After a successful year of pushing out original content, Netflix’s online streaming service has once again struck gold with the premiere of a brand new original series earlier this summer.
Based on the best-selling prison memoir by Piper Kerman, “Orange is the New Black” has been lauded by both viewers and critics for its accurate depiction of prison subculture and its diverse female cast.
In a recent interview with NPR, creator Jenji Kohan commented on the importance of having a white protagonist for her audience to relate to so she could successfully sell the stories of the other characters.
“You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals,” Kohan said. “But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”
Despite generally favorable reviews for Orange, Kohan’s comments are troubling.
Are we as a society so averse to the idea of women of color starring in our shows that we need a white figurehead to slowly acclimate us to their individual experiences?
Having never been to prison, I can see where Kohan is coming from. Piper is naïve, entitled and selfish, both before and after she is incarcerated.
One of the first ways Piper connects to her new life in prison is by excitedly noticing that the prison shoes look like trendy TOMS. But while we laugh at this fish-out-of-water naïveté, it is these little quirks Kohan includes in her characters that strike a chord of recognition with viewers.
However, as the series progresses, the audience begins to see that the strength of Orange lies not with its sheltered lead but with its supporting female cast.
A transgender woman, a drug-dealing lesbian and a Russian immigrant become some of the more resonant characters on the show, despite the majority of viewers having very little in common with their experiences.
In the wake of Kohan’s comments, we should ask ourselves whether or not we would have cared about these women and their stories if our bland hero Piper hadn’t been there to introduce us to them.
This revelation of Kohan’s initial thought process is jarring only because it conflicts with our perception of the show that has provoked a thoughtful discussion about the life and problems faced by many women behind bars.
Being a responsible viewer doesn’t necessarily mean we have to halt our enjoyment of a program because of its problematic aspects.
We should, however, be aware of what we’re watching and should ask ourselves what the composition of a cast of characters and what they represent may say about our society as a whole.
Send the columnist your thoughts on “Orange is the New Black” at email@example.com or follow her at @lolonghi