The only reason why I didn’t marathon Orange is the New Black season 2 in a single weekend is the fact that I’m a working adult with other responsibilities and sleep is precious to me. That being said, I blew through it just like everyone else and like last season, the show continues to prove itself more diverse and honest about a range of social issues than most other shows that enjoy immense popularity.
This season is less about Piper and more about everyone else. Poussey and Taystee, along with being my BrOTP for this series, are perhaps the most dynamic characters. Morello is up there, too, and of course Piper gets some character development, but it really seems that these 13 episodes are all about the women of color (would’ve loved some more Sophia, though). That, in my opinion, is both the direction the show needed to take and how Piper Kerman would like her memoir’s legacy to unfold. The entire book, really, is a balance between white privilege and breaking the silence on issues that definitely need to reach public consciousness. In that vein, the TV show shifts its focus to tell some fascinating stories and make poignant points.
“No one gives a shit about old ladies. We remind everyone that they’re going to die.”
I noted in my post about Katara’s portrayal in Legend of Korra that old people, especially old women, are rarely featured in stories. When they are, they may be confined to very small roles since a lot of people creating stories are young and many of us, perhaps, feel lost if tasked to write well-rounded old people.
However, OITNB does more for old women than anything else I’ve seen or read that’s also as widely popular as this show is. In season 1, we got a little bit of Yoga Jones (though we have yet to see her flashbacks), but in season 2, the Golden Girls get much more attention as Red finds herself trying to start over after losing the kitchen. Though the clan of old ladies still isn’t heavily featured, they’re given a complete story that ends up proving the quote above.
At first, the audience laughs at Jimmy’s random one-liners and her constant searching for Jack, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s completely lost to Alzheimer’s. Still, we don’t expect anything truly terrible to happen to her, but as her condition worsens, she endangers herself by jumping off the stage in the cathedral, believing it’s a pool. The prison’s response to this is to give her a “compassionate release.” Instead of paying for treatment, they drop her off at a bus stop to fend for herself. This is basically a death sentence, since we learn from other characters that she has no family and nowhere to go. Her desperate cries for “Roberta” (Piper) as the guards load her into the van are heart wrenching, and the entire scene is one of the most sobering in the entire show. Closely related is Vee’s manipulation of another character with a mental illness: Suzanne.
No one gives a shit about old ladies or the homeless—this is how society in general conducts itself. OITNB once again unearths another layer of injustice against criminals. Though this representation is tragic, it’s a necessary reality for the show’s mostly young audience to see.
Piper and her white privilege
OITNB isn’t shy about examining racism and Piper’s self-defending rant in the cafeteria when everyone keeps treating her poorly because she got furlough is another example of how she still doesn’t quite get it. I think she understands it in her head—she knows on some level that her white middle class privilege has benefited her the entire time in prison, but she doesn’t actually know it in her heart. She turns the entire cafeteria into her own soapbox and when the other inmates still don’t leave her alone, she attempts to reverse her furlough, but she’s really making the entire situation about her. If she truly understood her privilege, she might have unabashedly admitted it and how unfair it really is and left it at that. Instead, she makes the entire situation center on her feelings, even when she appeals to Healy to reverse it. Piper tries making herself a martyr to cure her guilt.
The series isn’t over yet, so maybe Piper will learn. Maybe she’ll become a character who goes through all the stages of confronting her white privilege instead of running away from it. For now, she comes across as someone who is still self-absorbed, someone who still doesn’t understand just how much she benefits over everyone else. Something like that would not only capture part of the zeitgeist of our generation, but it would also make more mainstream the conversations that white people need to have amongst ourselves about our privilege and all of the consequences it has. In the end, it’s not about us being terrible individuals, but about honestly acknowledging history and our current society.
The black vs. Latinx problem
One aspect of OITNB that I think is truly flawed is its portrayal of Latinx* as a race, a race that is pitted against black people. Now, part of this is due to the narrative tension that the villain Vee creates in season 2, but this really perpetuates the false idea that Latinxs look a certain way and that black and latinx are mutually exclusive. First of all, Latinx is not a race. It’s an ethnicity that includes black people, white people, and anyone in between who claims all or a significant portion of their heritage in the Caribbean, and/or Central/South America (Equatorial Guinea may count, too, but I don’t know if people there choose to identify differently). This enmity between the black and Latina inmates ignores the reality that afrolatinxs exist.
While it’s amazing to see several Latinas in one show, there’s still this notion that Latinxs are homogenized. It’s very important to understand that Latinx is not a race and perhaps OITNB can challenge that in later seasons. Maybe one of the existing Latinas could acknowledge it. Daya seems like a natural choice since she’s more introspective, and her baby may turn out very white-passing. That and/or an afrolatina character joins the cast and causes a rift in the Litchfield inmates’ understanding of their “families.”
Orange is the New Black has plenty of room to further explore these issues and many more. Its popularity means that more and more people will become aware of problems that haven’t been in the spotlight. It’s a testament to the power of stories to change the way people think and hopefully future seasons will continue to engross us in stunning narratives relaying powerful themes.
* “Latinx” is an intentional spelling that includes genderqueer and non-binary people. When speaking about the community as a whole, I prefer using this more inclusive spelling. “Latin@,” though better than “Latino,” is still binary.