It's Not Black Or White On Orange Is The New Black

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“One of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything.”
This line of dialogue from the first season of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black is one of the show's most brilliant. While the series has been given plenty of media attention — in part because of its inclusion of diverse women — I think it’s worth taking the discussion up a notch and considering the myriad ways these women are diverse. OITNB doesn’t just give us strong, female archetypes; rather, it presents complicated women with messy histories and lives, multi-dimensional female characters who must learn to co-exist within the rigid walls of a prison.
As a society, we have been programmed to believe that a person is an either/or: gay or straight, good or bad, for example. In this way of looking and supposedly being, there is no in between. But, it's this very belief that finite binaries exist and that we have to identify as one or the other that's incredibly damaging; we don't exist as absolutes. Most people, in fact, live their lives on a spectrum — somewhere in the middle of things — and if OITNB has taught us anything, it’s that the middle is a far more interesting and real place to be.
Ahead, I examine some of the lifestyle spectrums OITNB explores and the characters that represent wide-ranging, unique circumstances and beliefs.
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The two characters of OITNB that speak and act in accordance with religious belief most often are Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett and Sister Ingalls. These two characters identify as Christian and believe in the same God, but they approach their faith in completely different ways. Pennsatucky believes she has been chosen and is meant to convert all the non-believers in the prison. Ingalls, a Catholic nun, is accepting of those who aren't like her and fights injustice, albeit in an often corrupt fashion. In spite of their differences, both women must co-exist, challenged as they are by their contrasting agendas.
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Piper Chapman, the character the show is based around, has had serious, intimate relationships with both men and women. When she rekindles her relationship with her ex-girlfriend while the two are in prison, her fiancé, Larry, admits to a family member that the worst part of Piper's cheating is that it was with a woman. Larry begins to try and define — or pigeonhole — Piper’s sexuality. But, in reality, Piper isn't black or white; she's not straight or gay. She falls somewhere on a spectrum — and not in a box — something she has difficulty explaining to her friends and family outside the prison.
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The issue of gender identity is one that has been on the media's radar for a while now, perhaps especially because of lack of support in recent years for the “T” in LGBTQ. Laverne Cox, who is a major part of the transgender movement in her personal life, plays Sophia Burest on OITNB. A transgender woman who went to jail for credit card fraud, she's an excellent example of a character who embodies life on the gender spectrum.
Gender is a social construct. Society tends to look at a person’s sex expecting to see a corresponding set of gender behaviors, but this simply not how it works for everyone or even most of us. One’s gender identity, like sexuality, is personal. The level of ignorance surrounding the transgender community makes Sophia Burset — a confident and composed character — a pretty big deal.
Although the main character, Piper Chapman, is white (representing privilege), Orange is the New Black showcases a range of women of multiple races — and, in fact, it's these non-white characters that the show's fans seem to prefer over Piper. The white prison chick is entitled and annoying. And yet, she must find a way to coexist with all the non-white women of the prison.
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One of the greatest strengths of OITNB is its ability to question the direction of an audience member’s moral compass. We sympathize the most with the inmates — and not the prison guards or characters existing outside the prison walls — because they are presented as the most humane, in spite of the fact that they're so-called bad girls. Because of this, we start to question the significance of “the bad guy.” What if someone does something bad but with good intentions? Is anyone truly morally sound? There's a nun in jail, after all. Because few things on the show are presented as solely good or bad, we're left to question what's right and wrong in our own worlds.
I subscribe heavily to Socrates’ notion that we are born to be skeptics. Filled with both curiosity and reason, we look at sides and check out layers. But, for some reason, we live in a society where either/ors are often the easier solution. Orange is the New Black is important because it's calling bullshit on the idea that we have to be exactly anything.

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