Orange Is The New Black is a comedy drama web television series which first aired July 11th 2013 (IMDB, 2013). When I first heard about a show which promised to lend a humane and compassionate voice to female prisoners who are so often marginalised by society I was excited. Unfortunately it proved to be too good to be true. Upon watching the first episode it quickly became clear that the show would focus on Piper as an ‘outsider’ in the prison due to her status as a middle class woman. However instead of exploring why less wealthy women are far more likely to be incarcerated than richer women the show uses Piper’s sexuality and wealth to excuse her crimes and make the audience feel sorry for her.
Orange Is the New Black makes the clear statement that Piper isn’t the typical candidate for jail. She runs a successful company and is able to afford a townhouse in Manhattan, meaning that she (or her parents) are well off. According the US bureau of justice 57% of current inmates in US jails earnt less than $22,500 before being incarcerated meaning that people of Piper’s financial background would be fairly uncommon in US prisons. The show admits the huge wealth divide that exists in prison by showing us repeated examples of Piper’s comfortable lifestyle (which includes the ability and desire to gluttonously cook a whole pig for four people) and then contrasting these scenes with the gloomy and extremely simplistic prison landscape. However instead of drawing attention to the issues which enable ones socio economic status to so largely influence the prisons populations the show uses this divide to stimulate sympathy for Piper. It uses Piper’s wealth to suggest that just because she is unused to more basic conditions she should be sympathised with, as if her previous privilege entitles her to special treatment in an institution where all the inmates should be treated equally.
In addition instead of challenging the idea that rich people deserve special treatment Orange Is The New Black supports it as there is never any suggestion that Piper deserves her prison sentence, despite the fact that it also never denies the fact that she committed a crime. Piper is continually excused from blame by the fact that she committed her offense ‘out of love’ when she was in an intense lesbian relationship, as if her sexuality consumed her and she lost her own good judgement.
From its start Piper’s relationship with her ex-girlfriend Alex is seen as a passionate and dangerous memory of Piper’s youth. However her relationship with Larry is portrayed as the grown up, more sustainable alternative. With Alex Piper’s life seemed to be constantly exciting but unstable, contrastingly to when she is with a man where there is a comfortable yet tedious rhythm to their lives. The show thereby suggests that Piper’s lesbian experience was an immature fling and that Larry gives her the support and protection she couldn’t expect from a woman, especially Alex.
Through the contrast between her relationship with men and women Orange Is The New Black insinuates that Piper’s sexuality was mere experimentation which should be forgotten and not talked about, as seen by Larry stating that he had no idea of Piper’s history with women until she was arrested. This refusal to give lesbian relationships legitimacy is uncomfortable as it suggests that sexuality is something to be explored when you are younger but when you are older you should settle down with the opposite sex as this is where your long term future lies.
When it was first announced Orange Is The New Black provided hope for a voice for the 1.2 million women who are currently under the supervision of the US criminal justice system, but tragically let them down in the first episode (The Sentencing Project). It does not focus on the real issues in our society which allow those with less money to be so much more likely to be in jail but instead chooses to allow Piper’s wealth and sexuality to elicit sympathy from the audience.
IMDb. (2013). Orange Is the New Black (TV Series 2013– ). [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2372162/ [Accessed 10 May 2017].
Initiative, P. (2015). Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned | Prison Policy Initiative. [online] Prisonpolicy.org. Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html [Accessed 10 May 2017].
The Sentencing Project. (2017). incarcerated women and girls. [online] Available at: http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Incarcerated-Women-and-Girls.pdf [Accessed 10 May 2017].