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Orange is the New Black’s Characters Will Show You Who They Truly Are
by Ann Marie Brokmeier
*possible Season 1 and Season 2 spoilers ahead
If you are woman-identified, you can log into Netflix and likely see representation of your gender identity, race, age, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class by simply clicking onto season three of Orange is the New Black. The prisoners of Litchfield prison are back and will be getting deeper under your skin and into your heart than ever.
Based on the non-fiction novel, Orange is the New Black, written by Piper Kerman, this Netflix-original series has worked on creating more diverse characters with more depth than seen most anywhere in mainstream television today. OINTB is created by Jenji Kohan of Weeds fame, who has worked tirelessly with the writers, producers, and casting directors (among many others) to create an extremely diverse cast. Selenis Leyva, who plays OINTB’s Gloria, stated in a Television Academy panel that OINTB is one of the only shows to give minorities a voice. Uzo Adubo, who plays Suzanne, agreed, noting the specialness of having no token minorities in the cast.
OINTB’s main character Piper Chapman, convicted of internationally smuggling illicit drugs, may seem like a character that we see enough of on television right now: a rich, white woman. While her character does explore the privilege of being white, being educated, and being affluent, she also brings to screen an identity that is rarely visible in media: a bisexual “or possibly pansexual“ character. While there are more and more gay and lesbian characters on television today, bisexual characters usually serve as a character that is confused, promiscuous, or identifies as bisexual only as a way to transition to identifying as gay. OINTB is not unaware of this, and addresses it a few times, most notably with Cal, Piper’s younger brother, responding to Piper’s husbands worry that she is going to “turn gay”: I’m going to go ahead and guess that one of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything. While OINTB doesn’t always get it right with bisexuality, they do provide a more nuanced character than has been shown in most major television shows thus far.
Laverne Cox has reached peak levels of fame due to OINTB and is one of the most well-known trans advocates in the US. She is a trans woman of color and is giving a voice to those that have been silenced for years previously. Her character, Sophia Warren, has been convicted of credit fraud in order to pay for her transition. OINTB does more than to simply address the severe financial issues that Sophia (along with many other trans folks). Her storyline goes on to detail the emotional difficulty with her son and ex-wife, her social issues such as bullying and harassment at the hands of the guards and some of the inmates, and the bureaucratic issue of being denied her hormone treatments (and the physical, mental, and emotional problems that come with that). These issues are not limited to Sophia alone. A report from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 16% of trans people surveyed had spent at least some time in a jail or prison, and many have reported subpar or abusive experiences while there; in many cases, even being placed in a prison of the incorrect gender for that person’s identity, which can be humiliating at best, and fatal at worst.
While many other characters fall somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, Orange is the New Black is not only about LGBTQ representation.Â Suzanne Warren (played by the talented Uzo Aduba), deemed Crazy Eyes by some, is a great example of someone constantly struggling with mental health issues. Sometimes, the audience sees Suzanne wrestling with her mental health problems and functioning, but we are always brought back to an inexplicably kind, thoughtful, and loving character. She is an important example that mental illness is common in the prison industrial complex, yet is rarely addressed. The Bureau of Justice has reported that up to 75% of female inmates in state prisons will experience a mental health problem requiring mental health services in any given year.
Domestic violence is another issue that OINTB does not shy away from. In fact, most, if not all characters have dealt with being in a relationship that is structured around unbalanced power and control, whether that is portrayed outside or inside the prison. Gloria Mendoza, played by Selenis Leyva, has a background story rooted in a physically, financially, and emotionally abusive relationship. Her struggles are not unlike those of many American women. The audience can see that, years later, Gloria is still deeply affected by this abuse, while at the same time, she is stepping into a strong, independent leadership role within the prison. Like many OINTB characters, Gloria’s prior struggles do not define her, but do shape her as a character.
These are only a handful of the plethora of characters living in Litchfield prison, and viewers can look forward to even more in this upcoming season. Orange is the New Black may be a comedy, but in true Jenji Kohan-style, it also forces its viewers to look deeply inside themselves to confront their own prejudices, fears, and identities. Here are some great resources to turn to if you find yourself in crisis and needing to speak to someone:
Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
GLBT National Help Center hotline: 888-843-4564
The Trevor Project hotline (for LGBTQ children & teens): 866-488-7386
Suicide Prevention & Intervention hotline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
HopeWorks™ 24-Hour Sexual, Dating and Domestic Violence Helpline: 410-997-2272 // 800-752-0191
Written by Intern Ann Marie B.
Edited by Community Engagement Coordinator Dominic G.
You can reach Dominic at email@example.com!
The views expressed in this article are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of HopeWorks of Howard County.