Growing up, I used to spend every Saturday morning watching cartoons. Although those childhood days are gone, my interest in television and movies has only grown, albeit with more mature programming tastes. I especially enjoy those that provide critical social commentary, such as Orange is the New Black (OITNB). I was expecting a comedy series, but after a weekend of binge-watching, realized it was a powerful reflection of the experiences of communities who have historically been pushed to the margins of society.
OITNB centers on Piper, a woman who has found herself in prison for her connection to a drug runner, but it’s the stories and interactions with the rest of the inmates that really make the show. OITNB helps shine a spotlight on the prison system, and more broadly, what it means to be a person of color in America, in a way that builds empathy and understanding from the audience. We see flashbacks into their lives explaining how the women found themselves in prison, and we start to see ourselves reflected in their eyes—fellow human beings, flawed, but resilient and surviving against the odds.
In Colorado, women of color make up the majority of the female prison population. OITNB, although set in New York, does an excellent job at reflecting our prison system makeup, as the majority of the characters on the show are women of color. And while it remains a show with a white lead, which in itself perpetuates ideas about who can and should be centered in these conversations, OITNB has still done more to bring attention to the stories of women of color and the broken systems that are committing crimes against them, than just about any other show out there.
The other population disproportionately imprisoned and mistreated is those who need behavioral health care. One main OITNB character, Suzanne Warren—or “Crazy Eyes” as she’s more commonly known—has a mental illness, gone largely unaddressed. The corrections system has too often become the only place to receive mental health care, and the prison environment is far from ideal for such treatment. In the US, 73% of women in state prisons have at least one mental health problem, but only about 13% of all statewide prisoners (male and female) are receiving appropriate therapy. Furthermore, in Colorado, 39% of inmates have moderate-to-severe health needs. The scale of this challenge is so large, that even on OITNB it is under-represented.
Over five seasons, the show has helped bring conversations about social justice from the fringe to the dinner table. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, OITNB reimagined just some of the many injustices that people of color face in the nation. We’ve seen the brutalities levied against transgender women of color, and the deaths of prisoners at the hands of a prison guard. For good or for ill, representations of people of color in the media are often how we form our ideas about the world, and it’s important that these representations help us see the world for what it is.
The injustices felt by our communities are deeply entrenched in our institutions. And while it’s sometimes hard to watch the violence and discrimination being perpetrated by the system and those in power, it’s important to have shows like OITNB that will call it out. We can’t fix what we don’t talk about, so I’ll keep tuning into shows that challenge us to have more meaningful conversations, and hope to talk to you about what’s on your must-watch list soon. Especially if that list includes House of Cards!