Some shows don’t really dig any deeper than being easy entertainment for people. The fairly new Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is arguably not one of those shows.
Each season explores hard-hitting issues such as racism, feminism and the state of the prison system in the United States. This is a show that will make you laugh, cry and want to stand up and fight alongside your favourite characters.
OITNB is full of meaningful moments, but these are the ones that really bring to light how the show is using its platform to send a message.
1.The Casting of the Show
While this technically isn’t a moment within the show, the casting of it says a lot. It’s one of the most — if not the most — diverse casts on television. Jackie Cruz recently posted a video about not being able to see herself represented on television when she was younger. Her character, Flaca, is someone that people have talked to Cruz about, being the first person they’ve saw on TV that was like them.
It’s so important for people to be able to see their faces on television. They need to know that they’re being represented and they have nuanced portrayals for the world that aren’t stereotypes. In OITNB, people of all shapes, colours and sexual orientations are being represented.
2. The Death of Poussey Washington
Nothing hit the emotions harder in the course of the show than the death of one of OITNB’s most beloved characters. At the hand of officer Bayley, Poussey is accidentally crushed when he’s trying to get an escalating situation under control. The scene is horrifying and immediately brings to mind all of the incidents that have spurred the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.
It’s unfortunate that this still feels so timely. It’s something that’s happened multiple times, and continues to happen. The culture nowadays seems to focus on shooting first and asking questions later, something that was evident through the guards’ treatment of the women throughout the season.
This reflected the systemic beliefs that are still prevalent in this country. Cops are conditioned to see people of colour as threats. The private prison corporation then tried to find something bad about Poussey to paint her as a dangerous inmate that “deserved” to die — the same way the media does when a person of colour is shot.
Caputo’s decision to cheapen the death of Poussey and emphasize the mistake that Bayley also caused a ton of backlash with the prisoners, starting the riot that begins season five. While he realizes that Bayley is young and this was technically an accident, it doesn’t change the fact that someone died. Someone’s life was taken and Caputo never even said her name.
Fans were outraged and rallied around the death of one of their favourites. But this is the kind of rallying that society needs to be doing for the real people that are going through the same situations. Having a badge shouldn’t mean that someone has the power to kill another person without consequences.
3. The Saga of Sophia Burset
Sophia is meaningful already just by being a transgender character actually played by a transgender actress. But her storylines also show the difficulties of being transgender — opening eyes to how complicated transitioning can really be.
Sophia had a wife and a child when she began transitioning and those relationships became fractured. She had to deal with knowing that her wife might have stayed with her if she hadn’t fully transitioned. However, there’s still a fierce love between them and that’s particularly shown when Crystal shows up to Caputo’s house demanding to know why Sophia is in solitary confinement.
That’s a whole other issue altogether. She’s in solitary “for her own protection” after she was attacked by other inmates demanding to know what her genitalia was. The people that attacked her weren’t the ones that got punished — she was. And her only “offence” was simply being proud of who she was.
Sophia’s story also brings to light the expense of gender reassignment surgery. It’s not something that many people can afford. Sophia is in jail due to credit card fraud — something she did to pay for her surgery. People make rude comments about transgender people not actually being transgender if they don’t get the surgery. Like they aren’t a “real” man or woman if they don’t have the biology to match.
This highlights just how difficult that surgery can be to obtain. Caitlyn Jenner got it with no issues, but that’s because she has serious money. There aren’t many trans people that can afford this luxury and it’s unfair that they’re treated with contempt in many cases simply because they can’t afford to have their body reflect what they know to be true.
4. The Literal Race War
It was made clear from the first season that Litchfield was divided by race. The black and Latina dorms are called the ghetto and Spanish Harlem, respectively. But season four took the race distinction to a whole other level.
The Dominicans, led by Ruiz, become the main power in the prison due to the sudden influx of new inmates. Piper, still on her power trip from her panty-smuggling ring in season three, thinks that she’s going to keep power. To do this, she puts in her lot with literal white supremacists, somehow thinking that she won’t be seen as a racist.
Things just escalate, eventually culminated in Piper ratting out Ruiz for her so-called gang involvement, leading to years being tacked onto Ruiz’s sentence. To get revenge, Ruiz brands Piper by burning a swastika into her arm.
Racism has consequences. And even though Piper doesn’t truly believe she’s racist, her quest for power turns her into one. Aligning herself with people with overt racist beliefs isn’t okay. Of course people are going to think that’s how she feels herself — and she doesn’t really do anything to correct that thinking.
If you associate with racists and go along with them, you’re just as bad as they are. That’s what this is trying to convey. Trump got voted into office due to people that ignored his racist rants and brushed them off. They decided to vote for him anyway, leading to an escalation in racist incidents because people felt it was suddenly okay after his election. Complacent racism is still racism.
Orange is the New Black gets people talking about the state of the world and the big issues that we’re facing today. If you want escapist television, turn to something else. OITNB wants to make you feel things. It wants you to get involved. And it wouldn’t be as great of a show if it didn’t.