Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Orange Is the New Rainbow

I can’t stop thinking about “Orange Is the New Black,” because – duh – it’s awesome. Plus, dude, Laura Prepon. But it’s also because the show is so different from anything on our TV radar right now. And one of those ways is in its brilliant, brilliant diversity.

Some shows feature mostly white casts with one or two tokens thrown in for appearances. Others feature diverse casts, but that diversity is never addressed other than as a pleasant, unspoken rainbow coalition. But “Orange Is the New Black” takes the forced integration of a former NPR-listening, artisanal soap making, Seven Sisters-educated white woman and makes it its guiding principal.

Still this is also so much more than just a fish-out-of-water story. Upper-class white woman who goes to prison faces horrors and hilarity interacting with the diverse prison population. Sure, we see some of that – especially at first. But then Orange peals back the top layer – the stereotypes and the clichés and assumptions – to show us the soft, fragile center of almost everyone underneath. And that, in and of itself, is extraordinary.

Minority characters – and female characters – are far too often a means to an end in storytelling. The sassy best friend. The street-smart co-worker. The hot lust object. They’re not fully realized people, and were never meant to be. “Orange Is the New Black” could have done that with its diverse cast. Miss Claudette is the sage. Taystee is the comic relief. Diaz is the cautionary tale. And while they have those elements to their characters, they’re much more complex than that. It’s that essential humanity that is so often lacking. People of color become a concept, not an actual person. But not here. Here they’re all real and interesting, flawed and so very human.

The key is that these women are the heroes (and villains) of their own stories. They are not just amusing anecdotes meant to add color to the main character’s life. We know this because most of the time Piper isn’t even aware of their histories – how they got there, what’s happening now. Their backstories are just theirs and ours to know and understand. So these women have their own agency, their own agendas, their own struggles, their own triumphs, their own failures. This matters.

I’m so glad we know more about these women. And I want to learn more; I want to learn everything. Think of the character arc of someone like Crazy Eyes, played by the delightful Uzo Aduba. She begins as a joke, a quick scary-lesbians-in-prison punchline complete with unwanted dispersing of bodily fluids. But then, as we get to know her, she develops organically into a Shakespeare-spouting thespian with an unexpected family. So when Piper’s initial descriptions of her as retold by Larry (ugh, Larry) hurts her it hurts us, too. Not just because of the inherent cruelty in her thoughtless words, but because of the ignorance those first impressions convey. We are all more than our first impression, our stereotypes, our preconceived notions of what we should be. We all deserve to be seen as such.

Or take Sophia, glorious Sophia. As played by real-life transgender actress Laverne Cox, she is a powerful reminder that stories, at their best, change how we view the world. You can’t watch Sophia’s story and say you don’t have a better (not complete, by any means, but better) understanding of trans people’s lives and challenges. It’s a performance, among many on the show, Emmy voters would be wise to take note of next summer. Also, I’d love for Sophia to have a relationship next season, preferably with another woman. I mean if we’re asking for favors from the TV gods, why not be thorough?

I’ve found myself thinking about “Orange Is the New Black” long after finishing the series because the series gave me so much to think about. White privilege, racial separatism, cultural elitism. All these issues get thrown into a place they can’t run from each others because literal bars are holding them back. But in the end we don’t feel imprisoned by their experiences, we feel released. Life is so much richer when we’re given stories that treat everyone’s lives as different, important and real.

p.s. Also, fucking hell, are these ladies funny.


FL SHANNON said...

Dorothy - I tweeted this post to Laverne and Uzo and got the following response back from Laverne ‏


@nerdutopia @UzoAduba thanks so much for the awesome blog about our show. I am in love with @samirawiley and @thedanieb in that scene u chose


I love this show-glad you're as caught up in it as I am. Such a great show and show a great cast of characters, played by an equally brilliant and talented bunch of actresses.

egghead said...

. .. .a sweep to the side?

LOL "McKenzie"

egghead said...

Uzo Aduba kills me!!




such a poet

gika17 said...

I would love to watch this show but am not a nexflix subscriber. Is there any other way to see it??

Carmen SanDiego said...

I love OITNB, cannot wait for next seasom
This show was an amazing treat to my one month free trial of Netflix
PS: thank you for the lovely postcard that arrived in the mail yesterday, Ms Snarker. Hope you're enjoying your new laptop and debt-freedom

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the lasting effect of OITNB. I cannot stop thinking about it since watching it the first time. I watched some episodes a second time and caught more details and insights I missed the first time. Like you said, the characters are full of life. There are so much humanity in this show.
PS The one bad side effect of OITNB is that I cannot stand most shows on TV any more.

Anonymous said...

Not a fan of the acting, (baaad-)and of this show, the actresses ITW are weird (brain?) imho ,so sorry,i can't,Netflix's
praise for the pathetic emmy drama,forgot the name with Spacey ,Maslany not my problem ,but the American's snubs ,best dramaby far, and your love of Prepon killing me,seriously , should i unfollow Dorothy?Skins is great

Ashley said...

I cannot stop thinking about this show. My lesbian processing superpower isn't strong enough to process all the feelings. I continuously find myself thinking over the characters and their stories and constantly want more.

Also, while I absolutely agree with everything about Laura Prepon in this show, Natasha Lyonne owns me. That is all.

Anonymous said...

I want to start a new comment game, it's called "spot the crazy", look through the comments and see if you can spot a crazy!

I love this show, and Ms. Snarker I love you for thinking it over in depth and writing another beautiful post for us:)

Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more, I loved this show SO much, it was amazing. I desperately tried to save the last couple of episodes but failed and just had to watch it all.
Can't wait for season 2, here's hoping it's longer than a mere 13 episodes

Anonymous said...


tlsintx said...

Larry, ugh. Yes.
I am def Team Vause/Chapman
I've watched it over and over...

Kath (@GMMRtv) said...

I just watched the entire first season his past weekend and I echo your praise. The tonality shift from the first two eps to those later in the season is somewhat dramatic, but I believe well intentioned. Early on we see Piper and her best friend joking about prison life. We know that some of the banter was fear masking as jest, but the full weight of prison life was just an abstract. Later in the season the reality of Piper's life and those around her is more realized and thus darker. What started as one show for me became another, in the best possible way.

I too love that the viewers are privy to the back stories of the inmates in a way that Piper and others are not. To your point, it's those intimate moments that help us look beyond the facades that these women present to each other and have a better understanding of how they came to be.

As much as her character made me cringe, I must applaud the work of Taryn Manning. I actually paused in the middle of an ep to look up whether or not Taryn has suffered from drug addiction in her own life. Her portrayal is so authentic, even in the smallest of nuances that I thought for sure she was off my radar for a bit due to addiction. I was wrong. She's just that good.

So glad to find others enjoying OITNB as much as I have.

Linda Keller said...

I wish you were writing the recaps Ms. Snarker- the others that are trying just aren't anywhere near up to your snuff. I think I'll find many others in agreement that would love to have your recaps even if it was at a leisurely pace. Who should I be petitioning to pay you for fine recaps of OITNB?

Linda Keller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great review - yes it takes a white yuppie story to get this made but Jenji is taking the story and expanding it. I don't think it's the truth about prison but I do think it's showing us some great acting by lots of women of color and that is a gift the TV don't give much.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of the show and a longtime reader of yours. I actually met Laverne Cox last week (friend of a friend) and she is unbelievably intelligent, witty, funny and downright gorgeous. That woman you would ALL want to have as a guest at your place for a dinner party. Guarantee you'd be laughing your pretty asses off. Looking forward to Season 2 (although its only just started filming). And Taryn Manning, yes! Her performance is spectacular.

Anonymous said...

I just got Netflix Canada and i am enthralled with the show. The characters are so strong and with great personalities that they come off the film and almost right in the same room as you! I feel for all of them and usually that means it is a great show! I am anxious to see how the next series of episodes come out...the strongest characters are for me; are, Alex, Poussey, Taystee, Suzanne ( she is fantastic) and Pornstache. Sophia is very touching...you can feel the pain. What is amazing is how the actors look in real life!

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Anonymous said...

I love this show and everything, and I agree there is some good representation, but I still see no sign of any Middle Easterns or Arabs. If there were, then I would really consider this show one that is "doing women of colour right."