Okay. Maybe it’s because it’s been a full season since I last saw Netflix’s original series Orange is the New Black. Maybe it’s because the glitz and glamor of the show and its “progressive” inclusion of diverse characters has worn off. Either way, when I sat to watch the first episode of season two, it was absolutely unmistakable: the show reeks of racialized privilege and power. Be forewarned: spoilers lie ahead.
No piece of pop culture or media is perfect. I know that. With that being said, sometimes a show’s plot can lean a bit too over to a regressive place, one where old stereotypes are replayed for a new audience. Not even the allure of new plot lines and the cherished return of old characters can hide racist and classist roots.
The show begins almost immediately foregrounding Piper’s privilege, her misplacement in a landscape of incarceration. Like the first season, Piper is declarative. As she is ushered out of the prison and onto a bus, she asks the guards and corrections officers where she is being taken: “I demand to know where I am being taken … I have a right to know.” In contrast to the other women on the bus, Piper is the only one who who speaks directly to the guards. Though subtle, this act demonstrates her status. Her background, her class, and her whiteness give her the access to question.
As she waits in line to board an airplane to an undisclosed location, Piper witnesses a black woman in front of her try to smuggle a razor blade onto the plane hidden under her tongue. The guards restrain the woman who is then forced to wear a plastic face cover on the plane (think Hannibal Lecter). The guard then processes Piper. The contrast between these two women is stark. Piper asks the man if she can use the restroom, saying “no sir” and “excuse me.” The guard says that she can use the restroom on the plane and thanks her for not soiling herself. A hierarchical relationship is created here between Piper and the black woman who preceded her, the woman who was told on the plane to “sit and stay.” Piper’s demeanor and the way the guards treat her render her human; she becomes someone who has common sense more so than her counterparts. In both her physicality and her behavior, Piper represents the ideal, though misplaced, citizen.
The presence of power is amplified when the plane makes a stop to pick up some male inmates. One of the black inmates turns and starts talking to Piper. He calls her “first class” and tells her that he’s saving a seat for her on his lap. As the camera focuses on Piper the look on her face is undeniable: she, a white woman, is terrified of this black man (later in the episode she nervously asks another inmate if the man is a rapist). This is where I literally pressed pause. Is this really where the show is taking us? Back to a historicized fear of black masculinity? A racist, 19th century framework?
The privileging of whiteness and the urging that there is inherent power in such a positionality continues when Piper enters into the new prison. While in the prison yard, she encounters a group of women standing in a circle like penguins, trying to keep warm. One woman invites Piper to join in the circle while she tells the others, “Penguin daddies are fucking men. Imagine our baby daddy’s staying in one spot, no food, taking care of the kids?” Piper replies, “You know, Emperor Penguins are setup for that. Physiologically speaking they have shorter feathers and an under layer of wooly down. I did a report on penguins once.” This scene is telling as it positions Piper as educator. She is a source of knowledge. I am constantly reminded in the show that Piper is better than, smarter than. Through this reinforcement I read Piper as a character that gives me (the viewer) access into enter a world where like her, I am a visitor. The prison becomes the exotic and the women inside of it become fetishized.
I have to stress that Orange is the New Black’s dichotomous reference to race is reductionary. The stressing of white as power, intelligence, access, rights, humanity, and citizenship versus color as its diametric opposite is overused and oversimplified. Put plainly, it’s time for a new, more nuanced reading of race, class, and privilege. Season two, I am not impressed. There will be no binge watching, or any watching of any kind for that matter, here.