A Prison of Her Own Making: Orange is the New Black E01 S01

12 July 2013
Orange is the New Black S01 E01

Piper Chapman takes her first prison shower.

Orange is the New Black is a recent Netflix original dramedy series. I’m not sure how widely it’s being promoted around the country or internationally, but here in Los Angeles, we’ve been bombarded with billboards and bus advertisements for the past few weeks. I’m sure there are lots of good synopses already floating around the internet, and here’s a link to the Wikipedia page. I realize it’s the height of arrogance to refrain from providing a brief summary of the show and its origins, but there are already so many good writers out there who do that quite well, and I have other topics I want to discuss:

For much of the first episode, Piper Chapman is a blank slate. We don’t get a sense of her character before the unexpected detour to prison, rather we meet her in the throes of emotional preparation. I do not know Piper Chapman at rest. I know only a woman whose world has been rocked by a belated prison sentence.

Who is Piper Chapman before this news? This question is resolved through flashbacks, but these brief glimpses into Piper’s history are mostly expository scenes designed to inform her current experiences in prison. They don’t tell us why she was once in love with a woman, or how she met her male fiancé, or how her soap-making business with her best friend has progressed. All we see is a woman on the verge.

Piper’s distress rings false precisely because we have rarely seen her in moments where she is not distressed. We cannot gauge the extent of her emotional landscape when we have no neutral territory with which to compare it.

So instead we are given wide-ranging, excessive displays of female vulnerability. These instances are meant to overwhelm our sympathies in a vast show of universal feeling, perhaps to compensate for the fact that we have never met Piper Chapman in a moment of peace. The episode opens with the classic trope of ‘nude woman in the shower’, an image that might arouse my pathos for Piper if I actually knew anything about her character. As it stands, this scene comes way too early in the episode, and strikes me as a cheap attempt to conjure up feeling for a woman in a difficult situation.

Let me again state, with the emphasis afforded by obscenity, that I am really fucking sick of seeing female nudity constantly equated with vulnerability. A scene that follows the shower scene depicts Piper on the toilet, crying. This moment is book-ended by snatches of a love scene with her fiancé, but the camera lingers over Piper’s wrenching misery as she wipes herself with toilet paper. Brief flashes of Piper’s bare snatch complete this picture of desolation, a scene that would be altogether more affecting if we knew more about Piper than the fact that she is a pretty white woman of some means who is being cruelly shipped off to the big house.

If I had a better sense of Piper as a character, subsequent scenes of this nature would likely feel more dimensional and meaningful. There is something powerful in Piper’s recognition of her situation: she is so moved that she leaves her bed and fiancé, physically putting herself in a private, solitary place so that she can feel her emotions. But without the context of Piper’s life prior to the prison sentence, I just can’t see past the sad upper-middle-class white lady sitting on a toilet.

Maybe this is the point. Maybe Piper is meant to be a vaguely symbolic Everywoman. A vast cipher waiting to be filled from the repository of our collective memories. Piper is intellectually blank, but emotionally overwhelming exactly because we are supposed to imbue her with our own personalities. How you have lived and what you have seen informs your reaction to Piper’s emotional responses. We can’t easily see where emotions come from within Piper, but perhaps we can instead see where the same emotions come from within ourselves.

This is a generous understanding of the first episode of Orange is the New Black. I am trying to be more generous in my assessments of television these days because I recognize the sheer amount of labor that goes into creating a television show of this caliber–meaning, a television show that stands up to scrutiny and is worth talking about.

But mostly I don’t write in this blog anymore. For the time being, I have chosen to seek work in an industry akin to prison. An industry with its own hierarchical demands and arbitrary system of power. I worry that if I air my thought process as a viewer and critic too regularly, it will be difficult for me to find work as a writer. At times, this mentality can feel as dirty as a prison shower.

So I remind myself of something Satan said a very long time ago in Paradise Lost. I can only assume he was thinking of Hollywood.

…Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?

Sometimes you just have to listen to the devil. Stay tuned.