Orange is the New Oz

Orange is the New Oz

Typically, incarceration is commonly more associated with male behavior–after all, more men are locked up in the U.S. than women. However, the association may also be because we rarely hear about women “misbehaving” unless it’s something titillating to men (see: Desperate Housewives).

While watching Orange is the New Black (OITNB), I was struck by how different it is to see a show in which 90% of the characters are female. Obviously, because the show is set in a women’s prison, there are more female characters. The male characters are background players. The last time I had this pleasant surprise was when I saw Bridesmaids. I know women can be fucking hilarious, I’m glad we’re finally getting more avenues to show this off.

Watching OITNB, I kept thinking back to Oz, the gold standard of prison shows. Although OITNB has some very dark elements, the show never gets as dark as Oz; simply there’s less violence. The prison portrayed in OITNB doesn’t have death row inmates or lifers, so inmates plan to leave prison eventually and thus have more incentive to be on good behavior.

OITNB is also completely about the prisoners’ experiences, whereas Oz balances the perspective between inmates and their watchers in the prison.  In that regard, Oz comes off as more idealistic because few prison workers in OITNB are sympathetic. The show reinforces ideas of women frequently trading sex for what they want, even from corrections officers. On the other hand, Oz is much more rampant with sexual assault and rape but typically between inmates. Sexual assault is used as a weapon in Oz, whereas sexuality is used as currency in OITNB. This doesn’t make the latter morally okay because there is still a coercive and exploitative factor to using sexuality, but it gives at least the illusion of choice.

The lack of a narrator in OITNB is welcome.  In Oz, the narrator inmate is only sometimes involved in story lines and otherwise is just there, but the theatrics and writing are over-the-top, conflicting with the gritty, realism of Oz. In OITNB, the individual inmate’s history is explored with the camera cutting to a character’s past. Not spoon-fed the way Oz does it, and it’s a more organic and satisfying way to tell a story.

OITNB is based upon a real woman’s experience, but people should still consider “characters” and events that transpire “story lines” because the audience ingests the show the same way they do fiction. Even in the darkest parts of the show, the humanity of each character is never quite lost in OITNB, whereas, in Oz the prisoners (and sometimes other characters) are often depicted as barbaric animals instead of humans.

I’m hoping this forward-thinking show helps broaden the concept that movies and shows primarily about and featuring women can be enjoyed by almost everyone. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, we can obliterate the notion and term “women’s films” and the stigma that goes along with men watching and relating to them, too.

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