Do I Entertain You? Prison As Amusement and Orange is the New Black

When Netflix came out with the new season of Orange is the New Black in June, I watched progressives eagerly marathon it and produce a slew of thinkpieces about the show and how original and funny and sharp and insightful it is — and how progressive it is, to include a trans woman in the cast, to depict prison life in the US for women. However, is the show all that progressive? The popularity of Orange is the New Black has never quite sat right with me, and my distaste for it comes down to the idea that prison in being framed here as a form of entertainment, and not just that, but a commercial experience. It’s troubling that many people in the US seem to buy into this, without actually confronting the issues embedded in the show — I’d argue that not many of the fans of the show are actively engaged in prison reform, for example, let alone the prison abolition movement.

Instead, the web is filled with ‘Which Orange is the New Black Character are You?‘ quizzes and merchandise related to the show. People dress up as the characters for costume parties as well as viewing parties, while Piper Kerman, author of the book the show is based on, rakes in money after capitalising on her experience after being imprisoned for a year. Like many white women, she enjoyed significant privileges throughout her interaction with the legal system, including a sentence dramatically shorter than that of women of colour facing the same circumstances. Now, she’s building on it.

The race issue here has to be addressed, because a Black woman writing a book about her year in a women’s prison would be treated radically differently. In US society, prison is a place where Black women are assumed to belong, and their experiences there aren’t considered to be of interest. A white woman’s narrative, though, allows people a tantalising peek through the curtains — even as women of colour are suffering in US prisons and detention centers. Their stories aren’t being heard, and no one’s offering them book deals and Netflix series chronicling their lives.

Orange is the New Black relies heavily on racial caricatures — in both book and series form — and it’s telling that progressives love it so much when it hits a great number of stereotype buttons. Even as women like Laverne Cox are becoming breakout stars thanks to their roles on the show, it’s troubling to see yet another white woman as the lead, and to see the characters of colour around her reduced to supporting roles, some of which cut close to the stereotype bone. This is the kind of media progressives want to invest in?

And then, of course, there’s the ugliness behind the show, like the revelation that the prison some segments are filled in is prone to flooding that leaves raw sewage bubbling up into cells, forcing inmates up off the floor to avoid contact and a public health hazard. It’s not just the sewage, although that would be bad enough. The prison is also infested with vermin, which run freely through the kitchen and other areas, and it has a serious mold problem (undoubtedly exacerbated by the flooding).

People find this entertaining? This is something they find to be pleasurable viewing? Orange is, at best, a highly sanitised view of prison life in the United States, spiced up by stereotypes about prison, about inmates, and about marginalised groups who find themselves profiled by the justice system. It doesn’t depict the reality of women’s prisons, which is harsh, unhealthy, and horrific, especially for women of colour, LGBQT prisoners, and disabled prisoners. I have trouble swallowing exploitative entertainment, which is essentially what this show is, no matter how much progressives love it.

Much of US media is built on exploiting suffering for entertainment; whether we’re talking reality shows, the nightly news, or scripted shows. Orange joins a long tradition of women in prison (WIP) films that focus on salacious depictions of female inmates, and don’t address the core issues at the heart of the US prison system. Media and pop culture are not, of course, required to take on an informative or educational role, but Orange is being treated as though it’s bringing something new to the conversation and revolutionising pop culture depictions of women in prisons and the penal system.

That’s not really the case, and it’s perturbing to see people entertained by depictions of prison life, because incarceration shouldn’t be entertaining. It’s not funny, although it can have funny moments, and, as it stands now in the US, it’s not just, either. Acting as though Orange is a harmless piece of fluff culture is deceptive, as it ignores the show’s very real role in shaping public thought and ideas about women in prison, how justice is meted out, and who should be in charge of the justice system. For the characters on Orange, prison isn’t something they can turn off at the end of the night when they want to go to bed, and the same holds true for women imprisoned and held awaiting trial across the United States.

The idea that progressives should find imprisonment a funny or engaging basis for a series they enjoy troubles me, as it also says something about progressive attitudes with respect to prison. While the show doesn’t necessarily paint prison in a positive light, it’s not entirely negative, either; both series and book suggest that imprisonment offers valuable lessons (often at the expense of Wise Women of Colour) and can be a venue for self-improvement. It’s the Eat, Pray, Love of the new hip set, except that instead of going to an ashram, you can do 12 months, instead.