When I first joined the crowd and watched the popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black, my reaction was mixed. Yes, the first season accomplishes the goals of a television drama. It is entertaining, has an interesting plot, contains character development, has strong dialogue, and inspires pathos. The show also provides insight regarding the United States prison system. As viewers awaited the release of season two on June 6, however, I couldn’t shake the thought that the first season pales somewhat when compared to the memoir (of the same title) by Piper Kerman, on which it is based.
Kerman spent a year as an inmate, primarily at the minimum-security prison camp that is part of the women’s Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Danbury, Connecticut. She tells the story of her time there thoughtfully, with integrity, and with loyalty to the women who she came to know and consider friends. She acknowledges the mistake that she made, as a young woman, when she followed her girlfriend into the world of a drug cartel, resulting in an incident involving drug money that, ultimately, caused her stay in Danbury. Beyond Kerman’s personal story, it is clear that she desires to draw attention to the larger issue at hand— a justice system fraught with injustice. As USA Today put it, Orange is the New Black “transcends the memoir genre’s usual self-centeredness to explore how human beings can always surprise you.” The problem with the Netflix adaptation of the memoir is an objectification of female inmates, using stereotypes and sexuality for entertainment value and stretching the truth of Kerman’s story in unsettling ways, from a feminist perspective.
To begin with, the sexuality that, undoubtedly, has attracted quite a bit of the attention that the show has received, is evoked in an, arguably, derogatory manner. Lesbianism is something that Kerman addresses in the memoir as a fact of prison life. She herself was the subject of advances from fellow inmates. There was no coercion to be “gay for the stay,” however. According to Kerman, there was nothing particularly aggressive or overly concerning about these interactions. Kerman, who had a male fiancé at the time, set boundaries that were respected. Kerman gives the distinct impression that an awareness of boundaries and tolerance are key to maintaining civility while living in the close quarters of prison and, at Danbury, were essentially part of a code of ethics.
It is telling that the theme song for the Netflix series contains the lyrics “trapped like an animal.” The type of “caged heat” atmosphere that the show portrays, with rather explicit sex scenes, just does not exist in the memoir. Kerman emphasizes, in fact, that the lack of privacy in prison makes romantic relationships difficult to maintain. Inmates are more likely to be treated like a piece of meat by a corrections officer than to find true romantic love among their peers, according to Kerman. And, though Kerman did encounter the co-defendant and ex-girlfriend who was part of the drug cartel during her time as an inmate, they did not re-enter into a tumultuous and sexual relationship, as they briefly do in the TV show. Instead, Kerman indicates that they were uneasy but civil allies. Netflix takes a predictably voyeuristic audience interest in the issue of sexuality in women’s prisons, as well as lesbian relationships in general, and utilizes it for entertainment value in a way that is problematic. One need not look further than the spread of cast photos published by ELLE Magazine to get a hint of how the show utilizes sex appeal.
This “caged heat” interpretation of the memoir extends to interpersonal violence and harassment. In the TV series, Kerman’s character (Taylor Schilling) makes the faux pas of criticizing the Danbury cook’s food and receives harsh, tampon-related retaliation. While Kerman did make such a mistake in reality, it did not carry same weight and the cook, Pop, actually became a mentor to her. In fact, Kerman seems to endure more than her fair share of negative interactions throughout the Netflix interpretation. In the world of Danbury remembered by Kerman, many of the situations presented in the TV series would be feasible but unlikely to occur to so few people. By the end of the first season, our heroine is facing rejection from her fiancé and is threatened by a homicidal fundamentalist Christian inmate. Drug smuggling occurs and forbidden relationships abound. These are just a few of the problems occurring in Netflix’s Danbury.
Part of the point of such TV shows is, of course, entertainment and drama. In dealing with such serious material, however, it is important not to diminish the truth for the sake of ratings and reviews. The Danbury that Kerman recounts in her memoir and her experiences certainly have their dramatic aspects, but Netflix embellishes those truths so that they are, in part, lost. Kerman’s real-life fiancé, for instance, is hearteningly supportive of her and writes an article that strengthens their relationship, rather than signal a downward spiral, as it does in the series. This relationship difficulty is just a part of the deluge of negativity that the Netflix plot releases upon fictional Kerman. In addition, the religious individuals that Kerman encounters in prison are women who she has profound conversations with, practices sanity-saving yoga with, and who become her friends, rather than corner her in the shower with sharp objects. Kerman’s memoir states that she never got into a real physical fight and she does not recount experiencing any personal entanglements regarding solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), circumstances which do occur in the series.
The women of Danbury are a commendably strong community, as Kerman conveys them. In both the book and the television show, prison “mothers” are responsible for “daughters,” since women who are little more than girls are locked up with older inmates, a fact that Kerman laments in her memoir. They celebrate holidays, birthdays, and victories. They support one another in loss. Kerman tutors a woman taking a college class, one of the few programs available to inmates, and sees her bunkmate receive passing GED scores after multiple attempts. Education and preparation for life outside are concerns that Kerman analyzes throughout the memoir. She acknowledges that her personal circumstances, as a college graduate with an incredible support network, were much luckier than those of many members of the Danbury family. She saw little effort made by the prison system to prepare women to re-enter society. Many of the women were in on drug-related charges and, sometimes, had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Among their primary needs, Kerman reminds her readers, were resources and addiction treatment. These weren’t violent criminals. Kerman conveys a community of women who are often caught up in a flawed system, in the “revolving door” between impoverished neighborhoods and prison, and try their best to support one another as they attempt to navigate their way out of the dizzying cycle.
They represent a sisterhood capable of great strength in adverse circumstances. There is evidence of this unity in the Netflix series, as seen during the holiday pageant they perform in the final episode of the first season. Such moments are somewhat negated, however, because there are too many instances in which the women are reduced to violent, self-serving sex objects. In my opinion, the viewer’s gaze comes to feel tellingly patriarchal. At times, it’s as if we take on the role of the prison system itself as we watch. This perspective is likely to cause an analytical, feminist individual to become discomforted and reflective, possibly resulting in a lukewarm or conflicted response to the show. This conflicted feeling is reflected in the ELLE Magazine photographs, with their contrasting opulent dresses and prison bars. The images bestow the cast members with a certain dignity and are objectifying at the same time. There are probably many people who will take the “caged heat” factor that is present in the show at face value, not fully respecting the rich stories, relationships, individuals, and institutional problems that are diminished by entertainment for entertainment’s sake. If we take the time to really sit with that conflicted feeling of discomfort, however, to experience it and learn from it, to look at our prison system with fresh eyes, Kerman’s message just may be heard.