Roving thoughts and provocations

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Caged Laughter

Netflix
A scene from Orange Is the New Black

Is it possible to feel more ambivalent than I do about Orange Is the New Black? I love the actors and most of the writing and direction. I especially love that it is about a culture of women. It is good to see a light shed on the disgraceful situation of jails and prisons in this country, where there are more than two million inmates (mostly black and Hispanic) and five million more under correctional supervision, and where so many nonviolent offenders are thrown into a dangerous and frightening world that inflicts what cannot by any stretch of the imagination be construed as a just response to their crimes. Horrifyingly, women who have so few resources to begin with—the vast majority who wind up in prison are, of course, poor—are separated from their families, leaving their children bereft.

But on the other hand, the experience of being highly entertained by this soap opera—which is also, often, extremely funny—turns the viewer into a tourist of suffering. In the Netflix series, the second season of which has just become available, we continue to follow the show’s main character, Piper (Taylor Schilling), the young white woman whose drug crimes put her in jail and whose wobbly sense of self has been further eroded by her own unleashed violence (she nearly kills a fellow inmate) and by a nightmarish prison plane ride—no one will tell her where she is going or why. This grunge Kafka scenario turns out to be a brief trip to Chicago, where Piper waits, in a prison far worse than the one she left, to testify against the drug dealer she once worked for. Soon she returns to minimum security in Litchfield, New York, where the dramas never stop.

Red (Kate Mulgrew), deprived of her former status as kitchen queen, regains some power by figuring out how to smuggle contraband into the prison through a sewer. An inmate has gotten pregnant with her guard boyfriend. The black women and the Hispanic women face off in a growing power struggle. Two women compete, with a complicated points system and much profane hilarity, to see who can fuck the greatest number of their fellow inmates in the shortest amount of time. One of the male prison supervisors plays in a bar band called ”Side Boob.” And there’re many other stories, large and small, of affection and ambition and kindness and cruelty. The writing is deft and expert; all the characters and their stories are so carefully and economically delineated that we are never lost and always want more.

As with the first season, each episode, while following events in the lives of a dozen or so inmates, also focuses on an individual, providing some of the backstory that led to her being behind bars. Most moving is the story of Taystee, played by the extraordinary Danielle Brooks, who as a foster child was taken in hand by a charismatic Harlem drug dealer, Vee, played by Lorraine Toussaint, a fierce actress who is unafraid to be hateful. Vee shows up in the same prison, and the combined love, exploitation, and betrayal in their mother-daughter relationship is painful and wonderful to behold.

So what’s wrong? Like most of us, I have enjoyed any number of lively dramas about crime, and poverty, and violence. But not since the vile Life Is Beautiful (remember that one—comedy in the concentration camp?) have I felt so queasy. Now to be fair, I flat-out hated every minute of that movie, and despised its conceit of fairy-tale whimsy somehow redeeming the Holocaust. Orange Is the New Black does not appall in anything like the same way. It does not sugar-coat, nor try to “redeem” the experience of being in prison: We witness the sexual predations by male guards (and some female inmates) on defenseless young women; the psyche-destroying experience of solitary confinement and arbitrary rules of all sorts; the ways that class and privilege play out in raw form, in this most undemocratic of cultures; the casual violence of everyday bullying that can deprive a woman of a shower, or a book, or a meal; and the ever-present threat of actual violence that can damage and kill. But that many of the baddest guys—the rapist guard, the thieving warden, the heroin dealer—are miraculously defeated by the ingenuity of the inmates provides a completely fantastic, Hogan’s Heroes sort of vibe.

And that the show also manages to be so much fun—with its wise-cracking bull-dykes, its transgendered hairstylist, its holiday parties and home-made booze—often feels exploitative. There’s a fine line here. I found myself trying to imagine a comparable entertainment about life in the slave quarters on a cotton plantation. Or what about at Guantanamo?

Created by the well-known television writer and producer Jenji Kohan, Orange Is the New Black is both more violent, and much more entertainingly wacky, than the book on which it is (with increasing looseness, in this second season) based. Piper Kerman’s best-seller of the same name, published in 2009, chronicles her own experience as an upper-middle-class, educated young white woman convicted of serious drug crimes. In the minimum-security prison at Danbury, Connecticut, she was not herself a “tourist,” exactly, although her sentence—fifteen months, of which she served thirteen—was relatively brief and her family and friends on the outside were loyal visitors and sent her constant reminders that she had a life to return to.

She writes openly about how her suffering paled in comparison to that of so many of the women she met. She also writes of her eventual realization that by carrying money for drug dealers she had, in fact, contributed to the suffering of many of the disenfranchised, indeed women just like the ones she has gotten to know in prison. Perhaps the strongest part of her memoir, for me, is her gradual acceptance of responsibility for her actions. Writing a best-seller is not the usual way to do penance, but in her case the publication of the book has been accompanied by impassioned advocacy and action—educating the public, lobbying for better treatment of prisoners and for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

I saw Kerman speak last fall at a college event; she was disarmingly “normal”; in her well-groomed conservative clothes and her well-groomed speaking style, she could have been chairing a school board in the suburbs. She was conscious that, as a member of the privileged classes speaking to young students mostly from the same background, she needed to explain a great deal, rattling off the terrible statistics of the prison-industrial complex and suggesting ways that students could get involved in criminal justice and prison reform.

Kerman is also a consultant for the Netflix show, so I can only assume that she believes that, as well as entertainment, the show provides yet another, more indirect, form of advocacy and education. Perhaps it does. And yet.


The second season of Orange Is the New Black is now available on Netflix.

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