By Vaagisha Das:
If asked about the ultimate TV shows that portray female friendships at their finest, one would undoubtedly start with the obvious- Sex and the City, Pretty Little Liars, and Desperate Housewives, to name a few. But in a world that has embraced the anti-hero but continues to pit woman against woman, Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) is a refreshing take on the different kinds of female relationships, albeit in an unconventional setting- that of a women’s prison. What sets it apart from the traditional shows, apart from its decidedly non-cookie cutter background, is how it manages to understand the nuances and the specificity of female friendship in ways that make the women and their relationships meaningful, no matter their circumstances.
The characters are layered and three dimensional and their friendships are constantly evolving- from Pennsatucky asking Big Boo about ‘the gay agenda’ to the latter offering toothpaste advice in the last season, and hence their gradually becoming allies. The show does have underlying themes of colour discrimination, yet in this relationship, it chooses to focus instead on two white characters having grown up completely different- yet, as one character says, they’re “still both in prison“.
Each friendship in OITNB is different in its own way, rarely following a template. The bases for these differ, from reasons of convenience and safety to genuine affection- these are anything but the clichés seen on television. Perhaps the best example would be the friendship between fan favourites Poussey and Taystee, played by Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks respectively. Their friendship started out as a result of their similar sense of humour and electric camaraderie- their witty banter as their rich white alter egos, Amanda and Mackenzie (accompanied with the highbrow airs), being a prime example. It evolved when Poussey admitted to having romantic feelings towards Taystee that the latter did not share, and weathered manipulation and jealousy brought about by the involvement of others- though not always of the romantic kind. Rather than playing it off as a gag, the show used the circumstances to explore the depth of their relationship in a wide arc.
Complex female relationships are hard to come by, or else there wouldn’t be a Bechdel Test. The show does a wonderful job in exploring such friendships, where even the most subtle ones are portrayed wonderfully- that of Sophia and Sister Ingalls being one such relationship. A trans woman and a nun, both are outliers in a system that tends to immediately size people up and ‘group them on arrival’. Hence we have a lunch table system reminiscent of the high school movies of the 90s- and the two have nowhere to sit. They’re completely different, yet seem to bond over God in moments of vulnerability – and their sudden humour and wry wit seem to make them an odd, but pretty compatible duo.
The show would be incomplete without the typical boss ladies of prison-and one such lady would be the strong willed Russian inmate, Red. Considered a ‘prison mother’ by most of the inmates, the non-trope trope of the fiercely protective mafia mom is clearly evident in her relationship with Nicky- a former drug addict. Nicky was a neglected child, and her lack of a mother figure and her trying to develop other female relationships dysfunctionally, or functionally, such as with Red, explores how those like her try to form a reparative relationship with somebody else that can replace a parent figure. Red’s desperation as Nicky was taken away in the second season (“I could’ve helped you- why didn’t you come to me?“), showcases this beautifully.
Coming to the much talked topic of lesbian representation in the show – the relationship between Piper and Alex, Nicky and Morello, and many others. Instead of fetishizing lesbian relationships, the show instead seeks to question heteronormativity and present vastly different, real romantic relationships between vastly different people- AND give us gorgeous queer characters like Ruby Rose to look at. Such representation is rare in mainstream media, and the audience celebrated when a real life gender fluid person playing the character took the third season by storm.
Relatable relationships between the diverse cast of women offer a refreshing respite from the overused cliches- the time has come when strong, vibrant women characters on TV get their share of overdue attention, and the show seems to be on exactly the right track.