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How Progressive is Orange is the New Black, Really?

Everyone’s watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black, but what does that really say about US culture and society? As the thinkpieces roll out, fans fill Twitter, and roundtable discussions bloom, there’s an issue lurking below the surface that few seem comfortable or willing to engage with: Why do watchers think that a depiction of prison life is entertaining?

The line ‘Here we are now, entertain us!’ from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ comes to mind: Viewers as a hungry, squirming mass who will devour anything set in front of them, who are more interested in being fed than they are in examining what they’re eating, let alone the hand that feeds them. Fans critically analysing the show may be taking on issues like how it handles race, gender, and culture, but actual confrontation of the prison system itself is rare. This is illustrative of the fact that many pop culture critics, including progressive ones examining the show from a leftist slant, aren’t heavily engaged with prison issues, but it’s also a way of dodging the issue. Should people be watching a show based on a rather idealised and abstract view of life in a women’s prison at all?

Orange is the New Black is about a white woman who went to prison and got a relatively soft sentence, when compared to women of colour and men in the prison system. That experience, at least, is true to life, but there’s probably where the similarities end. The prison in the show is a far cry from real-life prisons in the US, including the very prison where the show is shot, which has been plagued with flooding problems that cause raw sewage to bubble up onto the floors, forcing women up onto tables and chairs to avoid standing in their own filth. Flooding is also likely responsible for the prison’s persistent mold problem, which puts the occupants at serious risk of long-term health problems.

While the second season of the series may have taken some of the varnish off the first, showing a more gritty, rough prison life, the reality is still much, much worse. So much worse that it might even be beyond the comprehension of viewers — except, of course, for those who have spent time in women’s prisons and jails. If the first season glossed over prison realities, the second season may find itself in danger of swinging into the ‘women in prison’ zone, echoing infamous exploitation films that revolved around the trope of putting a bunch of ‘dangerous babes’ together in a confined space and seeing what happened next. It may be more violent, but it’s not showing the everyday systemic violence women in prison endure from guards and prison authorities, the terrible conditions in US prisons, and the mental health problems bred within the prison system. It’s not showing the dangers of prolonged solitary confinement, or the abuse of the legal system to deprive prisoners of their rights.

The reality of prison doesn’t lie at either end of this extreme. It’s not a bunch of oiled-up women in bikinis tussling for supremacy on Cellblock B, and it’s not a tea party, either. It’s a world where women are thrown together in environments that are physically and emotionally unhealthy, where women face discrimination and abuse because of their race, gender, religion, and cultural origins, and where women have to watch injustice meted out on a nearly daily scale. To see this played as entertainment is, to put it mildly, distasteful.

The real-life Piper is making big bucks off her time in prison, which she’s spun as a learning experience and turning point in her life. Both the book and the series present prison as a necessary part of society. A necessary evil, perhaps, but still, a necessary one, and a chance to provide growth and character development for its inmates. Neither does much to challenge the fundamental assertion that prisons should exist in the first place, nor do these media ask an important question: Why are we so fascinated by incarceration? Why do we consider it both a critical part of society, and a form of moral improvement for its inmates?

These are questions I’d love to see fans and critics engaging with as well, for they’re in the ideal position to talk about these issues in terms of their relationship with this show as viewers. Why are they watching Orange is the New Black? It’s being positioned as highly feminist, progressive media, but how progressive is it? Is media that’s fundamentally built on exploitation and a hearkening back to an incredibly exploitative media genre really all that progressive?

The women of Lichfield get to take off their prison wear at the end of the day and go home to a well-earned rest in a comfortable bed. The same cannot be said of their real-life counterparts, women who suffer in the maze of the prison system every day — particularly women incarcerated in the immigration detention system, who don’t even have access to rights like legal representation, a fair trial, or quick treatment. They languish for years awaiting charges while being assaulted by guards and other authority figures, and yet, no one’s made a drama about how character-building their experiences are. I wonder why that is?