Warning: Content Warning and Spoilers.
Sitting on a caramel-colored couch, leaning as far forward as my body allowed and clutching a colorful, plume-stuffed pillow. Teeth clenched, popcorn strewn across the coffee table and floor, and the faint but rhythmic beating of my heart. That was me binging the ever-so-intense “Orange is the New Black” when it came out on June 17.
No one ever believed the Netflix Original series would make it big — not the writer, not the producer and not the actors themselves. Some of the actresses, like Samira Wiley, even kept their old jobs because nobody knew whether the show would be received well, let alone become the most-watched show on Netflix to date. Four years later, people are still raving. You see Halloween costumes of “OITNB” crews, books being published about it, and articles galore.
The reason that so many people love it is because it’s different. It’s compelling because it delves into the power of prison dynamics, because it revolts against the system and injustices that permeate it, and because it portrays women as strong and fierce and beautiful. The storyline began as a WASP’s journey through prison, facing her ex-girlfriend, crazy inmates, unhelpful guards, and a useless fiancé. And while that may excite the small percentage of rich, middle-aged ladies who get more manicures a month than I can count, it certainly doesn’t stop there. The show targets any and all women, men and human beings alike because it is so diverse and unique. The show that started out white-focused grew into a platform for conversation about Latinx and black lives so beautifully that I couldn’t understand why nobody had thought about doing it before.
The show creator, Jengi Kohen, sought to humanize prisoners and shed light on the prison systems, drenched with cruelties and injustices like solitary punishment and ineffective counseling. Through flashbacks, the audience is able to connect with the characters and understand that the shootings and the killings and the social disarray in our world involve real people. Learning about Taystee’s experience with the foster care system allowed me to understand why she’s so grounded and family-oriented. Going through Daya’s pregnancy with her illuminated the lack of dignity prisoners receive. Knowing that Bayley, the kid who used to scoop ice cream, was the one responsible for Poussey’s death made our feelings all the more difficult to process. It’s supposed to be complicated. Life imitates art, so they say. And here, they did a fine job representing that.
But this is not about me and why I like the show. This is about the bigger picture. This is about how “Orange is the New Black’s” new season could not have come at a better time. Amidst all of the news reports of mass shootings, murders of transgender women of color and police brutality, there was no better way to reach a more diverse audience than through television. The show drew us into it, into the lives of the many inmates, where we experiences love-hate relationships with Pennsatucky and Piper, full-on hate relationships with Vee, and never-ending love for characters like Taystee and Poussey. Through portrayals of injustices within a confined space like a women’s prison, “OITNB” writers and producers allowed for an organic dialogue to be produced about social injustices. Season Four’s focus was on the Black Lives Matter movement. Four years after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the hundreds of other individuals whose lives have been lost to hate crimes and police brutality, the movement has only grown, gaining more and more support for political reformation and police restructuring.
In Season Four, we follow the “OITNB” crew through a “White Lives Matter”/Nazi-based movement accidentally led by Piper Chapman, clear guard preference for white inmates, and Poussey’s tragic death. Chapman’s development as the “annoying” and often-cringeworthy character is not accidental. We’re supposed to learn from the mistakes of people who believe themselves better than others, from those who do not value loyalty and friendship, and those who don’t know real compassion. We grow to love Daya for her kind heart and love for useless Bennett and her newborn baby. We sympathize with Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” because she’s locked in a sea full of crazy, suffering from mental illness, yet not receiving the help she needs. We realize that hateful people exist, and that by allowing hatred to fester (much like Piper did), movements like the “White Lives Matter” plague grow and create an unforgiveable culture of travesty and brutality.
Through television, “OITNB” is able to tackle the microaggressions faced by the Black and Latinx communities and dissect what it means to be marginalized and disempowered — a powerful effort, especially within a women’s prison, where civil liberties are often ignored and where people are forgotten by the greater society. Instances include scenes like like when the Latinas were more likely to be frisked than the white crew, where the first person tackled during the peaceful protet was a black woman, where a transgender woman of color is pushed to attempt suicide because of ongoing harassment, and where the white crew defends their TV rights by calling the Latinas degenerate and discriminatory names. This is the world we live in. The final blow, the accidental murder of Poussey during the final episode, culminated seasons’ worth of discrimination and name-calling into a single moment, forever etched into the memories of viewers everywhere. We are supposed to feel angry and scared and like we’re close to vomiting. We’re supposed to want to fight back.
These acts of violence transgress the cement prison walls and wire fencing into our own lives. We see it every day. We notice that police presence has increased in predominately black neighborhoods and that blame on crime rates is placed on the neighborhoods in which they occur and not on the system that birthed the crime itself. We notice that significantly fewer Black and Latinx folks attend schools like Johns Hopkins, even though the city’s population is majority black. We notice that foundation brands carry colors only from “Ivory” to “Sandy.” We notice these little things that construe a culture of fear — a culture where Black and Latinx folks must walk about with eyes on the backs of their heads, fearful of police and fearful of authority because it has failed us and our people so many times before. We live in a world where trauma and tragedy occur on the daily, where young white cisgender boys are excused of brutal rape but where an innocent and defenseless black man can be shot at the blink of an eye simply for being black. We feel the rage and the sadness and the fear that the inmates feel because we’re supposed to rise up. We’re supposed to stand up for what we do not like and for what is wrong in our society. We’re supposed to fight back and reclaim our freedom and demand justice.
It is shows like “Orange is the New Black” that provide a platform for conversation about the social failures of our society that continually disempower Blacks, Latinx folks, and people of color in general. The rise in social justice-oriented television and film work educates people who otherwise wouldn’t understand what it’s like to be discriminated against, who don’t have black friends and who don’t quite know how to ask the proper questions. It is shows like “OITNB” that illuminate the systematic oppression faced by millions of people for nothing more than the superficial or the undeserved.
Black Lives Matter is not a moment, but a movement meant to inspire revolution and systematic reorganization of our society and our world. The movement aims to eradicate the institutional and almost secured fatal targeting of black people and secure a lived equality for all. And if creating a show about a women’s prison brings us one step closer to revolution and equality, then so be it. I will stand behind my Black and Latinx people every step of the way.