Mistakes, Huh?: Watching Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black, Netflix Promo.
Orange is the New Black, Netflix Promo.

Perusing my usual monthly reading, I found myself amazed at how many stories were about the Netflix original show Orange is the New Black – and the similarities in language used to describe the plot. I had seen a few reviews here and there, and knew the show was about a privileged white woman who spent a year in a woman’s prison.

But what stood out was how often the word “mistake” came up. I saw the term so many times, it seemed like Piper Kerman ended up in prison due to bad breaks. Mistaken identity? Wrong place at the wrong time? Get dumped via post it note and almost get arrested smoking outside of a bar? (Hey, it happened to Carrie Bradshaw.)

In a Fast Company review – where the word “mistake” appears in the opening line, and is used twice more in the next two paragraphs – I finally found out why Kerman was locked up:

Kerman fell in with people whose lifestyles seemed exciting–as much because one of them ran money and smuggled narcotics for a West African drug lord as in spite of that fact. And when she agreed to help the woman who’d brought her in to that circle usher a suitcase full of undeclared cash from Chicago to Brussels, she made what she describes now as her “biggest mistake.”

So she was banging a drug smuggler and agreed to run some money for them – yeah, could have happened to any of us really. Just minding your own business, taking a suitcase of cash on an international trip…

Anyway, despite my skepticism, I tuned into watch the show. While I’ve been intrigued and interested by the developments in episodes the first five episodes, there’s been this strange undercurrent dulling my enjoyment of the show. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until I read an excerpt of an interview with the showrunner, Jenji Kohan:

You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

Fascinating – particularly since the most compelling stories to me are about the side characters. I’m not watching for Piper, though it’s been interesting to see her (and her family) coping with her new reality. I am watching to hopefully see how Sophia works out her relationships and medical needs, and to figure out why Daya and her mother have such an acrimonious relationship. But I suppose I’m not in the network’s idea of ideal demographic, and I just have to hope Piper’s development leaves a little space to revisit some of the supporting characters.

I’ll keep watching before I do a longer analysis, but readers, what are your thoughts?

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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  • Nancy Quintanilla

    I personally adore the show. I think you and Kohan are right in the assessment that Orange gained visibility due to the “mistake” that lands a new york privileged white woman in prison; however, I think what’s most interesting is that audiences (both audiences of color and non-color) are very willing to accept the racial and social dynamics that interrelate the characters. Place these women and their narratives outside in the “real world” and you probably wouldn’t get the same reception or approval because the defining point, really, is the prison setting. Here’s a world many don’t understand that is being presented via an empathetic lens, albeit fraught with tensions, and the women are humanized. While viewers are willing to enter this troubled milieu because of Piper, people keep watching the show because it already has been Othered. It’s fascinating! I’d never thought I’d watch a show where a black transgendered woman’s narrative receives equal critical attention as a privileged blonde lady’s tale of “mistakes”.

  • cupcakecore

    I kind of felt like the writers were saying “this isn’t a racist character! She has white parents and quotes Shakespeare!” And of course later on she absolutely calls Piper out on her BS in an upfront and exact way but it wasn’t enough. She almost felt like a trope, like the strange, magical truth teller, which given her nickname doesn’t feel too far off.

  • Miles_Ellison

    You should have actually watched the show before commenting.

  • Michelle

    1) Piper is a pain in the ass

    2) It’s telling that Kohan separates selling a show with black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals, from selling Piper’s story. Is she not a criminal?

  • Minormerit

    Without ruining too much they do get into the whole “mistake” thing. Yeah, she’s forced to eat her privilege, at least a little bit. For me it helped to read about the real Piper… she’s now an advocate for women’s prison reform and seems like a genuinely enlightened person aware of her privilege.

    It is frustrating to see yet another show using a white person’s narrative as a window to non-white narratives but, in Jenji Kohan’s defense, it would have been much harder to sell the show if the main character wasn’t white. It’s a top-down problem. Also (disclosure: I’m white) I know that I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable writing a narrative from a non-white perspective, I’d worry about it being disingenuous. Still: it’s not like Kohan is the sole writer, that’s not how shows like this work. Don’t they have some non-white writers on staff. If not, they should.

    Still. At least the side characters are real people and maybe (please!) they can reconfigure the format of the second season to focus less on her narrative and more on the other’s (TAYSTEE!!!!) It’s not that her story isn’t interesting, it just doesn’t seem like enough to flesh out a multi-season story arc.

    My one problem with the show is Pennsatucky and her comrades. I grew up in Appalachia and I have to deal with hicksploitation bullshit all the time. After college I took voice acting classes to teach myself not to have an accent anymore because EVERY TIME I SPOKE people would assume I was ignorant/poor/mega-conservative/slutty and I was passed over multiple times for jobs because of concerns that I wouldn’t “fit into the culture” which was complete crap (I have a computer science degree.) It’s really exhausting to see every hyper-Southern white woman in media be boiled down to a dumb catty hick with daddy issues.

  • kayjay68

    I didn’t make it past the first episode. The dewy eyed white woman going to prison and then giving pretty much everybody else mad side eye like, yeah, I know I’m here too, but I’m not the type of person who belongs here vibe got on my nerves with the quickness. I guess I’ll check out a couple of more episodes to see whats what, but since I work in the criminal justice arena the stories are going to have to be extremely more compelling to pull me in.

  • http://www.literateperversions.com Chris H

    Secondary and tertiary characters are almost always more interesting to me than the primaries. I think it’s because the main character is, by the nature of the role, locked into a certain place and certain traits. They can’t be too unlikeable, and they can’t change too fast. The supporting characters on the other hand, can evolve and change freely, and go in directions that a protagonist never could. When watching Buffy, I was always more interested in the Scooby Gang than in the Slayer; nowadays, I watch Justified more because I’m interested in what’s going to happen to Boyd Crowder or Limehouse than because of Raylan. I still haven’t seen Orange, but it sounds like the same dynamic at work.

  • Karine1976

    OITNB is on my list to watch while I’m still on Netflix’s free trial but I may give Breaking Bad a try at first. But my comment is actually about FX’s The Bridge, I’d love to have Racialicious’ take on it. I don’t watch True Blood or Mad Men so I’ve only occasionally read the recaps as time filler. Please and thank you.

  • gabrielle rivera

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES! This is exactly what I find problematic in the series. Now, I absolutely adore this show, and I’m heavily invested, but the fact that they had to frame it around the middle class white chick still irks me something fierce. I wouldn’t mind Piper as just another character, not at all, but the fact that her story is front and center gets on my nerves. As the show goes on, I hope that the other characters continue to steal the show, as they do many times in the first season.

    • littleeva

      This is what happened with the show “Oz” on HBO. The first season focused on Tobias Beecher, a white middle class man, who was sentenced to prison for vehicular homicide. As the show progressed, it focused less on Beecher and more on the other characters.

  • Christine

    As I watched the later episodes it seemed like Piper’s on-screen time was diminishing to make room for the other characters. It did seem like Piper was just the writers’ ticket into the prison setting.

  • Alexis A

    I love this show. I started out more interested in the side characters, but as the show progressed (I have two episodes left) I’ve actually grown to like Piper. But I love the backstories. I get excited to see flashbacks, which I can’t really say for any other show I’ve watched. I think that the drama within the prison is compelling enough that if they continue the show long enough, I’d be all for a transition from Piper as central character to one of the women who have to serve longer sentences.

    Also, it’s nice to hear my suspicions confirmed regarding Piper’s character being easier to pitch.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts!

    • RedlLantern

      Just curious – what is it about Piper you’ve grown to like? I read the book and respect the real Piper, but as the show wore on I found the character more and more unbearable.

      • Alexis A

        Didn’t know she was based on a real person! I suppose after a while it feels like she’s accepting at least a little responsibility for her actions. Plus I kinda feel bad for her. In the environment created for this show, (since I have zero firsthand knowledge I’m not going to say that it’s an accurate portrayal of prison), I don’t know if I would fare any better…and I have a completely different background.

        Or maybe I’m tolerating her because I love the secondary characters so much.