There be some spoilers here.
From season two:
He’s a hitman?
Oh, I thought he was a rapist. I am so relieved.
You fuckin’ weird.
While I was ill this month, I finally watched Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. A part of me was all like, “Why the hell did I wait this long?” Another part was like, “This show is awesome.” And another part of me was like, “I see myself in the faces and lives of some of these women.” It’s that last one I mainly want to talk about in this post.
I’ve never committed a crime or been incarcerated against my will, so I’ve never experienced anything like the hardships that many of the women in the series face. What however is easy to identify with are the things that don’t make them perfect, just normal – their family or their interests and aspirations. There’s Daya who wants to be a better mother than her mother, Sister Jane who has protested against the Establishment for much of her life and Red who is a matriarchal figure and a great cook. And I definitely identify with anyone who crochets in Lichfield Penitentiary.
Nobody, from the inmates to the prison staff, are perfect. Our main protagonist, Piper, is slowly dressed down over the course of the first season to show that she is very far removed from the ideal of an upper class, white woman as possible. The less than pleasant aspects of her and the other inmates and staff are regularly demonstrated, and many are actually deplorable human beings. But then so many of the characters on the show are amazing and incredibly misunderstood persons.
And it’s not just their crimes which mark them as not being perfect: the representations of beauty and matters of the heart in this show are far more down to Earth than most other TV dramas or comedies. The imperfections of characters in OItNB bring them closer to life.
Moving against norms
One of the main tactics in fiction is to get audiences on side by having us identify with the protagonists of a piece of fiction. These characters are usually “good” people and not incarcerated after being judged by a system that is seen as the upholder of law and justice. What makes a show like OItNB unusual though is that we’re invited by its writers to like characters who, in real life, would be damned by society, purely because they’re on the wrong side of the fence. Damned, regardless of what it was they really did (accidentally shooting someone, protesting nuclear power plants) and without a thought to what they’re really like as people. And I wouldn’t call the characters anti-heroes either, because they’re not trying to be heroic in any way.
The prison does have its monsters though. People who seem irredeemable in the eyes of the prisoners and society. And so while viewers are invited to identify with characters like Red, we’re given a lot of ammo to make us dislike characters like Vee. This distinction between prisoners, however, has the added advantage of demonstrating life: that no two of these women are the same.
The series is quite therapeutic with the way that it re-humanises a part of the population that, in most countries (especially the United States), is regularly dehumanised and treated purely as a burden on the rest of society. As I suggested earlier, these characters are shown to have normal needs and wants, and are victims in their own way. The ones that have committed more serious transgressions aren’t left as some 2D comic book villain, but are instead fleshed out so that you are given the opportunity to understand the “why”.
Because rarely in the media is a chance given to understand “why”.