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Standing still with Orange is the New Black

“Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.” You’d be forgiven if you thought these words came from Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician, who famously said that all of humanity’s problems stem from the fact that people are not able to sit quietly by themselves. The words come not from Pascal, but his twenty-first century avatar Regina Spektor, who sings them in her latest single “You’ve Got Time,” which is the theme song for the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. The show has gotten a lot of good press, and it seems as though everyone in my demographic watches it. The good press the show has received has focused rightly on the solid writing, the excellent acting, the tight storyline. And although I appreciate all these things, I also think Orange is the New Black is the most morally serious television show since The Wire. It helps us confront uncomfortable truths.

[Below there is some profane language and perhaps a mild spoiler.]

 

Orange is the New Black was created by Jenji Kohan, who brought us Weeds, the television show starring Mary Louise Parker that portrayed a widowed suburban mother who grew and distributed marijuana to support her family. I always thought Weeds was cheap. The story line was too predictable, the acting was subpar, and the vulgarity was there to mask show’s defects. It was high on titillation and low on cogitation.

Orange is the New Black is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. In the show, we meet Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) who has to serve a 15-month jail term in a federal prison in upstate New York. She was convicted of carrying narcotics for her then-girlfriend, the international drug dealer Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), even though she committed the crime 10 years earlier. It turns out Alex is serving time in the same prison as Piper. Piper’s wedding to aspiring writer Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) is put on hold until she serves her sentence. The characters include a Russian mobster (Kate Mulgrew), a Haitian maid-cum-murderer (Michelle Hurst),  a transgender former firefighter and credit card thief (Laverne Cox), and a Latina mother and daughter who were both involved in drug running (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dascha Polanco). There’s even a nun who was convicted of protesting nuclear facilities (Beth Folwer). The list goes on. The show does a remarkable job making you care about all these characters. We get flashbacks on some of them, which help us understand why they ended up behind bars.

Orange is the New Black has its share of vulgarity, of nudity, of profanity, but it somehow never feels pornographic. We understand that these are some of the ways the inmates deal with the monotony of the lives they lead. It’s not that nothing happens in the prison. There are disagreements and fights, sex and abuse, real moments of joy and laughter. There are guards who bully the inmates and guards who seem to care deeply about them. Ultimately, though, the prisoners are stuck inside their own heads. They busy themselves because the time itself is almost unbearable.

In what I take to be the climax of the first season, Piper confronts a young girl who is visiting the prison as part of the “Scared Straight” program. Here’s the exchange:

Piper: I know how easy it is to convince yourself that you’re something that you’re not. You can do that on the outside. You can just keep moving. Keep yourself so busy that you don’t have to face who you really are. You’re weak.
Deena: Back the fuck off me.
Piper: I’m like you, Deena. I’m weak too. I can’t get through this without somebody to touch. Without somebody to love. Is that because sex numbs the pain or because I’m some evil fuckmonster? I don’t know. But I do know I was somebody before I came in here. I was somebody with a life that I chose for myself. And now? Now it’s just about getting through the day without crying. And I’m scared. I’m still scared. I’m scared that I’m not myself in here. And I’m scared that I am. Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison, Deena. It’s coming face to face with who you really are. Because once you’re behind these walls, there’s nowhere to run, even if you could run. The truth catches up with you in here, Deena. And it’s the truth that’s going to make you a bitch.
After Piper walks away, one of the other inmates, Poussey Washington, says:
Day-mm. You cold.
Piper: Bitches gots to learn.

And what, exactly, do they “gots to learn”? Well, I wonder if Augustine, whose feast day we celebrate today and who so influenced Pascal, is helpful here. In his Confessions, when he contemplates why someone can hate the truth, which is the only way to the good life, Augustine writes,

It must be because people love truth in such a way that those who love something else wish to regard what they love as truth and, since they would not want to be deceived, are unwilling to be convinced that they are wrong. They are thus led into hatred of truth for the sake of that very thing which they love under the guise of truth. They love truth when it enlightens them, but hate it when it accuses them. In this attitude of reluctance to be deceived and intent to deceive others, they love truth when it reveals itself but hate it when it reveals them. Truth will therefore take its revenge: when people refuse to be shown up by it, truth will show them up willy-nilly and yet elude them. X.23.24 (Boulding translation)

What Piper realizes – and what she forces all of us to realize – is that without the petty distractions of our days, we would have nothing to distract us from uncomfortable truths. The truth will catch up with us. We’re scared to come face-to-face with who we really are. The thought is terrifying. And without the choices she had outside prison, this is the only thought Piper has.

The show has been renewed for another season, and I have to admit that I’m of two minds about the renewal. Needless to say, I’m already looking forward to the find out what happens next. I want to get more backstories on the characters. The portraits aren’t yet complete. I’m especially interested to see what happens next because the first season ended violently. The last scene blended the sacred and the profane in a way not seen since the end of the first Godfather. The show made me uncomfortable precisely because it cast the truth on me, made me wonder who I really am. It forced me to stand still. I worry, I suppose, that in another season, there will be too many steps, too much evasion. When you’re alone with your thoughts, it’s hard to stand still.

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Thanks Scott,

you make the show sound fascinating. I haven't seen it - I'm not even quite sure what Netflix is :-)

And special thanks for the great quote from Augustine. Buona festa!

Yep, wherever you go, there you are.  I haven't seen the show, but the book is very good, and in much the same way.  Well worth reading.  

P.S. The same is true for Augustine's "Confessions".  ;-) 

First of all, no one takes seriously a woman named Piper.  Seriously.  And thanks for providing some sample of the dialogue.  I'll make sure I do my best to miss this gem.  Orange is the new black?  As in people in prison for rape, murder, child molestation, selling drugs, etc., are being victimized and treated the way racists treat black people?  I'd as soon drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log than watch the dreck you're describing.  But hey!  That's just me.

Carry on Scott.

Bob S. ==

Why are you convinced that some people are beyond redemption?  What is your idea of being "saved"?

Dear Bob Schwartz,

Thanks for that cogent and generous comment. I'm sure you're busy, but if you get a chance, would you mind sending me a list of other upper crust WASP names that I shouldn't take seriously? It might cost me some friends, but hey, I want to be serious.

I don't understand the following sentence: "As in people in prison for rape, murder, child molestation, selling drugs, etc., are being victimized and treated the way racists treat black people?" Yes, prisoners are usually in prison because they've committed crimes. And sometimes those crimes are heinous. I don't think the crimes they've committed rob them of their humanity.

Does OITNB reach the aesthetic heights of the Iliad, the Inferno, Titan's Europa, or Mozart's Don Giovanni? No, no, no, and no. I don't know of anything created recently (by which I mean the last couple hundred years) that does. I've actually discussed two of those works for this website already. OITNB is just a television show that I happen to think is more interesting than people might give it credit for. It sounds as though you disagree. Fair enough. But if you're concerned that art might portray human beings who have committed heinous acts as human beings, you might want to skip all four of the works I just mentioned.

And, as Ann Oliver suggested, you also might want to skip most of the Bible as well. There are a lot of unworthy people described in that book.

Anybody confused by the "X is the new black" joke construction in 2013 is probably going to want to skip most things, just to be safe.

Piper Laurie and Eddie Miller both deserve better.

 

P.S. show is better than the book.

Abe:  I think she had a child called Piper Cub (?).

Scott:  Your statement,

I don't think the crimes they've committed rob them of their humanity.

You're absolutely right.  It was their decisions to commit those crimes that robbed them of their humanity.  Otherwise known as They are responsible for what they do.  If you believe that a person's sins reward that person with victim status, you and I have antipodal understandings of Christian teaching about how one is to treat sinners.  Since I am a perfect example of a sinner, I at least know that much.  Christ didn't treat sinners as victims, he required that they acknowledge their sins and reform their lives.  I try very hard not to regard myself as a victim when I sin (and believe me, that is rather often).  And by the way, equating blacks with convicts kind of infers that there is something, er, irregular (to be polite) about being black.  And that is just plain insulting.  But I'm sure that is not what was meant, is it?

Bob,

As Mollie's comment suggested, to say X is the new black is a reference to fashion. There have been times when blue was the new black or beige was the new black. Even brown has been the new black.

The title is tongue in cheek. The inmates wear orange. Orange is the new black.

Get it? That is, the title doesn't have anything to do with race.

Committing a crime does not rob a person of his or her humanity. A person can only be responsible for his or her crime because he or she is still a human being after he or she has committed that crime. I do not believe sins reward anyone with a victim status. Nor did anything I write imply that. Furthermore, most of the characters in the show (which you haven't seen) take responsibility for (and therefore acknowledge) their crimes.

I'm sure what you meant when you said "infers" was "implies."

Scott:

Fair enough.

Thanks for the thread. I've only watched the first episode, so haven't wanted to say anything about it. It's also been the subject of a number of critiques about how it handles race, and again, seeing only the first episode, I'm ill-equipped to comment.

However, a couple points I want to raise:

Women in prison are almost completely invisible to broader society. Even restorative justice programs tend toward an androcentric vision of crime and reconciliation. Women's prisons tend to draw fewer volunteers and have fewer programs than men's institutions. And, in a stunningly cruel exercise of institutional efficiency, women may be incarcerated so far from their kids that visiting is practically impossible. I could go on and on...If nothing else, OITNB makes invisible people visible, even if the show's imperfect in any number of ways.

So from the significant to the fan-girl. It's great to see Kate Mulgrew, who's had a busy TV career, but who will always be Captain Janeway to me...

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.