With Christmas fast approaching, Shanice McBean looks at the politics behind an obvious stocking filler: Orange is the New Black.
Orange is the New Black (OITNB) follows the story of main protagonist Piper Chapman as her past in drug smuggling delivers a 15 month prison sentence onto the doorstep of her seemingly pristine, all American lifestyle.
Based on a true story OITNB throws Piper, a business-owning middle class white woman, into a social setting with characters that force her to confront questions of sexuality, race, repression and corruption. A highlight of the series is its ability to portray the grim realities of oppression that often leads disadvantaged women into prisons.
Take, for example, the transgender character Sophia. Played by Laverne Cox – a trans actress and LGBTQ advocate – Sophia ends up in prison because the sheer expense of her gender transition leads her to committing fraud. Gender affirmation is often inaccessible to working class people trans people. Once in prison, Sophia’s oestrogen dose is reduced due to budget cuts (cuts we later find out are due to embezzlement from management) which doesn’t only reverse the gender affirmation (or transition) process, but can also lead to nasty physical side effects. Chelsea Manning – who is being kept in a military prison that doesn’t facilitate gender transition – is one of many trans women in prisons that have to face the transphobic indifference of the state in this way.
Another is CeCe McDonald. CeCe was imprisoned two years ago after a transphobic and racist attack against her led to the death of one of her attackers. CeCe was kept in solitary confinement supposedly to protect her from transphobia in prison. Instead this allowed the state to skirt responsibility for the transphobia that prison culture fosters. Meanwhile CeCe and other transgender people in prison are held in solitary for inhumane amounts of time, effectively punished for being trans.
OITNB shows how solitary confinement is often used as a form of punishment to discipline gender and sexual expression. When Healy – a prison counsellor and correctional officer – finds out Piper and Alex Vause’s relationship is sexual and romantic he switches from attempting to rally Piper to his side, to sending her to solitary confinement.
Nevertheless, the overall portrayal of transphobia in the prison system in OITNB is completely watered down. More often placed in men’s prisons, trans women face the highest levels of rape, sexual harassment and physical violence out of any other group. None of this is reflected in OITNB. So while it’s great to have a loveable trans character well portrayed by a trans actress in the series, this is a serious abdication as it presents a false picture of the struggles of trans women in prisons.
OITNB’s general treatment of sexual and gendered violence is quite poor. Mendez, an officer who sexually assaulted Piper during a search for a screwdriver and regularly makes crude remarks about sex and women, is presented as a lone sexual creep amongst a sea of well behaved officers. This isn’t the reality. Take Yarls Wood where regular sexual abuse of migrant women goes unnoticed and is covered up. Violence against women in prisons has a long, deep history and is not a problem of individual officers, but that of an entire institution that itself rests on misogynistic foundations.
That said, it’s unusual for OITNB to individualize oppression in this way. Throughout the series the back stories of most of the characters are revealed and the show does well to present the social conditions that often force disadvantaged women into prisons. For example, when Taystee (a young black orphan who got involved with her adopted Mom’s drug business) is released she finds herself in a reality many criminalised working class black women find themselves in. Her family is unable to support her and her conviction makes it near impossible to find a stable job. As a result she calculates it’s actually better to commit a crime and go back to prison than try and slug it in the mess that is neoliberal America while being black, female and working class.
OITNB often blurs the lines between being inside and outside of prison in this way. When Alex is released from prison she ends up locked up in her house in fear of an attack by the drug baron she snitched on. The moment Vee (Taystee’s adopted mom) escapes from prison she is run over and killed by another inmate who has also managed to escape but is terminally ill with cancer. While I would much rather be out of prison than in, the point is a salient one: how “free” is a society full of exploitation and oppression where the most disadvantaged people increasingly have little hope?