A prison drama defies convention

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “The Rebirth of Viewing Pleasure.”

Prof. Jill Dolan, guest blogger

Yesterday, I caved to the inevitable proliferation of media platforms I seem to be collecting and re-subscribed to Netflix, in large part to watch House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, their new original programming. With the first three episodes of Orange is the New Black consumed in an evening, I wish I could have discussed the show with my students in last semester’s “For Your Viewing Pleasure” class.

Created by Jenji Kohan, the new series covers the same slightly off-beat territory as Kohan’s Weeds, in which an otherwise conventional middle-class heterosexual white woman, by a trick of fate, finds herself consorting with a criminal element.

Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, the dark comedy tracks the mixed fortunes of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a blonde, high-cheek-boned, earnest but naïve young woman whose former lesbian lover, Alex (Laura Prepon), was involved with a drug cartel. When the drug lords are busted, Piper is indicted for her role in money laundering for Alex, even though it’s 10 years after the incident (and the statute of limitations on these crimes is 12 years—typical luck for the often hapless Piper).

Piper leaves her (male, Jewish) fiancé (Jason Biggs) behind to serve her 15 months of jail time, where the series proceeds to play her white middle-class privilege against the more seasoned inmates of color and white women and working class white guards with whom she has to throw in her lot. By an unbelievable but promising coincidence, Alex is also incarcerated in the same prison.

I can’t quite make out yet if the series’ comedy is at the expense of women in prison — here divided into groups, by the characters’ choice, based on race and ethnicity — or if it dignifies them by ridiculing Piper’s presumptions. The white girl is feisty, if clueless; she can’t understand the firmly drawn racial divides and winds up with an African American woman named Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba, who was terrific in Godspell on Broadway) claiming her as her “wife.”

On her first day, Piper publicly calls the prison food disgusting, unwittingly insulting the fierce Russian cook, Red (played by a gruff, Russian-accented Kate Mulgrew as a tyrant with a bad back and, possibly, a heart). For her sins, Piper nearly starves in her first week behind bars.

Three episodes in, the alliances and tensions among the characters and their strife with the prison’s power structure seems at once predictable and surprising, as Kohan and the writers and directors (Jodie Foster directed one of the early episodes) spin old stereotypes in sometimes refreshing ways. Seeing a large cast full of talented women of color and white women is one of the show’s central pleasures. And Kerman, the real Piper, has gone on to work for prison reform; her recent interview in the Washington Post shows she’s thoughtful about the race, gender, and sexuality issues from which the show draws. I look forward to watching the rest to see where the narrative goes.

Share This