I can only assume that because Orange is the New Black has become so popular and so widely discussed that there is something to take away from it – many things to take from it, arguably. And, in watching through it a few times with different people, I picked up on what I believe to be some important messages to take from the stories of the women at Litchfield.
Fair warning: there are spoilers beyond this point.
1. Women do not wear makeup for men.
Red’s most sought-after imports? Makeup (blue eye shadow, mascara, red lipstick), facial cleansers, panty hose, etc. If women supposedly wear makeup to impress men (read: “trick men into thinking women look differently than we do”), then why has Red been bringing in the stuff to an all-female penitentiary by the oat-filled barrel full? Why are there constant references to selling the more subtle stuff in commissary? Is it just for visiting hours? Or for the benefits of the eyes of the male guards? Both of those stretches of reasoning illicite a giant “PSH” from me, and I came up with them as I tried to play devil’s advocate with myself. No. These women are wearing makeup to cling to a sense of normalcy during their incarceration. Wearing makeup is something that has been culturally relevant and normalized in societies for thousands of years. For half of today’s population to claim that the other half performs a daily ritual solely for the former’s benefit when faced with multiple scenarios to the contrary is completely self-involved and inaccurate.
2. “It coulda been me in khaki.”
There’s a point in season one when Fischer confronts Piper, telling her that she sees the two of them as the same; the only difference is that Fischer was never caught doing the illegal activities she then owns up to. “It could have been me, here in khaki, easy,” she says. And herein we find one of the key themes running through Orange is the New Black: choice and consequence. The choices we make have outcomes; the outcomes affect our lives immediately, after a few hours, or even 10 years down the road when the statutes of limitations is 12 years. And I’d argue that, for the majority of us, some of our choices would lead to incarceration were we simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. I could easily be in prison right now, or, at the least, have a criminal record. But, I digress, because all it takes is one slip, one of our own poorly planned intentions (good or bad) to pave our particular road to hell, or to paradise.
3. We can all relate.
One of the things I was surprised about upon watching through season one of Orange is the New Black was how relatable most of these women became. I expected more of a documentary-style viewing experience – to view these stories from a distance thinking that, since I’m not in prison, I surely can’t experience what these women are going through. While I can’t relate to the physical situation these characters are in, I can relate to the effect the feelings of exclusion have on a person (as in Red’s story); I have felt the pressures of debt, and I have loathed myself for having to owe something to someone (Tricia Miller); I’ve been treated as an “other,” as someone who belongs to another group of people altogether (Janae Watson); I’ve yet to feel as though I’ve found a “forever home” (Taystee Jefferson). Everyone has a story; everyone has had a human experience, and OITNB has done a beautiful job of showing the humanity that can be found in a place that society typically views as devoid of all such traces.
4. Women need to protect other women.
Interpersonal wars aside, someone would be hard pressed to argue that these women don’t take care of one another. The palpable sadness and regret that generates from every character following the death of Tricia Miller and the inevitability of Rosa’s failing chemo treatments and the attempted murder of Red show that there is the “us vs. them” mentality between the inmates but an even larger, overarching mentality between the women (their “us”) and any potential threat from the outside (“them”). Historically and psychologically, women are more likely to see other women as opponents when that should not be the case. Another woman is typically not a threat to me, just as Red and drugs were not real threats to Miller; the real problem was Pornstache pressuring her and pushing drugs and his own problems off on her, constantly reminding her of where she is and how worthless she supposedly is to him and to society. Our society is structured to keep women from being able to rise above the positions we were born into without serious amounts of help, either from women who came before us or from men genuinely looking to help or from men looking to take advantage of perseverance. This is why one of the most imperative things a woman can do to empower herself is to empower and protect other women, and why it is so important that Orange is the New Black is speaking to that.
5. Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard.
This line from the Orange is the New Black theme song written by Regina Spektor is one that has always resonated with me for personal reasons, but there is a lesson that stems from these few short words in episode 10 of season one when Piper “scares straight” a particularly difficult teenage delinquent (Dina) visiting the prison. In a particularly intense bathroom scene, Piper explains to Dina that it’s easy to pretend you’re something that you’re not outside of prison; you can just keep moving and keep distracting yourself, convincing yourself that you’re a good, strong person. In prison, you’re forced to stop and really face yourself and your choices and you realize who you really are, without all of the distractions of the real world. Since hearing that lyric and watching Piper’s scare tactic, I’ve taken whole days to stop all of the distractions around me and really look at myself, at the way my life is going, at the people I’ve surrounded myself with, at the choices I’ve made and am in the process of making; and this is something I invite you, the reader of this article, to do. Maybe that doesn’t sound like as scary of a thing for you as it was for Piper, or for Dina, or for me, but I think that in such a fast paced world a lot can be learned by stopping and going inward. This lesson is handed to us on a silver platter by Piper Kerman and by everyone who has had any hand in “Orange is the New Black” so that it’s not something we have to be incarcerated to experience. That alone is worth all of the things we take away from this show. That is what makes this show so relatable: that we are all beings having a human experience and, while we may be surrounded by people most of the time, it is ourselves that we ultimately have to face; it is ourselves that we have to acknowledge and accept in order to continue living our lives.