Orange is the New Black – advocacy or voyeurism?

Recently I came across a very frustrating review for the second season of Orange is the New Black.  The hugely popular Netflix show takes place primarily inside a women’s prison after the show’s protagonist, Piper, was sentenced to one year for a drug offense she committed 10 years prior, during a period of irresponsibility and adventure-seeking in her early twenties.  You go in thinking it’s going to be a “fish out of water” story and, to some extent it is, but what Piper really learns is that she’s more like these women than she thinks.

That is, in effect, what this Washington Post reviewer said, but I mean it differently than the writer did.  The review states:

Since entering prison as a fragile and fallen Mary Sunshine from gentrified Brooklyn who was busted on a decade-old trafficking charge…the show’s second season… strongly suggests that the woman formerly known as Piper is perhaps exactly where she belongs. This is home now.

The implication here is that because Piper assaulted another inmate, ended up in solitary confinement, and went a bit nuts as a result, she’s revealing her true nature and that it was the yuppified Brooklyn life that was the real facade.  What I mean, instead, is that the women in the prison are generally, like Piper, goodhearted women who made a mistake (or a series of mistakes), who are being treated like human waste as a result of those mistakes, and who sometimes end up resorting to actions they may never have taken on the outside.  I challenge anyone to spend days on end in solitary confinement in a prison and not go bat-shit crazy.  Photographer Richard Ross did it voluntarily for one day in a juvenile detention center and called it “unbelievably dehumanizing”.

The reality is that what we do to people in prison is inhumane and – worse – unnecessary, given that the vast majority of prisoners are non violent. Fully HALF of all federal prisoners are in on drug offenses and another 37% on public order offenses.  For females, the percentage of drug charges was even higher (58%) and the percentage of violent crimes more than 2% lower (5.9% total compared to 3.8% for women).  And we know that prison is dismally ineffective at preventing future crimes: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics73.6% of individuals released from prison were arrested for new crime within 3 years, regardless of prior history or the amount of time served.

And this is why I haven’t yet watched the second season of Orange is the New Black, even though the entire season was released on Netflix last Friday. I am hesitant to rejoice over a new show to binge watch and to get excited about diving into an escapist TV drama, because it just feels a bit wrong.  I am uncomfortable with the voyeuristic nature of the show – that it allows us this opportunity to peek into this normally unseen world of women’s prisons. And I worry about the messages people take away from it. Of all the back stories they shared of the inmates during season 1, at least 4 involved crimes of violence (2 murders, 1 instance of abetting murder and one armed robbery). This is a striking proportion, given what we know about who is actually incarcerated in these facilities.  I know it makes for better drama, but I worry it sends the message that, even though we can understand why the women did what they did, clearly they deserve to be in prison.

But, I don’t really blame the shows creators and producers for the unnerving feeling I get when I hear people talking about the show.  I understand that certain sacrifices to Piper Kerman’s true experiences must be made in the name of drama and story-telling, but I do think that the intention behind the show is advocacy.  I mean, what’s a better platform than a wildly popular binge-worthy TV show?  And even though I’m sort of sickened by the voyeurism, isn’t transparency exactly what’s needed? Isn’t it easier for society to look the other way when we don’t know what’s really going on?

It’s just that our society is so entrenched in its view of what prison means and what kind of people should or shouldn’t be in prison, that I wonder if very many viewers actually take away the intended message.  Or are most people like the Washington Post reviewer and missing it completely?

In the end, I will most likely watch the second season because I do think the positive messages that can be taken from this show are too important to ignore, and it’s certainly not worth a boycott because some people just don’t get it.  I only hope that as the show develops, more people will begin to see that we need to change our approach to how we deal with crime in this country. We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this problem and, indeed, it only makes things worse:  as we saw, Piper’s character went in a model citizen, albeit with a musty skeleton in her closet, and was driven to a near homicidal rage. So, I’ll keep watching and I hope you do too. But don’t just watch and drool over the drama: try to take the time to check out the work that the real Piper is doing to advocate for change:, and become part of the movement yourself.