Ok, so I admit I came late to this series having watched it just recently but since the second series arrives on our shores on the 6thJune 2014, let us call this a timely reflection. Against rave reviews I want to say, sitting inside my black, bisexual female skin, I loved and disliked it in equal portions. Firstly, I confess to feeling some gratuitous pleasure for the novel sight of a white middle-class Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) going off to prison – even if it did appear voluntary. Her crime was money laundering although you could be forgiven if you thought it was for a deviant bisexuality given her seedy path began after falling in love with international drug smuggler Alex Vause (played by Laura Prepon). If only she had stayed on the straight and narrow, lies a possible sub-text. Refreshingly, however, gender and sexuality probably receive the best attention with a balanced portrayal of a black transgender MTF prisoner, Sophia Burset (played by trans actress Laverne Cox). Indeed, Laverne and the script itself deserve all the accolades it has since received.
My favourite was Alex. Whilst totally unreal as an imaginary drug trafficker, I still loved in this fantasy, her ability to stand tall, comfortable and gracious in her sexuality with the smooth ability to reflect back to Piper, her ‘frilly contradictions’. One of the most powerful moments arise when Pipers boyfriend Larry Bloom (played Jason Biggs), a white middle-class wanna-be journalist, visits the prison to warn Alex to stay away from his girlfriend. Despite her prison confinement, it is through the clarity of her sexuality that Alex, with a measurement of kindness, is able to expose Larry’s insecurities as misplaced, ‘Piper is your problem, not me’. Of course this did possibly sell out bisexuality as distinct from the character of Piper, but let’s put that aside. At that moment, Larry, confronted with that disturbing truth, crumbled whilst Alex stood up firmly to return to her cell leaving the forlorn Larry imprisoned by his own thoughts – almost as menacing as the real prison.
Male prison guard, Sam Healy (played by Micheal J. Harney) was also intriguing as an ageing white heterosexual man struggling to contain the tormented feelings he had towards lesbians. Once his ‘innocent Piper’ betrayed him by, in fact, innocently dancing with her Alex, his homophobic madness and the fragility of his own sexuality, was in full view. Hilarious but for the solitary confinement he inexplicably dished out to Piper. Throughout the series, there were many lovely moments of lesbian expressions uncensored with pussy eating Nicky Nichols (played by Natasha Lyonne) and the general ambivalent way in which the women in prison accepted lesbian sex without its normal social anxieties. This was a breath of fresh air. Others might have called it exploitative titillation though I could not possibly comment.
The problem with Orange was the blatant sell out it did on race and class, which were both produced through exaggerated characters so that black and working-class inmates were largely one-dimensional singers, athletes, dancers or the images of aggression. Unlike some of the whites and Latinos, they were also without power or authority except perhaps Miss Claudette Pelage (played by Michelle Hurst). She was still nevertheless, stereotyped having run an illegal child labour service who had killed to protect her girls. She was feared by all though eventually softened towards Piper. In a sense, she was your modern day ‘Mama’. Then we had the apparent ‘nutter’, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (played by Uzo Aduba) who became ‘naturally’ obsessed with Piper ‘her dandelion’. In response to her advances being rebuked by Piper, Suzanne urinated on the floor invoking black women as childish not to mention, bordering upon in-sane as her apparent crazy eyes seemed to suggest. Really? Unlike real life, in Orange, white women did not seem to desire black women?
Moreover, Piper seemed to be the only one who was not afraid to stand-up and challenge prison authorities for the rights of the inmates as if all others could not be so capable? At one stage, a mixture of women who just happened to be either butch, working-class or black, queued up to ask Piper to help them with writing letters. Could there really not have been a black or ‘other’ inmate to do that? But perhaps the most vicious of stereotyping was preserved for what the Americans might call ‘White Trash’. With an open attack upon working class white women, the character of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (played by Taryn Manning) was deliberately positioned as the antithesis to Piper. So her teeth were stained and broken, her hair was scraggy and her body was thinly sexless. Her southern accent and obsession with Christ together with her hatred for all sins lesbianism and frankly, anyone who disrespected her, positioned her as a dangerous, paranoid ‘hilly billy’. The point was, although Piper, Alex and Nicky were confidently flaunting their sexuality, they were also white, middle-class, ‘university women’ through which all of the other women were narrowly constructed. This was disappointingly predictable and certainly not truly reflective. The series was radical in part yet miserably conventional to.
Needless to say, the second series is going to introduce a new black character called Yvonne “Vee” Parker (played by Lorraine Toussaint), a street-tough inmate who used to run a drug business, using kids as runners. Do you see where I am going?
Surely, Orange can be a little bit bolder by resisting this pandering to cheap racial and class stereotype otherwise, we are just going around in circles. I am all for enjoying the second series when it arrives but lets watch it with a critical eye and insist that just because we get an odd chance to enjoy women from some women’s perspective (albeit ‘safely’ in prison), does not mean we do not mind the continual one-dimensional misrepresentations of black, Latino and working-class white women. I cannot enjoy the lesbian sex stuff one minute then watch myself being reduced to some racial inferior with the other. Come on Orange, there is still much to do. Why was orange the new black anyway? This was Piper’s story so should it not have been, Orange is the new white?