TPM Cafe: Opinion

Does Orange Is The New Black Still Need Its Blond, White Star?

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Eric Charbonneau

When the show debuted in 2013, it did so under different social and political circumstances. In the time between then and now, many of the stars of this show have become icons in their own right. For evidence, look no further than June’s cover of Essence, prominently featuring six black female members of the cast. In a cultural moment where “#sayhername” has become a rallying cry for the value of black female lives otherwise overlooked by police and the patriarchy, their ascendance—Uzo Aduba with her raw and heartbreaking portrayal of mental illness, Samira Wiley (and now her Australian castmate Ruby Rose) shining a light on the fluidity of gender and sexuality, and Laverne Cox’s tireless championing for the rights and recognition of transgender individuals—momentarily gave that call a different meaning. As the storylines of these capable actresses grew strong enough to take center stage, our former primary protagonist has been relegated to a sub-standard romantic arc and a desperate prison business.

When the show first premiered, series creator Jenji Kohan called Piper her “Trojan horse” that provided an entry point for the “hard sell”—the stories of black, Latina, or older women. But nowadays, when those hard sells are on magazine covers, do we still need a white female protagonist?

For all the acclaim OITNB has garnered for its creator, writers and actresses, it also debuted in a cultural moment where many of the issues it addressed were mirrored in tragic and frustrating current events. Even in the past ten days alone, as I whizzed through each successive episode, questions surfaced as life imitated art. Do we need a majority entry point to...

Address when the significantly higher incarceration rate of people of color, as well as the nature of their crimes, are in a bright spotlight?

When the prevalence of hate crimes and transgender violence, such as one incident that surfaces in the second half of season 3, is so clearly visible in our society?

When the controversial nature of who gets to do what based on race (revealed on the show in Gloria and Norma’s disagreement on healing, as well as Soso’s struggle to find a “tribe” at Litchfield) has been front and center?

And, most recently: Do we need a majority entry point when the brutality and cruelty carried out in the name of religion and racial hierarchy continue to dominate our headlines?

Just as progress in our society has allowed the OITNB cast to advance to a point where they can speak up for significant issues, some truly awful elements of our society have underscored a need for the show’s prominence with similar fervor. At times, I ached for how relevant some of the issues that surfaced, months or even years before the headlines they seemed to predict, unfolded in real time. In either case, a barrier to entry for the show has been lowered: While initial thoughts may have erred on the side of having a white female protagonist to draw viewers into the story, those services may no longer be needed.

So Piper, while you’ve done your time—at times admirably, at other times gratingly. But your release may be nigh.

Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog ("The Dedicated Amateur") and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I'S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.