TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE
Today, the life of a prisoner has become accessible to the masses. Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, a television show based on a prison memoir by Piper Kerman, has taken over screens worldwide. With 5.3 million people watching Season 6 of Orange Is The New Black, there is no doubt that it has become the quintessential representation of prison life.
Orange Is The New Black intends to capture the reality of a prisoner; instead, it often ends up having a reverse effect on its audience.
The misconceptions in this global show are numerous and profound. The steamy portrayals of same-sex relationships and the sexualization of guard-inmate relationships turns the nightmare that prison is for many into a fantasy for the general public. This has the adverse effect of altering the prevailing cultural, social, and political discourse, diverting attention (and resources) from important issues of justice, human rights, and women’s health towards salacious and sensational misrepresentations.
However, this could all be sound and fury. The irredeemable silliness of Orange is the New Black begs an important question: do these inaccuracies even matter? The issue is – they don’t. In countries such as India where there is already a gender gap that exists within society, programmes that simplify prison life such as Orange Is The New Black effectively ensure that the struggles that plague female inmates will never be resolved. In India, the problems are more structural and less visible; they make for worse TV, but are indisputably more important.
Let’s start with something that is easy to see. The primary couple in Orange Is The New Black – Piper Chapman and Alex Vause. The two abandon their past relationships to seek a future with one another in the show and completely disconnect themselves from the outside world. This effectively teaches the masses that prison causes people to abandon their pasts and start over. This should not be the case. In India, while in prison, female inmates fight to make their existing relationships work. According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, there are many women prisoners who live with their children in prison.
In my work with Project Epistolary, I joined hands with the India Vision Foundation to help the children of incarcerated women develop their communication skills by writing letters to their parents. These children loved and missed their parents. They needed their parents. Somehow, I feel women who are parents in Orange Is The New Black are not given enough credit. It is almost as of there is an effort to present a lack of responsibility on their part.
More misrepresentation: consider the relationships between prisoners and guards in Orange Is The New Black. In Season 3, an inmate, Pennsatucky, is raped by a guard, Coates, in the back of a van. Instead of reporting Coates to the authorities, Pennsatucky chooses to pursue a relationship with him. This equation of rape to love teaches the audience that non-consensual sex is normal and there is no way to demand action for such wrongdoings. The awful truth is rape is common amongst prisoners, particularly in vulnerable populations in India.
In India, a female inmate, Soni Sori described how she was physically and sexually assaulted behind bars. She chose to stand up with 14 other women, who went to jail for public activism, which resulted in a public hearing in Delhi. If Orange Is The New Black decided to say, promote the #MeToo movement in place of rape culture, maybe women who have actually undergone these traumas would be able to relate to their content.
In the future, we need to change what we see in the media to change the way people think. Women in prisons already suffer enough; they don’t need a television show that completely misrepresents the way they live their lives. We can’t tell their stories for them. We need real women to tell real stories. By having women in prison open up and discuss their own experiences, we may finally have accurate representations within the media.
Through this, we can find a way to directly target issues that need to be noticed. Move aside, Orange Is The New Black, there might actually be a good show on the rise.