the cafeteria. But by Season 4, we see her capitalizing on the protection of white supremacists. Racial feuds and power plays heat up in Season 2 with the sinister Vee battling the Russian chef, Red, deepening more and more as the series progresses.
Some have criticized OITNB, quite justifiably, for lack of diversity in the writers' room. Yet Season 4 tackles race with even more gusto; the Martha Stewart-esque celebrity inmate Judy King benefits from her fame and white privilege as guards "keep her away" from the riff raff, giving her a secluded room stocked with candles and a coffeemaker. Meanwhile, a corrections officer suffocates the lovable Poussey under his knee during a cafeteria riot—a painful parallel to the real-life murder of Eric Garner and the subsequent “I Can’t Breathe” protests that came after. (Check out more about the politics and nuances of that scene here).
By numbers alone, OITNB has a huge share of LGBTQ characters. Laverne Cox has earned several "firsts" for her breakout portrayal of Sophia Burset, including the first openly transgender actor to receive an Emmy. The show explores her complicated history with her ex-wife, her shaky relationship with her adolescent son, and her difficulties getting hormone treatment in prison. In one of her best moments, Sophia teaches her fellow female inmates about their own anatomy (they don't know where their own pee comes from!), showing lightheartedly that biology is not the only marker of gender. In Season 2, Sophia faces extreme homophobia and winds up in solitary confinement "for her protection," while her family struggles to get answers from the Litchfield staff. In stark contrast is Judy King’s experience—which includes fluffy pillows and a white roommate—showing how race remains inextricably linked to queer discrimination.
OINTB also has a plethora of bisexual and lesbian characters, along with several who are "curious" or simply seeking companionship in a lonely place. Nicky repeatedly chases the Italian-American Lorna to fool around with, seeming to harbor stronger feelings than her tough facade allows. Piper and Alex's on-again off-again relationship is the least interesting thing about the show—can we all just admit Piper is the most annoying character? More compelling is the sister-like friendship of Taystee and Poussey, which gradually develops romantic undertones from Poussey’s side; unfortunately, that relationship gets cut short.
The LGBTQ representation does starts to feel forced and a bit yucky when Big Boo and Nicky enter a bet about who can score more chicks. But maybe that's what bored people do in prison? Would I bat an eyelash if they were male characters pursuing women? Probably not.
The queer women on this show are mostly white. Do writers think that's more palatable for the audience? I wish they showed more racial diversity within the LGBTQ community. Regardless, OITNB is hard to beat in this category.
Bonus for Age: +0.5
OITNB gets bonus points for featuring women of all ages. With characters like Red, Vee, Yoga Jones, Sister Ingalls, and Norma, we see women over 50 lead fascinating and dangerous lives, which are properly fleshed out through the use of flashbacks.
Bonus for Disability: +0.5
On the disability front, OITNB highlights inmates like Suzanne and Lolly (played expertly by Uzo Aduba and Lori Petty, respectively) who need mental health treatment—not steel bars. Not only do their disabilities lead to their incarcerations, they also spark dangerous situations at Litchfield that should have been preventable, spotlighting the United States' larger crisis of locking up individuals as a solution to addressing mental illnesses.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.75/5
No other show tackles gender, race, sexuality, and gender identity quite as vigorously as OITNB, while still finding time to comment on mental illness and to include older women as complex characters. Despite some racial stereotyping, the sheer breadth of representation vaults OITNB to heavyweight status in the realm of inclusive media.
Season 5 bursts out of the gate like it has something to prove. But I look forward to the show returning to its biggest strength: the development of these incredible women.