Moving Pictures
May 28, 2014, 05:35AM

The Crassness of Orange is The New Black

Sex, violence, melodrama and quirkiness combine to make the prison experience fun and enjoyable.

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The trailer for Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black, out June 6, has been released, and as you'd expect, it’s designed to be exciting. Over the loud, pounding "Jungle" by Jamie N Commons + X Ambassadors, various characters issue threats, French kiss, strike hip/sassy poses and talk about how crazy prison is. A gunshot is fired, and Piper (Taylor Schilling) exclaims, "I am a lone wolf, and a vicious one. Don't make me rip your throat out." Drama, sex, violence, all in prison = awesome.

This isn't out of line with the approach of the first season of the show. But seeing the formula distilled down into a two minute clip underlines how crass it is—and how divorced from Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is the New Black, which is the ostensible inspiration for the series. There have been a number of articles comparing the two—June Thomas at Slate for example notes that the television show is superior because director Jenji Kohan didn't have to stick to the truth and can craft "entertaining stories." Or, to put it another way, the television show dumps in a lot of additional sex, violence, melodrama and quirkiness in an effort to make prison experience fun and enjoyable for binge-watchers everywhere.

In the book, when Kerman enters prison, the other women are eager to help her and make sure she's adjusting; in the TV show everyone is hostile, mean and quick to jump on any misstep—so much so that when Chapman makes an offhand remark about how the prison food sucks, Red (Pop in the book) cuts off her food supply. In the book, almost all the women are in the minimum-security facility because of drug crimes. That's not exciting enough for the TV series, though, so several women get their crimes bumped up to murder or manslaughter (of a child no less.) In the book, Kerman (who is bisexual) was surprised at how little lesbian activity there was in prison; in the TV show, everybody is sleeping with everybody else.

Most egregious is the treatment of Kerman's friend from the book, Pennsatucky, a crack addict who desperately wants to see her daughter again. In the book, Kerman says Pennsatucky, "was perceptive and sensitive but had great difficulty expressing herself in a way that was not off-putting to others." But again, not wacky enough for television, so the character is transformed into a violent Jesus-freak abortion-doctor murdering extra from Deliverance, the vicious, idiotic stereotype, proving once again that the only people liberals are allowed to hate in good conscience are poor white Southerners.

Critic Isaac Butler has chastised people like me for pulling what he calls the realism canard—the idea that fiction should be criticized when it isn't "realistic" or accurate. Butler makes a reasonable point; the television show isn't pretending to be true to Kerman's memoir; why should it be faulted for failing to do something it didn't set out to do in the first place? A television show needs drama, so Jenji Kohan and her team added drama. About the most exciting thing that happens in the book is that Kerman gets pissed at a fellow inmate on the track and pushes her, then immediately feels horrible and apologizes. Oh, and there's the time one of the camp personnel takes them outside the prison on a work detail and leaves them alone and they're all terrified that they'll get in trouble, and then nothing happens. This is not the stuff that makes for hours of riveting television drama.

The problem is that while the television show isn't real, incarceration is. We imprison too many people in this country for no good reason. A show purporting to be about the experiences of those people has an ethical duty not to exploit them by, for example, presenting them as violent and deviant just because violence and deviance sell. In this sense, the show undermines even some of its most positive aspects. The memoir is focused, as memoirs are, on the author; Piper's experience, as a middle-class white woman in prison, is front and center. Other characters are secondary. The TV show, on the other hand, has a more ensemble approach, with solid, substantial rolls for numerous black and Hispanic women, including Laverne Cox, one of the first trans women playing a trans character on television.

But it seems a little bitter when what is represented is consistently pushed towards deviance and sensationalism. Crazy-Eyes in the novel, for example, is a mildly aggressive character whose advances Kerman rejects firmly, and that's it. In the TV show, Crazy-Eyes (Uzo Aduba) appears to suffer from a serious mental illness. She's presented first as a dangerous stalker and then as a kind of adorable child-woman and magical font of zaniness and moral sweetness.

Piper is treated with a similarly heavy hand. In the memoir, Piper is largely sympathetic, and she bonds strongly with many of the other women. The force of the memoir is that she's a fish out of water—and that everyone in prison is a fish out of water. Nobody deserves to be there; prison petty and cruel for everyone. Or as Kerman says:

"No one who worked in ‘corrections’ appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there, any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell they were going on the shelf… What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it's dealt in a way so offhand and indifferent?"

On the TV show, Piper never articulates that kind of critique, in part because the TV show's goals are exactly opposite to those of the memoir. Rather than Piper being just like the women in prison because none of them deserve to be there, she’s just like the woman in prison because she too is deviant and violent. For the sake of drama, Piper is presented as selfish, needy, duplicitous, fickle, and eventually violent. As in Kohan's Weeds, the sexy corruption of white women is mined for both white guilt liberal cred and titillation. Supposedly, the show is revealing Piper's privileged cluelessness, but how thoughtful or trenchant is it to build a show around the idea that a person in prison is morally flawed and deserving of punishment? The TV show’s eagerness to present fun, excitingly deviant characters leaves little room for the kind of institutional critique Kerman presents in her book.

The TV show jettisons the memoir's political goals in favor of sex, violence, and zany fun times. What's really depressing is that OITNB's failures seem so inevitable. Narratives about deviance, violence and sex are interesting and engaging; they make for good ratings. Stories about how prisoners are just normal people, or how prison is a long, boring, monotonous slog, broken up by petty bureaucratic tyranny—that's not especially gripping or interesting. A memoir or a small scale documentary with a limited audience might be able to show incarceration without the gleeful voyeurism. But a prison tale that gets real traction in pop culture, whether it’s Willie Horton or OITNB, is going to be a prison tale that's exciting and set to an aggressive rock beat. Our love of punchy stories has filled our prisons, and we don't care to tell a story that will empty them again.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu

  • Your misunderstanding of this show is remarkable. The book was about a privileged white woman who got to be a tourist in the lives of various poor and/or minority women and got along with them in a low stakes way for her and came back to tell us their stories filtered through her privileged white woman lens. The TV show has two entry points: the main plot is still about a privileged white woman coming to a prison, seeing everything through biases she has from her privilege. But every episode has a plot that tells the story of one of these other women including her backstory, centered on her own point of view and not Piper's. And yes, there is added drama to the characters' stories, because "we all got along and it was great" is a terrible narrative. For people who fundamentally relate to the struggles of these various women, Piper's story is mostly an annoying distraction that wastes too much screen time, a totally valid critique. For people who fundamentally relate to having privilege, Piper is an entry point for introducing us to them. But here's the thing -- over the course of Season 1, the distance between Piper and the other characters created by her privilege breaks down. She has conflicts and has to solve them, she refuses to be Healy's "white woman who is too good for everyone else there", she rekindles her messy lesbian relationship, she has to defend herself in a fight. The deeper it goes, the more obvious it becomes that while she has lived with privilege in the real world, she is fundamentally no different from everyone else when put into the same circumstances. The distance that she, and all of us privileged viewers who are like her in that way, imagine that we have from the rest of this population ultimately dissolves into the realization that while everyone has different circumstances and some are very fortunate while others are not, we are all just people, and on this show, all just women. While I understand the desire to dispense with Piper from viewers who don't need a white gatekeeper on these stories to relate them to their own lives (which is totally valid), the same critique coming from other privileged people is much more problematic -- it's effectively saying that you want a license to have a voyeuristic look into these lives of women who are so different from you while still being able to think of them as this "other" that exists separate from you in a different world. If privileged people like Piper and like the rest of, well, us, can end up in the same place making the same choices and the same mistakes, where each of us is different and individual and has different struggles, but ultimately we are all the same underneath it all, that's a much more radical view of the world than just about anything I can think of that's been on TV. It's one thing to try to create sympathy for disadvantaged women because they are different and have so many hardships, but it's a whole different thing to create empathy for them because despite those differences and hardships, those women ultimately are still human beings just like us.

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  • Have you read the book, Texan? It's not about what you're saying it's about at all.

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  • I never said I read the book Noah. Have you read the name of the commenter above?

  • Pow! Right in the kisser! Way to go, Texan!!!!!!!

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  • Hah! Sorry; Texan is the only one who comments on my articles pretty much; saw the first couple letters and just assumed it was the same as always.

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  • RE: the difference between Piper and the other women. Part of the problem is that the way that the show collapses the difference bet. Piper and the other women is by showing that Piper is an evil (or at least very problematic) person who deserves to be in jail. In the book, Piper is like the other women (like Pennsatucky) in that they're all pretty much normal people caught in an unjust system. In the tv show, Piper is like the other inmates in that she is deviant and/or broken. It is great to have representation of non-white women on the screen, but it's disheartening that that can only happen in a show that relentlessly represents them as victims, as broken, or as deviant.

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