Possible Futures in Orange is the New Black
A Netflix original series, Orange is the New Black tells the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle-class white woman who goes to prison for a drug-related crime she committed ten years prior when she was younger, more rebellious and a little bit queer. In between committing the crime and the beginning of her prison sentence, Piper had straightened out (quite literally). The soft waves in her hair had even disappeared as she had become engaged to a man (Larry, played by Jason Biggs) and started a line of artisanal hand soaps.
In prison, Piper is removed of the privilege associated with this wealthy heterosexual identity and thrust into a position of marginality. Her designer wardrobe is replaced with an orange jumpsuit and she is removed of her given name. Piper Chapman the bougie fiancé of an aspiring writer becomes Chapman, just another inmate at the bottom of a hierarchy. The series follows her experiences within this unfamiliar setting.
Significantly, Orange is the New Black is committed to more than telling the story of a white woman confronted with unfamiliarity. We see this beautifully illustrated in the opening credits that consist not of Piper but of close up images of parts of women. We see their freckles, their imperfections, their lines, their skin tones, their tattoos and their piercings. While Piper provides an entry point into the diegesis, the series is actually about a diverse group of different women, brought together by circumstance. Explaining this, series creator Jenji Kohan has described Piper as an access point to a multitude of untold stories, a sort of "Trojan Horse." In an interview with Terry Gross she explains:
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. 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. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful.1
While it remains problematic that the marginalised characters must be mediated by a conventionally attractive white woman like Piper in order to exist with narratives like this, Kohan’s commitment to the untold stories of women should be applauded. One of the key stories that the series explores engages with two of my favourite things to think about: queer women and normative futures. At the conclusion of the first episode, Piper is faced with these things when she is confronted with her ex-lover Alex (Laura Prepon), who just so happens to be incarcerated in the same prison. She eventually slips back into a relationship with Alex that she describes as both "inevitable" and "weird" – because, as she states, she has changed so much since they were last together. It is this relationship that sparks Piper’s turmoil and the series’ great tension.
In episode 10, as her relationship with Alex further develops, Piper remembers a telling conversation from her past. The setting: her best friend’s wedding. Piper explains that she could never imagine spending forever with someone. Her friend responds with a story about the normative future. "Eventually," she says, "you want someone you can curl up with, someone who knows when its time to order Chinese." Rebellious, queer Piper describes this life as "truly boring" and asserts that "I want warm, but I also want hot. I want fireworks. I want somebody I can have adventures with." Yet a further flashback reveals the exact moment that Piper gives up these desires for a quiet life with Larry: it occurs when he orders in Chinese food and, instead of going to a concert, they spend the night on the couch.
When we cut back to the prison, Piper has a crisis of self. "I was somebody before I came here. I was somebody with a life that I chose for myself," she says, "I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am." This crisis comes to a head in the concluding moments of episode 11 in which Piper has an argument over the phone with her fiancé, Larry. After two establishing shots—one of Piper standing along a line of wall-mounted telephones, one of Larry walking along a Manhattan street, mobile phone in hand—the argument between them begins. It is filmed through a series of shot/reverse shot close ups that serve the contradictory purposes of both drawing attention to the physical distance between Piper and Larry whilst also orienting these characters within a single screen space—this is achieved primarily through the eye-line match editing technique.
During the argument Larry asks whether she loves Alex. Phone in hand, Piper leans against the wall behind her, exhales and reluctantly says yes. In the combination of Larry’s question, Piper’s answer, and the composition of the shot revealing it, we get a glimpse of the question at the very core of this series. For me, this moment is what the whole series has been building to. Here Piper is faced with two possible futures. One of these is with Alex. It is a life of adventure and passion and fireworks. The phone line connects her to the other. It is a safe and secure life with Larry, the man who knows when its time to call it a night and order Chinese takeaway. This is the life that Piper once identified as "truly boring" but had since fallen into, it is the life that had afforded her the privilege she began the series with. In this shot, however, this life also seems restrictive, and it is a metallic and unyielding telephone cable, reminiscent of the handcuffs and chains of the prison that physically connects Piper to it. As she argues with Larry, she partially wraps herself in this cable and as I watch I can’t help but read this gesture as the character’s attempt to physically tie herself down. But why would she do such a thing? Isn’t a safe and comfortable (read: heterosexual) life an optimal life? Perhaps not, as this shot suggests.