'Orange is the New Black': Redefining Modern Television

'Orange is the New Black': Redefining Modern Television

Kristen Field 

I have no doubt, as many people proclaim, that this is a golden age for television. We have Netflix pushing cable and free-to-air networks to up their game and the writing being done for television, for the most part, is more complex and challenging and offers us more intricate characterisation than it ever has in the past. But more than that, show runners are beginning to give voices to people who have, until recently, been almost entirely silent on television as well as all others forms of media.

In the case of Orange is the New Black, this empowerment through speech applies both metaphorically to the characters portrayed in the show and quite literally to the number of female writers on staff. In the show’s most recent season, eight out of thirteen episodes were written solely by women, a percentage almost unheard of in television.

I should know, as I sit through the opening credits of every show I watch thinking please be written by a woman, please be written by a woman and nine times out of ten I am sorely disappointed.

On top of this momentous shift towards giving female writers a chance to be heard, Orange is the New Black, along with every show of Shonda Rhimes’ television empire, make concerted efforts to pull marginalised members of society out of the realm of invisibility.

We see people of every colour on these shows, and across the entire range of the Kinsey scale, but what’s most astounding is that this is not the most important thing about those characters. Their race and sexuality is far from ignored, but we get to see all facets of their personality and bear witness to the fact that they are more than the labels society places on them.

In Orange, this comes in the form of flashbacks and juxtaposing the lives these women face in prison with their existence in the outside world. This reveals how these women are more than the crimes they have committed and illustrates how little freedom they had even before they were sent behind bars.

The notion of autonomy is something this show explores to great effect. The complexity of these characters’ lives and the struggles they face – both with others and within themselves – is what makes this show so thrilling to watch, and this third season was in no way a disappointment.

...I sit through the opening credits of every show I watch thinking 'please be written by a woman, please be written by a woman' and nine times out of ten I am sorely disappointed.

Orange continued to demonstrate the devastating effects of prison on the lives of these women from the first episode of this season. We see Lorna getting ready to be primped by Sophia, allegedly because her partner and children are coming to visit her for Mother’s Day. When another inmate, Maria, calls her a liar Lorna turns to begging, pleading, 'Let me feel like a person!'. She then admits, 'I really haven’t been feeling so good lately… dolling up’s the only way I got to feel better.' 

Yael Stone’s delivery of this line is heart wrenching, giving the audience a visceral sense of just how much she has lost. Whether this is because of her own struggles with mental illness or her incarceration, or a combination of both, we can’t be sure. But the scene is no less devastating because of this ambiguity. In fact, I’d argue that the show’s power stems from such refusals to rely on simple cause-and-effect exposition to explain away the very essence of these characters.

The three other story arcs that pulled on my heartstrings were those of Nicky, Poussey, and Brook. I’m hoping that we haven’t seen the last of Nicky, after she was sent away to the maximum-security prison down the road for hiding heroin. The episode that centred on her addiction was painful to watch.

Again, however, there was a constant underlying question of whether being in prison had made her struggles all the more worse, or whether she would have been in the same position if she was out in the world, facing the possibility of relapse every day. On a side-note, Lorna’s reaction to having Nicky taken away kind of destroyed me. I just want them to be happy. Together.

Poussey’s scene on the floor of a stairwell, finally breaking down in front of her best – and possibly only – friend, unable to deal with the unbearable loneliness of her life was another heartbreaker. She’s teetering on the brink of substance abuse at the moment, and I just hope that Taystee’s friendship is enough to pull her out of that dark place next season. And a fling with Brook wouldn’t be objectionable, either.

Speaking of Brook Soso, she definitely takes the prize for greatest transformation, going from the most annoying character to one of the most engaging. Her struggle during this season with depression and her eventual suicide attempt were another glaring portrayal of the destructive effects of incarceration and the cluelessness of so many of the people who are in charge of looking after these women.

The emergence of her apprehensive friendship with Poussey and the other black women at Litchfield at the end of the season was something unexpected but also full of truth and hope. These women are beginning to realise that all they have is each other, and their actions are starting to reflect this growing understanding.

It means so much as a queer woman to see characters like these on a television show that is so widely watched and praised by critics and viewers alike. I can’t imagine what someone who doesn’t conform to gender norms, like Carrie (Big Boo), would have felt watching Lea DeLaria’s speech on the necessity of embracing your inner truth. And I cannot imagine what it means for trans women of colour to see Laverne Cox stand up for herself episode after episode and highlight the transphobia that is still prevalent in almost every facet of society today.

All I know is that we need more stories like these to be shared, and more voices like these to be given a chance to be heard. If we took the time to listen, I think we’d be astounded by what we could learn.

Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.