The Feminist Media Reader #10 - Orange Is The New Black

by - Friday, January 09, 2015

A short Feminist Media Reader today (getting into the swing of my new job, about which I promise I will put a proper post up next week), but an important one nonetheless. Over Christmas, the boy and I finally caught up with the rest of the world, and in three short weeks, have binge-watched almost the entirety of season 1 and 2 of Netflix show, Orange Is The New Black. Yeah I know, totally behind times, but I have fallen as deeply in love with it as everybody assured me I would.

For those who aren't so familiar with the show, the synopsis is fairly straightforward. Based on a true story, A 32-year old women of white privilege named Piper Chapman serves 15 months in an upstate New York women’s prison for drug-related crimes, and has to come to terms with life among those who normal society would have deemed beneath her, watching as she is forced to deal with old flames, new threats and a life without proper shampoo and conditioner. Dealing with issues of homosexuality, transgender patients and racial tension, it covers many of societies ills with a quick wry wit that always has the watcher in on the joke.

As a show about a women's prison where male characters exist only in supporting roles, OITNB has obviously drawn some attention as a feminist show. On the most part, I have to say I wholeheartedly agree - while it does succumb to racial stereotypes in relation to its characters, it at least perpetuates these stereotypes across all races - no individual group is left looking any more superior than the other, which in an odd sort of way cancels out any potential for offence. It's treatment of forbidden homosexuality, Transgender issues and the general relationship between women under such pressurised conditions has brought tears to my eyes in way other shows can't simply because it's so real - imperfect nudity, bad language and ugly crying included. Unlike my other favourite show of a similar ilk Girls - which I can't wait to return - none of the shocking moments feel gratuitous, rather a way of showing just how tough women can be when brought up in harsh conditions. 

I care about each and every one of them, because I see parts of each character in people I know - Miss Claudette's fierce protection of her 'family' reminds me of my Nana in some ways but definitely not in others (I won't spoil for you). Taystee is the big sister I've always wished I had, while 'Crazy Eyes/ Suzanne's attempt  pursuit of dream love is something I think we can all relate to. In fact, by three episodes in, the character I cared least about was Piper, the supposed protagonist. I have a feeling the show was designed this way - by cleverly covering all ethnicities and walks of life, there is a character for almost every viewer to champion. Even within the limited selection of men, there are heroes and villains to champion and shout down - but again, I won't spoil it for anyone. 

Does Orange Is The New Black glamorise prison life? I would say yes - the nature of a prison-based comedic drama is that certain unlikely set ups do have to conspire to drive the plot forward. Are any of these women genuine role models? Certainly not for their law-breaking ways, but at moments, they definitely exhibit inspirational traits of loyalty, bravery and cunning that could teach us girls a lesson or two. Just don't do drugs kids...

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