Orange is the New Black, a Netflix series (originated in 2013), starts by introducing its audience to the ‘white privileged’ protagonist, Piper Chapman. Piper was sent to an all girls prison for 15 years for transporting drug money to her ‘at-the-time’ drug trafficking girlfriend, Alex Vause. Throughout this series, Piper, also known as ‘College’ learns the ins and outs of prison from the diverse group of women that she is inevitably day-in and day-out surrounded by. Progressively throughout each episode we see that Piper stands out like a sore thumb amongst the others. As much as she tries laying low, her outspoken comments and attitudes come off as the rich, high maintenance, educated white girl that you don’t typically see in prison, ever. This automatically puts a bright red target on Piper’s back from the beginning. In almost every episode, if not all, the audience is exposed to OITNB’s wide range of culturally diverse characters who come from distinctive cultural backgrounds and express strong opinions. Jenji Kohan, the creator of the series, implements racial stereotypes that are both reinforced from historical assumptions, simultaneously rejected through a new light.
Within the first episode, “Pilot”, both the audience and Piper are introduced to the racial tension between the inmates. After thanking her (white) inmate, Lorna, for the toothbrush, we see a little bit of a shocking look in Piper’s face when she blatantly replies, “we take care of our own here.” Lorna is quick to justify in front of the others that “it’s not racists—its tribal.” The silent response from the other inmates suggests that Lorna statement clearly rang true, which reinforces the powerful, yet obvious division between the whites, blacks, Latina, and Asian women. Later in this episode, “we take care of our own” ironically serves as a contradicting statement when Red, the (white) cook, deliberately starves Piper for unintentionally insulting her food, and torments Piper by serving her a bloody McTampon and mold on her food.
Besides the shocking and almost denying factor that the protagonist is a young, skinny, good looking, privilege white girl in a “women in prison” series, initially Piper tries to stay out of everyone way and not be around the chaotic drama, but somehow the majority of the drama is revolved around her. It may be because she stands out with her staring wide-eyes, and tense posture and we clearly can tell Piper goes into a culture shock (I mean its prison, who wouldn’t). It doesn’t help that she is oblivious to the cultural literacy because both the inmates and the all white, masculine staff takes advantage and uses Piper as a target. We see this multiple times throughout the series, although particularly in season 1, episode 6, “WAC Pack.” In this episode, multiple inmates flock through Mr. Healey’s office complaining about a number of issues they are personally having and request for change. Mr. Healey announces that they are going to have a Woman’s Advisory Counsel in hopes to alleviate “their problems” but more ‘importantly’ so, his. The inmates are limited to voting one person to represent each race (which is obviously set up for failure, assuming as if you are the same race, you deal with the same problems, right?) The inmates campaign against each other along racial lines trying to get votes from people within their groups. During the crusade, stereotypes are mainly reinforced by particular characters and groups in which highlights the racial division and between “us” and “them.” For example, we are blatantly confronted with stereotypes when we particularly look at Taystee’s character. At the end of her spiel, she mentions the promises of “fried chicken up in here” to persuade her vote to the WOC. She also ridicules Sophia for actually engaging in real “white people’s” political issues, such as health care, “as if anything is going to change around here”. Taystee and Poussey go on and mock two stereotypical white women’s politics talking about healthcare, yoga, sushi, aka “white girl problems.”
Ironically what the inmates don’t know is that this council really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t hold any power or authority; it just makes them think so. When the names are announced from each group, Pipers name is called to represent the whites, although she didn’t even run. The inmates are taken back, and assume that Piper is kissing Mr. Healy’s ass because “he is like her” (reinforcing “we take care of our own”) or perhaps “he likes her” and wants to give her the accessibility. This episode raises the question if this portrays our real criminal system as a flawed concept based on race and favoritism.
We see many more slight mentions about the stereotypes and racial encounters embedded in the series. For example, Red and Piper’s conversation when on the hunt for the chicken. Red accuses, and madly confronts Piper for telling all the “blackies” about the “seen chicken.” When Piper questions why it mattered, “because black people like fried chicken?” Red sarcastically replies, “No…..its because they like heroine…” Another example of a racial reference is when Taystee is released from prison, but a couple episodes later, returns back because she has no other place to go. She admits to her best friend that prison is the only space that has been made for her in this world. There are racial stereotypes about the Latino women as well. Diaz and her ‘hucci-mama’ both strive for the attention and fight for the love of the white prison guard-- which eventually ends up that Diaz gets pregnant by him. The show reinforces the stereotype about Latinas having a babies at a young age (her mom did too), always being pregnant (Diaz bunk-mate just had a baby) and having an older Latino mothers expressing a young sex appeal of dressing slutty and going for younger men (shown through their background story.)
Overall, despite the negatives image stereotypes tend to have, I believe that the racial actions and remarks that are incorporated into this show are extremely necessary especially with such a diverse cast. This is what makes the show relative to its audience and stimulates curious opinions on what other culturally different people’s position is on matters.
I think the author of the show, Kohan, tries to portray these inevitable, yet essential racial issues in a more humorous demeanor and does her best by relating it to her audiences. Although some take this humor in a more degrading factor, rather than empowering to their culture. In Haley Cuccinello’s article, “Orange is the New Black, You are What You Watch” I completely agree with her outlook on arguing Aura Bogado’s opinion in the article titled, "White is the New White." She writes, "If we’re addicted to Orange Is the New Black, then we’re strung out on the drug of spectacle—jonesing for hateful, racist images created by a white imagination for profit and fame." Cuccinello explains that “though this artistic choice is less than sensitive, at times the humor allows the series to acknowledge race and racial stereotypes in a refreshing way.”
That’s just it. If OITNB had a diverse cast and racial stereotypes and conflicts wasn’t brought up, there would still be questions and criticisms as to why. I think that instead of automatically going into the defense route of how ‘racist’ this show is, I think the bigger picture here is that we’re all surrounded by it like it or not, and each of us is different and have different standpoints, like it or not. In the last episode, Can’t Fix Crazy, (Spoil Alert), we see that Piper isn’t left with any support, let alone anyone anymore. All of her ‘privileges’ were stripped and taken from her and she is now completely alone. Even Mr. Healy didn’t care if she were to die right then and there infront of him. We now see that these racial ‘line divisions’ is actually now turned into an equal sign because the stereotype of ‘white, rich, blonde, girl’ cannot be labeled as “privileged” anymore. This proves that anything can be taken from you in a matter of seconds. Piper at one point even previously admits to her mother that she is no different than anyone else in the prison (whether or not that is true) but it is because she committed a crime. Kohan does a really good job making Piper stand out as the protagonist and knowingly shows the audience that she is quiet different, although incorporates that the other characters are just as important and are portrayed with admirable depth as well.
I think by putting a Caucasian ‘privilege’ women as the main character doesn’t make this show ‘racist’ but does intrigue its audience as to why a girl like Piper is being charged with drug trafficking and sentenced to over a year in prison especially after how her background portrays her as a good ‘innocent’ woman. I think Kohan’s strategy works well because it not only reinforces stereotypes of all races (white, blacks, Latinos, and Asians) it also rejects them as well—but most importantly overall in a good light. This way everyone can both relate to the diversity of characters and respectively be cognizant of others points of view—This is a way the show grabs a variety of audience’s attention and should be recognized with an open mind as to what the overall intent of racial matters whether reinforced or opposed to general stereotypes.
Claycom, Aaron. "Orange Is the New Black S01E06-Recap 'WAC Pack'" SFN. N.p., 28 July 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
Cuccinello, Hayley C. "Raising the Bars in "Orange Is the New Black." The Harvard Crimson. The University Daily since 1873, 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://www.thecrimson.com/column/you-are-what-you-watch/article/2013/9/18/Raising_the_Bars_Orange_is_the_New_Black/>.
Gabrielle. "Orange Is the New Black: 7 Things We Should Talk About | Autostraddle." Autostraddle.p., 21 July 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://www.autostraddle.com/orange-is-the-new-black-7-things-we-should-talk-about-186228/>.
""Orange Is the New Black": A Netflix Original Series." - News. N.p., 13 July 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://www.bubblews.com/news/878228-quotorange-is-the-new-blackquot-a-netflix-original-series>.
Oliveira, Antoney. "Notes from Maxwell's Demon." Notes from Maxwells Demon. University of Toronto, 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://maxwellsdemoniac.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/a-hymn-to-taystee-on-racist-stereotypes-in-orange-is-the-new-black/>.