Though Kanye has made it clear that this is the summer of leading, not following (or more specifically: being a dick, not a swallower) I can’t help but trail the crowd that’s been dumping enormous praise on new Netflix baby Orange is the New Black. Though I found the first episode to be a little bland, I pressed on in search of that magical-tv-show-moment (not unlike falling in love) where you’re suddenly hooked to the point where it’s potentially unhealthy and detrimental to your real life, but you just don’t care. I found that moment at some point during the second episode and have been suffering from extreme puppy love ever since.
Much has been made of this show, all of it pretty damn positive, and deservingly so. The overbearing opinion is that it is one of the first and only shows to depict prison life through a genuine lens that doesn’t cave to Hollywood clichés or simplistic renditions of reality. Though I’ve never been to prison (and this show reconfirms that I do not want to vacation there), it seems that prisoners themselves have been deeming it an accurate portrayal. I’ll take their word for it. Along with this, I find it’s representation of race relations to be significantly more honest than what we see on the majority of current TV. There seems to be an urge on various shows to tidy up our realities, painting a picture of the world that we (the nice, sane folks of the world, that is) want (one in which all races hold hands and sing kumbaya) rather than the world we actually have. Sure, we may have come a long way on that issue, but not far enough. OITNB does not shy away from that reality, displaying a segregated prison society and women who fall back on stereotypical beliefs in regards to their fellow prisoners. If you need proof that we haven’t come that far, consider this quote by showrunner Jenji Kohan on how she had to sell the show:
You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.
So basically, when the system is fucked, you must find ways to work around it. Considering the fact that Piper is one of the least interesting characters on the show (not due to Taylor Schilling–who’s a rad actress), I’d say bravo—and thank you to Jenji for bringing some diversity into our living rooms [or beds, my Netflix viewing spot o’ choice].
The portrayal of more realistic race relations, however, is actually not what I find to be the show’s most groundbreaking achievement. What hit me a lot harder as being unique, and which has been spoken about much less, is how fantastically they handle a non-heterosexual relationship. I know, I know, there have been shows before OITNB’s time that feature gay characters and relationships—but how many of those reek of stereotypes? Even Modern Family, which everyone except me seems to jerk off to, includes a gay couple cut from a close-minded textbook-definition mold. Sure, some gays tend towards flamboyant or feminine behavior, but, news flash, a big majority do not. There’s nothing wrong with portraying them along those lines [nor is there anything wrong with gays behaving along those lines–do you, people], but we need to acknowledge the diversity of gay and lesbian life. This is where I believe OITNB really succeeds.
I am not into women but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to relate to the feelings and nuances of a relationship between two of them, and in OITNB I finally do. Past shows seem to fall into two categories in this department: depicting lesbian relationships from a fairly perverted male perspective (if I hear one more guy making a threesome joke to a lesbian couple I may jump out my window), or just failing to explore them on the deeper level that we experience with television’s heterosexual couples. Piper and Alex, the show’s central lesbian relationship, have not been surrendered to the clichés—they are not butch, nor are they masculine. They are just two women who love each other, two very pretty, long-hair-don’t-care, feminine women. “Yes, people, not all lesbians fall into that one mold with so-called masculine-leanings,” the show seems to be saying. Not only are the characters less stereotypical on the outside, but we actually get to explore them and their relationship beneath the surface, a rarity in homosexual relationships seen on TV. They are given much more air time than Piper and Larry (whose connection is much weaker in contrast), and a centrality and import to the story that is not just a vague spot on the periphery.
TV struggles with diversity on numerous levels—but this particular inadequacy is not spoken of nearly as often as others. Putting a gay character on a show is not enough. I want to see gay characters who are treated with the same respect, allowed the same depth, as those who are heterosexual. This means acknowledging that all homosexuals are not alike, not even close. They can’t all be forced into one neat little “ideal” laid out by society. They have real feelings that need to be picked apart and explored on the same level as anyone else’s. Piper and Alex will scare homophobes because they are portrayed as, well, not that different from any other couple. They are not painted as “the other” but treated as an average couple, one with unspoken fears, uncertainties, and complications. Bravo to OITNB for this achievement, it’s way past it’s due, and frankly, shouldn’t even be worthy of congratulation. And I hope it opens some eyes, rather than just putting fear in sad little conservative hearts the world over.