Arts and Culture

'Orange Is the New Black'

Race, class, power, and caged heat. This show's got everything but the prison sink.

By Dorothy Woodend 27 Jul 2013 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and television every other week for The Tyee.

"Bitches gots to learn."

I filed this little gem away for future use, and kept watching the new Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. The damn show is as addictive as the bad drugs smuggled into Litchfield Correctional Institute, but it's also nothing new. 

Women in prison works. All 692 episodes of the seventies classic Cell Block H will attest to this fact. When I was in Grade 7, we would rush home from school every afternoon to watch episodes of the long-running show about life in an Australian women's prison. Cell Block H inspired legendary devotion.

Whether Orange Is the New Black will create a similar frenzy remains to be seen, but the show is a hot topic in even the most casual of conversations. Bitches be buzzing, it seems. I'm a little late to the party, and I blame Emily Nussbaum for getting me there at all. The New Yorker's television critic gave the show a hosanna or two, and on the basis of her review, I took a look and then another, and another, and now I am hooked on that shit.

Based on a memoir from a woman named Piper Kerman, who spent more than a year in prison for the crime of being a drug mule, Orange uses Kerman's story as a launching pad for an inventive and often downright surprising spin though race, class, sex and power. Almost everything but the prison sink is in there. But just when you expect all of the elements to add up to one thing, the narrative often swerves wildly in an unexpected direction.

Example: one episode centred on a screwdriver gone MIA from the prison electrical shop. One waits for the inevitable shanking that must surely follow such a set up. But the joke be on those conventional-minded bitches. The missing tool lives up to its name in a whole new way. No one dies, and a form of a happy ending ensues. In this way, the series plays with expectations, forcing you to reassess each character that you meet. Initially, it's hard to know exactly who to trust, but the show is smart enough to make the most venal and self-serving of folks a genuine (albeit flawed) human being. Even the guard the women dub Pornstache reveals that despite his level of supreme dinkdom, he is not without the occasional emotion.

The women of Litchfield

Here is where Orange earns its street cred. The cast of characters is large, but everyone is given time and place to demonstrate who they are, what they are about, and how they ended up in prison. Some stories are more plausible than others. Ms. Claudette, a fearsome woman whose reputation is based on the fact that no one has ever seen her go poo, kills a child molester. Burset, a transgendered woman who paid for a sex-change operation with stolen credit cards, is turned in by her young son.

You can see the actresses involved in the show tear into their parts with relish. The cast is as terrific as the parts they play. From a wild-haired Natasha Lyonne, who has spent a spot of time in real life incarceration, to the regal Kate Mulgrew as Red, a Russian cook, modelled on the legendary Queen Bea from Cell Block H. The transgendered character is played by a real transgendered actress (Lavern Cox). Orange was by created by Jenji Kohan, whose previous series Weeds delved into a nice white lady doing not so nice things. Here the illegalities are expedited to encompass all manner of lawbreaking. It is oddly liberating. 

Orange couldn't have come along at a better moment. As the summer winds down, and the theatres remain clogged with big smelly pieces of poo like World War Z, or Grown Ups 2, it often feels like there is little to watch. In a season of superhero movies, and boy's own adventures, Orange feels like a bit of a respite. Sure, you have to go to prison to get some interesting female characters, but so be it.

Even as the storm continues to brew around the dearth of women in cinema (the most recent example being that of all the gala films in the Toronto International Film Festival this year, not a single one was directed by a female filmmaker), the small screen is host to all kinds of women creators. Lena Dunham's Girls may have garnered the lion's share of attention, but other heavy hitters of cinema have also made the move to television. Jane Campion's Top of the Lake, starring the redoubtable Elisabeth Moss, is great stuff.

Caged heat

Meanwhile, in the real world, bizarre things continues to unfold. Whether it's the culture wars erupting in the U.S. over abortion rights, or the nasty business of state-sanctioned homophobia in Russia, the world is so crazy at the moment that prison almost seems like a safer place to be. Like any microcosm of society, the institution of jail has its strange comforts. Little things get big. A Twix bar, a pair of flip-flops, a can of Pepsi can make the world seem right again. 

In this largely female society, the women of Litchfield are given free rein to be blunt about body issues, power, and most explicitly, sex. Caged Heat has got nothing on these women, who use the prison chapel as a regular trysting place. As Red laments about all of the phallic objects that go missing from her kitchen, anything vaguely penis-shaped (zucchini et al.) is fair game. Guards have sex with prisoners, prisoners have sex with each other, even lowly electric toothbrushes are getting some action. Rarely have I seen a series with this much vagina on display, and not the prettied up porn version either. These are great hairy beasts.

Whether it's a source of succour in a harsh world, a distraction to numb the pain, or a form of personal revolution, sex is currency. It is a commodity to be traded, a form of barter, and most critically a threat. The issue of rape comes up throughout the series. When Piper first arrives at Litchfield she attracts the attention of Crazy Eyes, a butch lesbian who wants her for a prison wife. But even the most predatory of women are revealed to be lonely, fragile people. Crazy Eyes, whose real name is Suzanne, is not the scary monster she first appears. When her elderly adoptive parents show up and chide her gently about her hair, all sense of menace is upended. 

Truth's a bitch

Crazy Eyes is only one example of the distinctly drawn and detailed characters who make up the population of Litchfield. The place is positively chock-a-block with them, more than 20 at last count, all colours of the rainbow and drawn from every ethnicity and cultural community. Into this great melting pot the film's heroine initially appears like a prissy little wasp, with a degree from Smith, a business selling artisanal soaps to Barney's New York, and a nice Jewish fiancé. All is well in Piper's world until her past catches up with her and the feds come calling.

In her experimental phase, Piper was the girlfriend of a drug importer named Alex Vause (played by Laura Prepon). When Alex goes down for her crimes, she names Piper, and off to the big house we go. But even Piper is not the woman she first appears to be. As the story progresses, her manipulative ways reveal themselves in bits and pieces, sloughed off to show what lies beneath.

She is not alone in this process. The series takes time and pains to reveal the back story of each of the women in Litchfield. It's the usual panoply of poverty, race, and systemic injustice. Prison isn't that different than the outside world, but there is a level of honesty here that is refreshing. When Piper with all her tighty-whitey ways shows up, she is given a lesson in how prison society works. As a prisoner named Morello explains, "We look out for our own... Oh, don't get all P.C. on me. It's tribal, not racist." The women elect representatives from each of their respective tribes: black, Hispanic, elderly and white. While the divisions between the prisoners are based on culture, race and age, what erases all boundaries is power. He who holds the keys makes the rules. 

As the struggle between the male gaolers and the female prisoners becomes more explicit, the real battle lines are drawn. When Piper first makes her way into the system, her counsellor Healy take her under her paternalistic wing and cautions her to avoid the lesbians who prowl the corridors looking for unwary women. Initially, Piper treats Healy like a slightly doddering elderly uncle, but when she disappoints him and is sent to solitary confinement (or "SHU") on the Thanksgiving holiday, shit gets real.

While the power dynamics between men and women are often raw and savage, the relationships between the women themselves are also no picnic. The jungle law of prison world is a complex web of favours offered and given; do this for me and I'll do that for you. Betrayal is a given. No one is innocent. Prison brings one face-to-face with the worst and most atavistic of human impulses. Weakness, selfishness, lust, rage -- it's all there. Whatever their sin, the women in Litchfield are forced to face up to their past. As Piper learns, in prison the truth makes everyone her bitch.   [Tyee]

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