If you have been on the Internet this summer or know anyone who has, chances are you have at least heard about the new Netflix original series, Orange Is The New Black. If you haven’t seen the show, perhaps you’re one of the unfortunate few who have not stolen an ex’s Netflix password. Or perhaps you’re one of the more unfortunate contrarians who are simply unwilling to engage in this summer’s hottest fad. Or perhaps you are one of the most unfortunate breed of TV novices that just started watching Breaking Bad for the first time in which case you probably just know Orange Is The New Black as that new show that’s blowing up your Facebook news feed. Maybe you’ve gathered some of the basic details, like that it was written by Jenji Kohan, the writer of Weeds, and has the guy from American Pie in it (the one who jerked off into the pie). If you are one of these people, I would suggest that you stop reading this and go watch what I will argue is one of the most important shows on television (read: the computer) today.
Thanks to shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, TV has, in the past decade or so, proven to be the medium with the most potential for expressing the stories of our time; it is the frontier of our generations’ voices and artistic abilities. Where television used to be characterized by banal and even anti-intellectual entertainment, it is now understood as a legitimate and ever-more-important space for art. However, like most (new) things, it has so far been an exceptionally male-dominated industry with exceptionally male-centric stories. The women of even the most critically acclaimed and avant-garde TV shows have been intriguing yet consistently peripheral. Orange Is The New Black changes this narrative, and with it, the sexual politics of television. The plot of the show is based on the true story of Piper Kerman who served a yearlong sentence in an upstate New York women’s prison for smuggling drug money. This setting is an ideal one for exploring a wide range of nuanced and fully developed female identities through a mostly female cast. And it is these female characters, based on real women, who drive the plot and captivate the viewer, while the male characters are peripheral, one-sided and ultimately complementary.
The refreshing and progressive gender politics of Orange Is The New Black does not end at its female-dominated cast and plotline. The story centers around Piper (Taylor Schilling) who, freshly engaged to her struggling writer fiancée (Jason Biggs), is in prison with (and because of) her ex-girlfriend (Laura Prepon). The general setting of a women’s prison provides the space and language for the show to explore several non-normative relationships and expressions of sexuality. In fact, this show is perhaps the most important and empowering representation of female homosexuality to ever exist in pop culture. This is not actually as bold of a statement as it sounds, as lesbians occupy a level of marginalization (being female and gay) that is unsurprisingly underrepresented in media. The only other show to represent this category that comes to mind is The L Word, but Orange Is The New Black navigates the complexities of female sexuality in a much more ethically sound and less fetishistic way. The lesbian sex scenes are sexy without being exploitative; they are fairly realistic portrayals of women having sex. Most importantly, they are not catered towards patriarchal and misogynistic heterosexual male fantasies. Impressively, the show does not merely echo and perpetuate the obvious (and problematic) stereotype of prison as an epicenter of homosexual activity; it instead frames homosexual sex in prison as a case study of how complicated and fluid sexuality is, as opposed to discussing it as merely a product of gender-specific spaces. Rather than repressing women’s sexual lives to the point where they sleep with other women out of desperation, prison actually seems to provide the women in it with a space to experiment and explore that perhaps they had not encountered in the world outside. Thus, the show subverts the old discourse around homosexual sex in prison, and works to undo the notion that homosexual experiences are a last resort in prison and/or inferior to heterosexual ones.
And of course, one cannot discuss the progressive politics of Orange Is The New Black without mention of Sofia, the trans character (important) played by a trans actress (so important) Laverne Cox. In an interview with NPR, Cox discusses the complications of playing a black transwoman in prison. There are so many things to be considered, and she describes feeling challenged to be as intentional as possible while acting this part. If lesbians are underrepresented media, transwomen are virtually invisible. The simple fact that Orange Is The New Black is working to make visible intensely marginalized people and issues in a non-exploitative way is a huge step for the television industry.
The self-awareness of Cox, Kohan, and the rest of the cast, is perhaps the most impressive thing about the show. It is not easy to make a comedy while confronting serious issues such as race, gender, sexuality and incarceration. There are remarkable social and political implications to be considered, and Kohan and her team to do it with grace. Orange Is The New Black is nothing short of a feminist project in a medium almost entirely devoid of such. It ventures into this new discourse responsibly and succeeds.