When Orange Is the New Black premiered on Netflix in July 2013, it felt groundbreaking. In addition to telling inmates' stories from a humanizing perspective, it introduced the world to a diverse cast of white, Black, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ characters who spoke powerfully to a number of social justice issues in the prison system—issues that resonated with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which began with a hashtag following George Zimmerman's acquittal the same month as the show’s premiere.
The choice of using Piper Kerman's 2010 memoir on the time she spent in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking as a vehicle for these themes was a savvy one; as the show's creator Jenji Kohan explained to NPR, Chapman's white upper-middle class story provided a "trojan horse" for telling the stories that few others with similar platforms delved into at the time. But since then, public awareness of the failures of the criminal justice system has increased, paving the way for a number of television and film projects exploring the carceral system from the perspective of marginalized individuals, including When They See Us and If Beale Street Could Talk. Now, as OITNB rolls into its final season, its use of Piper as a device for making the harsh realities of prison life more accessible and entertaining feels, at best, beside the point. At worst, it trivializes the serious issues that the show tries to champion.
In the seventh season, Chapman is out of Litchfield on parole while most of her other inmate friends are still in prison. Her experiences, while perhaps fitting for a white woman with class privilege, bear little resemblance to what life on parole is like for low-income minorities. She avoids the huge hurdle of finding an employer willing to overlook a criminal record by begging her father for a job at his office. Then she gets a pass from her parole officer when she's caught taking edibles, despite the reality that parolees are often sent back to prison for more negligible violations. Her insufferable complaining about her relatively smooth parole experience or heartbreak with longtime on-again-off-again lover Alex Vause takes away from the final season's important focus on ICE detention centers.
Over the years, Kohan's attempts to manufacture lighthearted entertainment out of real-life issues inmates face have led to storylines that minimize the experiences of the people they're portraying. For example, in the second episode of season seven, the theme of prison substance abuse is a pretext for stirring up lesbian drama when a hot butch dealer named Daddy riles up her girlfriend Daya Diaz by hooking up with her customers; when Daddy dies from an overdose, her funeral scene has a comedic tone as her former flings continue to fawn over her. Instances of the guards abusing their power with inmates also yield uncomfortably pornographic punchlines, such as when one of them tells Vause, "Just be a good girl and sell the rest of that package or I'll shove my jumbo dick down your throat," in season seven.
These moments feel strikingly entertainment-focused, especially when you compare them to some of the most moving moments from the show’s first four seasons. When heartthrob character Poussey Washington (played by Samira Wiley) was accidentally suffocated to death by a guard in the fourth season and prison administrators defended him, it spoke directly to the outrage over high-profile police killings like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. And in the third and fourth seasons, Laverne Cox's Sophia Burset brought attention to the lack of appropriate medical care and accommodations for trans inmates. In those earlier days, it was easier to overlook the show's shortcomings to celebrate what it was doing right.
But the TV landscape has changed since 2013. Ava DuVernay's landmark 2016 docuseries 13th made waves by exploring the parallels between mass incarceration and slavery. And her 2019 hit series When They See Us raised awareness of the way racism affects high-profile prosecutions and jury trials by telling the stories of a group of Black and Latinx teens who were wrongfully imprisoned for rape in New York in 1989. OITNB helped open the door for these more hard-hitting series, a Netflix executive Cindy Holland told Variety. “It has certainly encouraged us to take more risks and to … push into making sure that we’re programming for underrepresented audiences and really try to serve all audiences,” Holland said. But DuVernay's unflinching style, which puts the most marginalized voices at the center, has set a new bar with its unapologetically serious approach to reflecting on criminal justice.
If OITNB wanted to continue being a groundbreaking prison justice series, Kohan and her team could have written Chapman out of the lead role and shifted the story to the show's more marginalized characters as the series progressed. In 2019, she no longer needs a distracting, privileged white lead or hypersexual prison drama to sell audiences on meaningful inmate stories. Fundamentally, the reality of prison is not conducive to the kind of entertainment Kohan wanted to create. Prison is not sexy, cool, or heartwarming, which means that, despite its attempts to bring real issues to the fore, OITNB’s depiction of that world will always remain a fiction.
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