There have been a lot of articles praising “Orange is the New Black”, its characterization of a wide and diverse range of people who are rarely portrayed on television, not the least of which are lesbians and the transgender people.. As has been observed in other articles, it’s just a plain smartly written show, managing that balance of rendering characters as imperfect without making them unsympathetic, and without turning their flaws into twee little affectations with no real downside.
There are also those who see either too much or just enough of “Weeds” in the series. Piper does indeed have some selection of the tics and quirks that eventually made Nancy Botwin a terrible character, but thus far they are in check.
But there are a couple other parts of the show that make it far more interesting to me. This is a minimum security prison, which was a wise choice for the story. And I say choice deliberately, knowing full well that the series is based on a memoir. They could have simply chosen something different to adapt, or they could have changed whatever they wanted in the adaptation. Just because the source material didn’t have a choice in certain elements, doesn’t mean that the showrunners don’t make the choices every step of the way. Just wanted to get that out there.
The show depicts the poor and uneducated as actual human beings, and more to the point as people who have made choices to be where they are. Their choices may have sucked, their opportunities may have been lousy, but they were still their choices. A lot of shows patronize the poor by making them the victims of their circumstance, taking away any agency they might have. And there is almost invariably the character who coulda been a contenda, if only they had been given a chance. That latter character is the one that so much fiction settles on, but that character so often works as a crutch to avoid actually looking at the tragedy. It lets you lapse into thinking that the tragedy is the brilliant kid who doesn’t get to be a scientist instead of the systemic tragedy of life at the bottom.
Look, there are always going to be people at the bottom. The tragedy isn’t that there are deadend jobs, most jobs are deadends from that perspective. The tragedy is that depending on your parents’ socioeconomic status, your deadend job either gets you making a line of soaps at Barneys or it involves you making meth in your kitchen. It’s not the brilliant kids who can’t get out that are the tragedy, they’re only a symptom of the fact that there is something to get out of in the first place.
And that’s one way that “Orange is the New Black” really succeeds, by using prison as an equalizer, as a bulldozer of “there if not for the grace of god”. I really loathed Piper’s fiance for most of the season, and rolled my eyes at her stupid business of high end bath products, her obsession with keeping touch with the business by the prison phones. They had to make them worthless yuppies who can’t just get a fucking job, didn’t they? But that there is a distinct choice. Give them real jobs and the foil falls apart. See, they’re no different than the inmates in category, no different than the boyfriend on the outside scamming in order to make rent, while the girl on the inside makes calls about moving drugs on the outside. The only difference is that the exact same capabilities and contextual life choices lead to a condo with one group and prison for the other.
One criticism leveled at the show is how every character has a perfectly good reason for being in prison, that there are almost no actually bad people in there. Even the murderer killed a rapist who had it coming. Surely someone in federal prison deserves to be there, right? Well, in one of the most confusing figures you’ll read today: only 7% of federal prisoners are in for violent crimes, and for female prisoners that proportion is even less. So yeah, minimum security might not be filled with a church choir group, but it’s not going to be freaking Oz either.
Which gets us to the diatribe that the show inevitably leads us towards. How the hell has our prison population multiplied by 20 in the last thirty years, while our population has only increased by 50%? You can quote figures all day, figures that just don’t seem right. We imprison more people in absolute and relative terms than anyplace else on the planet, including places where wearing a skirt or criticizing the government gets you shot. One in thirty adult Americans are either in prison, on parole, or on probation. The Chinese still have concentration camps and yet they criticize our human rights record with a straight face.
There’s a mindboggling sense of waste to it, once you look past the social injustice of it all. One can get into an existential meltdown over what the point of locking up all these people actually has. I’m not agitating for an expansion of prison labor, but there’s something galling about taking so many of your citizens out of freedom and just telling them to sit there for year and painful year. It reminds me of the closing lines of Red Dragon: “We live in a primitive time, don’t we, Will? Neither savage nor wise. Half measures are the curse of it. Any rational society will either kill me or put me to some use.”
“Orange is the New Black” with its gaze at the stuff of bureaucratic nightmares, when your every minute is determined by bored and dull-souled pushers of forms and rules, forces a look at just how irrational of a society we have decided to be.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.