Race, Sexuality, and Tampon Sandwiches: Orange is the New Black is Outrageous

by Mary Grace Garis

Piper Chapman, three months shy of her incarceration in federal prison, lounges on the beach with her fiancé Larry, gabbing casually about her jailtime to-do list.

“I’m going to read everything on my Amazon wishlist. And maybe even learn a craft, you know? I could be crafty.” Oh, girl.

You know that the protagonist of Netflix’s new original series, Orange is the New Black, is about to have a rude awakening. 

And don’t worry. In this dark dramedy – based on the real life experiences of Piper Kerman and created by Jenji Kohan – shit gets real real quick. Mild spoilers abound, so approach with caution. 

Piper’s arrival to prison is met with the confusion of staff, because she – blonde, white, engaged to a nice boy, college-educated and well-bred – does not “belong” there.

She’s instantly pigeonholed in that role, just an innocent who got mixed up in some trouble. Her counselor assures her that she’ll be safe and protected, and that “there will be lesbians” but she should just “stay away from them.” Ha.

Mind you, Piper’s imprisonment is the result of transporting illegal drug money a decade prior as a favor for her former girlfriend, Alex Vause, who’s played by Laura Prepon,. Alex also happens to be at same facility as Piper (fun! plot twist!) and tensions (sexual or otherwise) are high. It’s a good role for Prepon, it almost made me forget that unfortunate Chelsea Handler sitcom she did for like a week. Not Donna from That 70’s Show, tho. Never forget

On the inside, nobody cares that Piper has good manners, or that she prepped prison by reading self help guides. And to make the transition even worse Piper, like most of us would, approaches prison-life with a variety of amateur-hour fuck-ups. This includes accidently insulting the head chef’s cooking. For future reference: if any of you ever end up going to jail, say only nice things about the food, lest you want someone you pull a Donita Sparks on you. 

The entire place reeks of moral ambiguity, corruption, and probably meatloaf. But soon enough, Piper begins to feel more at home.


As the show continues, the narrative gets broadened. It doesn’t just follow our WASPy, flaxen-haired heroine,  it spreads quickly to a community level. Each episode gives us insight on an inmate’s origins through flashbacks, and none of them are particularly pretty.

The weird racial segregation of tribes, the different ways people discriminate against each other, and the different ways they learn to coexist in a the same cage. And also for once, we have a widespread of diversity. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, there’s a trans-woman (who is actually played by a trans-woman,) a whole SLEW of differing sexual orientations, ages, sizes, everything.

I have to interject here; I’m not saying this as a critique of the show itself, but isn’t it really sad that one of the few times we minorities distributed fairly evenly is on a show about prison? I mean, it works for the storytelling of this series, and I think at the end of the day each character gets their chance to be more than a stereotype, to be humanized and empathized with. But. Still. The show’s diversity is great, but the setting makes it depressing.

Jason Pie-Fucker Biggs is playing her devoted fiancé,  btw. He’s a good guy, I guess, I have no problem with him. Actually, halfway through the season he brags at a newsstand about this column he’s doing on Piper, and it was the most relatable moment for me. Rest assured I will be doing that at Barnes and Noble in a week and a half.

But this isn’t a story about him, as much as he thinks it may be. At the center, there is still Piper, gradually developing her gills in the fishbowl, and further recognizing her place in the world (what’s the term…oh right, “character development.”)

As she tries to explain to Alex, “I’m not somebody’s girlfriend. I’m not some cool story at a yuppie cocktail party…Those things we did, that wasn’t an adventure, or a romp, that was my life.”

Brilliant. So it’s edgy and deep and more-or-less fascinating. It explores the lives of complex women, that were punished from deviating from the expectations of a traditional “lady.” Natasha Lyonne is in it and her hair looks like a lion’s man. So just watch it. Just put aside an otherwise empty weekend and ploy through it.

OR, if you’ve already checked it out, let us know what you think in the comment section!

Images via tubefilter.com, tv.nytimes.com, vulture.com, tbivision.com

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