This week Orange is the New Black Season 2 cast rumors have been all over internet news. The newest NetFlix show has gained attention and people are talking about it! Yet, the fact that one of the “hottest” shows on NetFlix is about jail, while the United States has 2.2 million people incarcerated, making us the prison capital of the world — both in absolute number and per capita, should leads us to critically analyze this show and our culture.
Created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), Orange Is the New Black centers on a middle to upper class, educated, cosmopolitan woman from New York City named Piper Chapman. Piper finds herself in prison for a crime she committed a decade earlier when she carried money for a drug trafficking ring at the request of her lesbian lover. Later in life, Piper got engaged to Larry Bloom, and is now serving time for that crime. Orange’s storyline comes from a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman.
Since white people aren’t representative of the general prison population the show depicts Piper’s experience through a fish-out-of-water narrative and through the medium of comedy Orange approaches a variety of issues. Some of these issues are right on, while others are grossly misrepresented. For example, at times the show succeeds in depicting issues such as trans struggles, and power hungry guards. While, at other times, Orange fails miserably, for example by depicting a sexual relationship between an inmate and a guard, therefore romanticizing it and blurring the already complicated issue of sexual abuse in prison. It gets right the portrayal of solitary confinement as a cruel and arbitrarily-deployed weapon, precisely what inmates in actual American prisons frequently allege, as anyone familiar with the current hunger strike in California facilities can attest.
Overall, there are deep problems with the criminal justice system that Orange does not address. The show does not convey the mass incarceration in this country, or the fact that we are spending money on our prisons rather than on schools, social service programs, and other things that would prevent incarceration it the first place. Sex sells and of course, there is plenty of sex in Orange. Lesbian sex is ample and hot, even in prison, again an exploitation of women and a commodification of women’s bodies and of sexuality.
Yet, the most disturbing fact about Orange is that the narrative is overall one of comedy, leaving audiences with a feeling of enjoyment, of looking and laughing AT people in jail, rather than questioning our justice system or expressing solidarity WITH them. Worse, Orange is a clear example how everything becomes a commodity in America, even prisons! It show us how capitalism today is no longer just interested in profit, but in creating a new way of life, a life where everything can be sold in the name of entertainment and going to prison is no longer just a matter of justice or injustice, but just a way of life. So that when we exploit prisoners, we no longer feel bad.
Worse, the prison system is also a money making system. In America today, approximately 130,000 people are locked up in private prisons that are being run by for-profit companies, and that number is growing very rapidly. And it’s not just the profit made by incarceration alone, but also the cheap labor that comes with it. At least 37 states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations that mount their operations inside state prisons. The list of such companies contains corporations such as: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. All of these businesses are excited about the economic boom generated by prison labor. When one of the highest-paying private prison, such as CCA in Tennessee, pays prisoners 50 cents per hour for what they call “highly skilled positions,” we should all worry about our democracy, and wonder where capitalism and a neoliberal ideology has taken us. It is no surprise that in a world where putting people in prison is big business our media creates and promotes a show where prison although unpleasant, can have its moments of fun and sex. Therefore, leaving us entertained and not disturbed.
The show further successfully depicts a neoliberal ideology by linking “choice” with incarceration. Instead of offering a more complex narrative, questioning things such as institutional barriers and structural racism and classism, the show’s message is that one is in prison because one has made the wrong CHOICE(S) along the way. A clear example of this is Piper herself. Yet, it does not address the fact that more white people use drugs than people of color, yet people of color are incarcerated for it .
So next time you watch another episode of Orange ask yourself am I contributing to our nation’s exploitation of people? Am I thinking as a citizen about the problem with our prisons? Am I embracing and accepting different sexualities or exploiting women’s bodies? And after you’ve answered that perhaps, dialogues about Orange will no longer be about “hot” sex scenes, cast members, who will be fighting with whom next season, but rather about our democracy, capitalism and justice.