Remember when serving prison time was new, sexy, edgy, and trendy?…Humph neither do I. But the recent Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which is on the lips and blogs of wannabe pop culture hipsters, suggests we begin looking at federal American prison life in such ways. At the suggestion of a really credible friend, I took in the thirteen episode series based on the prison sentence of Smith College graduate, Piper Kerman. And if we are being honest, I’m over it.
Why so frank? ONB manages to reflect almost everything that is oppressive about privileged white America. And ain’t nobody got time for that. Of course I must clarify that the somebodies in the previous statement are those who both live and fight against the trauma of oppression daily. As we know, oblivious white women and the “I don’t give a liberal damn, pull up your bootstraps” white men find the series charmingly hilarious or “smart, salty, outrageous.”
Much of the praise around the series stems from the range of humanity and attention to detail that is presented about the lives of the “other” inmates—as if Piper is an undercover reporter. Not a felon, as those who in federal prison by definition are, but a narrator who unveils for audiences the complexity of the women who are entangled in the system. Of course, to have simply focused on the poor decision-making, yuppie out of water, blindsided by the dirty underbelly of society would have made me poke my eyes out without question. So, I agree that if there is any initial redemption in the series, it is from the lives of the fellow inmates layered throughout. However, as naïve as the central protagonist is, so too are the wide-eyed, fresh-faced celebratory critics who glorify the show from a space of ignorant surprise.
Given that the number of women imprisoned has grown 832% in the last three decades (double the rate of men) and that by population ratio, black women represent 2.5 times more than white women with Latinas 1.4 times more, minoritized communities across America are not surprised by “the harsh yet complex array of female characters behind bars.” Additionally, as one can glean from the series, if studies on the prison industrial complex are not your nightly reading, poverty and drug addiction greatly impacts the kind of white women who typically experience prison time. Thus, for communities minoritized by dominant American culture, the range of humanity displayed by Kerman and Kohan’s “characters” does not surprise us, because they are not “characters” in our lives. They are our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and friends. And we know that they laugh, cry, cope, strategize their survival, succumb to the systemic pressures, continue to parent and much more regardless of the bars that bind them physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
Consequently, Orange is NOT the NEW Black. It is our black, our brown, our impoverished, our drug addicted; and neither Netflix, Kerman, or Kohan would have a viable show without us.
Thus, when I watch ONB I wonder at what point does a black husband who commits credit fraud to pay for his sex change operation get to profit from her own story? I wonder when does a white impoverished, meth-addicted, “come to Jesus”, circumstantial anti-abortion heroine (in spite of her five previous abortions) get the ability to reclaim her life in the public square?
I wonder why can’t privileged white America get its exploiting head out of the arse of The Help and similar narrative vortexes?
Furthering the ire of my contention with this show is the refrain of American privilege that characterizes white, wealthy, educated women as different. In almost every episode viewers and the central character, Piper Chapman, are reminded that despite her legal disposition as a felon, she is not a “criminal” like the “othered” women incarcerated. The corrections officers articulate and play into her privileged difference, telling her that she just made some bad choices, but she remains more like the C.Os and not the other inmates, even utilizing her “liberal, NPR network” to cover up funding misappropriation schemes and secure a request to marry for herself. During her mother’s visitation, Chapman is reminded that she’s no criminal but a debutant for Christ’s sake! But we are to sympathize with her because she wants to be seen as a regular inmate—that is until she is locked in solitary confinement and she realizes how life threatening not having and utilizing her privilege might actually be. Cue the world’s smallest violin.
And what becomes of the real Piper after serving time? She goes on to reclaim her life—literally capitalizing even more so on the privileges of normative whiteness. Let’s be real. Book deals and wealth generating Internet series are offered for Piper Kerman’s story because of her upper-middle class, WASP angle. And though this may be a “spoiler”: she goes on to live heterosexually happily ever after with Larry (remember it’s the vindictive, lying, reckless lesbian lover who named her to get her locked up in the first place). Lastly, the face of women’s prison advocacy become those who look, think, and are connected like Piper, not Tastee—the African American woman bound for recidivism because she has no real lifelines of support upon release and ideologically feels more comfortable following the rules of prison than navigating the terrains of life beyond bars.
White privilege allows Piper Kerman to profit financially, socially (being able to ease back into normality), and politically as the white savior complex becomes her endless invited speaking engagement pseudo expertise offering life.
A lot of conversation focuses right now on the “perception” of biases regarding the United States’ criminal injustice system. However, minoritized people in the United States do not perceive or simply believe that the criminal justice system is unjust, biased in favor of those of privilege; we habitually live the disparities.
The only real celebratory feat of ONB will be to critically redress in national discourse and policy this matter of unpacking the Birkin bags of privilege afforded to the myriad of Piper Chapmans who as criminals often don’t get profiled and thereby prosecuted, or as inmates have their time in prison protected and valued, and as reentries are disproportionately restored to full citizenship and greater success than prior incarceration. Otherwise let’s move on to something that’s actually relevant.