For those who’ve yet to get sucked in by Netflix’s runaway hit Orange Is the New Black, let me get you up to speed. The series, now live streaming its first season purports to center on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)—a WASPy woman who is sent to federal prison for working with an international drug cartel nearly a decade earlier. However, Piper’s entry into the all women’s Litchfield Correctional Facility seems to be but a springboard from which viewers are given the opportunity to take a close look at the horrors of the prison industrial complex via a wonderfully diverse cast of nuanced characters that make up the minimum security women’s facility. By episode 3, it is obvious that the women of color and queer women inside of the four walls of Litchfield that make Orange a stand out success—and a significant moment in pop culture.
“People are wrong to think that [OITNB] is just another show with a privileged White women trying to tell our story,” Joan Morgan an award-winning journalist and culture critic told EBONY. “It helps more to think of Piper less as a named character and more as a narrative device. Without Piper being there, we don’t get to see these women. We get to see this intimate slice of prison life, because of Piper.”
The show’s creator Jenji Kohan recently said of Piper, “You took the blonde, blue-eyed girl-next-door and you put her into this world and, you know, you're not gonna go into a network and say, 'I want to talk about Black women and Latina women and old women in prison.' You need a guide. You need a way in. She was our gateway drug.”
“The show as written was very much alive on the page. That made it fairly easy to become Suzanne. [With Piper as the narrator] she can walk us through and as she gets introduced to all of the women, she helps us see them fully. [The show’s creator Jenji Kohan] certainly used a character like Piper to bring us into the prison and maybe for some of us who don’t want to take that journey, it made prison accessible and made us laugh and feel comfortable,” Uzo Aduba, who plays fan favorite “Crazy Eyes,” told EBONY.
“These are people we wouldn’t normally see on television,” says Aduba, whose character is initially somewhat intimidating, but is revealed to be a layered woman who’s sincerity and compassion are both disarming and engaging. “I wanted to balance the vulnerability and intensity that she possesses inside of her. She wants to be loved. What’s exciting is watching these human stories take place in a situation where people have been stripped of their humanity,” says Aduba.
Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset—one of only a handful of trans women characters to be portrayed by an actual trans woman—is another significant departure pack from the traditional formula that either charges White protagonists with telling the stories of people or color and relies on a standard series of tragic narratives that are normally associated with trans and queer characters on television.
“The show is about all of the women, not just Piper. We live in a multicultural world,” said Cox, “and that’s what excites me is that these ideas surrounding privilege are explored. It’s about the system and how it will prioritize stories like Piper’s. I’ve had a lot of experience as a producer and it’s very hard to get a show made about women of color. My job as an actor was to take this role, and infuse as much humanity into the character as possible.”
Jennifer Pozner, media critic and author of the book Reality Bites Back, says, “You go from that to the kind of diverse ensemble cast that has rarely if ever been seen, certainly not in the last 10 years on television, where Black women and Latina women, are not only in plentiful roles, but where those roles are often nuanced, challenging, sometimes screwed up, but that’s fine too.”
Pozner says, “This show opens up options for Black actresses and for viewers abilities to identify with women of color as main characters when that opportunity is deprived from viewers in the majority of television. This is not something we usually get to experience. The ability for women viewers of color that have characters that look like them that are main and ensemble characters that are not the sassy friend or a dead victim on a procedural is a real breakthrough moment.”
Orange Is the New Black further solidifies its groundbreaking status by allowing us to see the back stories that explain how these women ended up in federal prison. While Black and Brown women are over-indexed in the prison population, the assumption of many is that there is some inherent deficiency that forces them to find themselves there. Through this group of relatable women, we find that a very small mistake is often what stands between those of us on the outside and those who are locked up.
As Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) says on the show’s sixth episode, “We all just made a wrong turn going to church.”
A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Sophia Burset was the first trans woman to be portrayed by a trans woman on television.