Sunday, July 14, 2013

Narwhal Spotting: Orange is the New Black


I'd like to say I've had another productive weekend of writing, networking, and fighting against the patriarchy. Ya know, typical weekend stuff.  

Spoiler Alert: I didn't nail it.

But that would be a big fat lie.

I've been binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. And I think I found my new favorite show.

OITNB tells the story of Piper, a preppy, upper class New Yorker who is sentenced to 15 months in prison on a decade-old drug trafficking charge.

Based on the eponymous memoir by Piper Kerman, the show follows our heroine as she arrives at and acclimates to life in Litchfield prison. 

And guess what? Girlfriend is a narwhal!

Piper is engaged to Larry, played by Jason Biggs. (Sidebar: every guy I dated in college and my early twenties looked like Jason Biggs. What can I say, I know my way around a Jewish fraternity!)

Would you like to accompany me to the AEPhi mixer?

But prior to Larry, Piper was in a relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon), a rockabilly, drug smuggling lesbian who is also serving time at Litchfield.

Free Donna Pinciotti!

In the pilot episode, Piper tells her family that she "used to be a lesbian." Yawn...we've seen this character before.

 But hold off on the sad trombone solo.

Unlike other shows that whitewash and downplay a bi character's same-sex relationships, OITNB doesn't treat this as a passing phase. 

Praying for a decent bisexual storyline.

We see flashbacks of Piper and Alex's relationship, and it's given the same depth and weight as her relationship with Larry.

That, in and of itself, is pretty groundbreaking. 

A bisexual lead character who, while she may not self identify as such, is rare. And a show that treats this identity with consideration and respect is exceedingly rare. Todd VanDerWerff from The A.V. Club articulates it perfectly: 

"Orange Is The New Black is also wonderfully insightful and complex when it comes to sex, notably Piper’s complicated sexual history. The crime that landed her in prison was smuggling drug money to help the girlfriend she had straight out of college (Laura Prepon). Though Piper is now engaged to a man and about to open the most upper-class white person business one could think of (selling designer soaps), her complicated, dangerous past and her lesbian relationship aren’t treated as flings. They’re treated as integral parts of her being that she’d hoped to set aside but finds resurfacing once she’s in prison and forced to confront the full weight of her past. Bisexual women are too often presented in fiction as women who are simply waiting to meet the right guy, but Orange Is The New Black understands how complicated this all can be. Piper really loved her ex-girlfriend; she really loves Larry. Both of those emotions are genuine, and neither is more genuine than the other. Her stint in prison, then, becomes less about owning up to something she did and more about accepting who she was and still is, in all its messy pieces. "

People are losing their minds over this show and it's easy to see why. It's an unparalleled, complicated look at the lives of women: women of varied ethnicity,  social class, body type, sexuality and gender presentation. It's a show that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. The already overwhelming response shows something we've all known for awhile.

Women's stories need to be told. And people need to hear them. 
Bertolt Brecht said, "art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” 

Who needs a hammer when you have a contraband screw driver?

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