Check out the previous installments of Becky Graebner’s ongoing series exploring Netflix’s Orange is the New Black:
August 21: Prisons Run on Hope (And Cup O’Noodles)
August 28: Love Wars: When the Loser Strikes Back
Many of my friends, as well as you readers, are well aware of my hot and cold relationship with this series. Whenever I try and explain my take on Orange, my description usually goes something like this: “The show can be funny, it has great one-liners, but there is something about it that I find almost disturbing—it holds me back from saying that I definitively “like it.”’
Several friends decided to watch the show after I mentioned my conflicted feelings and, sometimes, difficulties I had formulating pieces for this series. Many came back saying they thought the show was funny—what was my deal?
I decided I wanted to flesh out my negative reaction to this show—why does it make me so uneasy? What has caused many of you, Dear Readers, to write comments saying you also dislike the show? Today I highlight three reasons that might explain why some of us find Orange is the New Black more disturbing than funny.
3. Privilege Doesn’t Make You Immune to Prison
The back-stories of the Litchfield inmates, which feature tales of abuse, poverty, broken families, and crime, are far removed from my experiences growing up—and probably from how many of you, readers, grew up.
However, most of us are realistic about the world—it isn’t rainbows, unicorns, and fuzzy kittens. Unfortunately, we must be admit that the “fictional backgrounds” in Orange are actually real life for some people. All of us have seen someone begging on the street or sleeping in a corner. Most of us walk faster because it is too hard to ponder their lives or their pasts for more than a minute.
In a way, a lot of the people in our society are “Pipers”—not struggling to eat, clothe themselves, or find a warm place to live. A TV show that purposefully dumps a representative of the “upper and middle class” into a setting like prison (which causes our imaginations to run wild with fright), is unnerving.
Another unnerving fact; there is a real Piper and she actually went to prison.
The privileged classes are removed from places like prison—the thought of it and its inner-workings freaks them out.
2. Prisoners Are People Too
I’m not in denial that people go to prison and that prison is a horrible place. However, I think a lot of us on the outside forget that not all prisoners are in high-security institutions. The setting of Litchfield, a low-security prison, is an overlooked norm. Many of the crimes that are committed in this country we never hear about; a) they aren’t explosive enough to make the news and b) the majority of criminals aren’t serial killers, kidnappers, or perpetrators of crimes that require high-security prison sentences. Therefore, these low-security prisons are bustling fortresses.
In Orange, the characters are in for fairly minor offenses; Jannae and Tricia for theft and Piper for carrying dirty cash. The petty crimes you read about in your hometown paper, those home-town rebels, they go to places like Litchfield. Your neighbor’s kid who robbed the corner store, your friend who fell off the wagon and got into drugs, the person who pulled a gun for the wrong reason? Litchfield 2.0, baby. We all probably know someone who knows someone who has ended up on a place like Litchfield. Some people make the wrong decisions and end up breaking a low-level law on the crime ladder. Therefore, getting into a place like Litchfield isn’t such a far-fetched idea. Again, Piper, the symbol of the upper echelons of society, ended up there. Then, it dawns on the audience, “I could too…”
Perhaps we, as the audience, are in denial about places like Litchfield and how easily we can fall off the wagon and end up in a similar, cinder-block hole. Perhaps our similarities to the population of Litchfield scares us…we thought “criminals” were all axe murders. I think we fear how realistic this show could be and how similar the characters might be to real people–to us.
3. Prison Ain’t No Joke
Fact: our society is far from perfect. The requirement of having prisons to fill is only one indicator of greater problems plaguing society–issues that can be the roots for crime: desperate poverty, deteriorating morals, rising unemployment, mental health taboos, and/or easy access to drugs.
Not only are the antecedents to crime a sad societal indicator, but so are the events that happen behind prison walls. Inmates could be raped, murdered with their bedsheets, shanked, or go insane. Some guards are corrupt and target inmates and tough inmate gangs carry out murders inside the cinder-block walls. Essentially, criminals are removed from their underworld wars and are transplanted into prison battlefields. In short, I don’t find the topic of prison very funny; it’s dark and nothing happy or funny grows there.
Although Orange has some funny one-liners, I find myself feeling awkward when I laugh. Should I be laughing at the characters when I am guaranteed to be horrified by their trials minutes later? Mendez feels Piper up, receives sexual favors from Tricia for drugs and to pay off “debt,” and threatens many inmates with violence. It might not be what happens in real-life, low-level Litchfields, but I’m sure that some of the real stuff is much worse. Actress Taryn Manning, plays Pennsatucky, an insane inmate trying to kill Piper. In San Quentin, they aren’t acting.
They aren’t making jokes in prison, they aren’t laughing. They’re trying to survive.
Orange is a dark (and true) story, repackaged for the weak-stomached masses. It is a candy-coated mirror, held up to society’s face. Look at our prisons. Look at the people in them. And, most importantly, look at how these criminals make the jump from a Litchfield to a Sing Sing. If audience members can’t grasp these issues underneath a some funny pieces of dialogue, then maybe we really are doomed…