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Piper Chapman: Dislike-able Protagonist AND Future Heroine?

Netflix's Orange is The New Black has an annoying, naive protagonist, but, with help, she might have the potential to become the show's heroine.

by
Becky Graebner

Bio

August 7, 2013 - 6:00 pm
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Not all main characters in books, TV shows, or plays are likable. Frank Underwood in House of Cards is a rotten scoundrel. Henry VIII in The Tudors vacillates between warm and ice cold. Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma is whiny and stuck up, Yossarian in Catch-22 is self-centered, and Katherine in Wuthering Heights is selfish and picks money over her true heart — leading to the misery that is unleashed on her family by the jilted Heathcliff.

There’s nothing wrong with crafting a main character that isn’t meant to be beloved. Humans are flawed so it makes sense that fictional, human characters are not perfect either. Sometimes, having an unlikeable main character is what gives the story a touch of realism — not everything is rainbows and ponies.

I think Piper falls into this group of half-loved, semi-misunderstood protagonists.

When I’m watching Orange is The New Black I want to like Piper but I find her naivety to be frustrating and annoying. In fact, I think she and Emma Woodhouse would get along famously. Amelia Bedelia could also be a friend as well as Sally in the painful scene when she orders pie with ice cream (on the side!) in When Harry Met Sally.  I feel like that’s what Piper would do in a restaurant.  Annoying.

However, despite her shortcomings that annoy me to no end, it is important that Piper’s character straddle the two worlds of “like” and “dislike.”  Making Piper a dislike-able protagonist is what gives Orange some spice and sets the stage for a possible transformation in Piper’s conduct and world-view. Who knows, the time in the big house could transform her into a grown up woman…

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If Piper was 100% likeable, the show would be too perfect: an innocent white girl in prison, surrounded by gritty criminals.  Boring.  The show would probably fall victim to many of the TV sitcom stereotypes and would be predictable. Piper-The-Perfect-Princess would win over all the inmates in proper, Disney Princess fashion and rehabilitate them into perfect people, like her.  There, I called it.  (I wrote last week on the specific ones I hope the show avoids in its writing).

The portrayal of Piper as dislike-able makes the show feel a little more realistic and less campy.

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So, why do we dislike Piper?

To start, her name is “Piper Chapman.”

She sounds like a descendent of one of the original Mayflower passengers — which illustrates how white and WASPy she is.  We are introduced to Piper as a privileged white woman, probably raised with wealth, educated at Smith, and living in an up-scale New York bubble. She shops at Whole Foods and is (attempting) to make her money selling soap. Scented Soap that smells like pie. How much more “Yuppie” can you get?  I fully expected her to have a fluffy white dog named Chaucer or Mercutio.

To be frank, she reeks of “lame.”

After entering prison, Piper continuously shows how inept she is at self-control: keeping her mouth shut and not making herself look like a know-it-all.  When she interacts with other inmates, she resembles Baby in Dirty Dancing—she always wants to fix things: people, relationships, etc.—and needs to realize the world isn’t always a happy, Kate Spade clutch.

She’s also a total ditz. You walked out with a screwdriver?

For me, I think it’s the pure lack of street-smarts that makes Piper so hard to genuinely like.  I keep thinking, no wonder you’re in prison for carrying a bag of money—you’re kind of an idiot!  She’s just so clueless it’s almost exhausting.

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However, despite her idiot actions, Piper sometimes has hilarious, redeeming moments. Some even indicate that Piper could become a strong, heroic character — that would be a far cry from her vanilla upbringing! Again, she shouldn’t become a perfect character (that would be boring), but a character that undergoes some sort of transformation would be interesting to the plot. By the end, we might even respect her. (I personally hope that she gets to the point where she socks Mustache Guard in the face.)

Some examples that illustrate Piper is starting to “grow a pair:”

Piper stood up to Miss Claudette in the famous “cut me some slack” speech that illustrated she had some real balls and wasn’t just a sheltered push-over.  Miss Claudette was even impressed —  and that’s hard to do.

Even the simple question of “Can we get masks?!” when asked to clean out the caved in chapel showed that Piper had some guts to talk back to the guards.  This retort showed that she was starting to understand that in prison she isn’t special and the staff doesn’t care about her.  Her attitude of skepticism and distrust of the guards might illustrate some absorbed street smarts. (At least, we can hope…)

Another example was when Piper delivered a rousing speech to Red about beating out the other girls to capture the chicken.  Piper was purposely throwing Red’s defeat in her face in order to inspire her. Ballsy, Pipes.

Piper was able to sway Red—the epitome of “Queen Bee” in Litchfield. True, it backfired, but it was still inspirational. I liked that Piper: opinionated, real…

As the show goes on, it will be interesting to see  how Piper continues to change…maybe we’ll even come to respect her.

Becky Graebner moved to the east coast from Wisconsin in 2011. She is still a rabid Badger and Packer fan, although she does support the Caps in hockey. She enjoys Formula 1 and Indycar. She likes the eastern seaboard but does miss track days with friends and family at Elkhart Lake and the Milwaukee Mile. Her favorite drivers are Kenny Brack and Robby Gordon.

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