“Orange Is The New Black” is Netflix’s fifth, and best attempt at original programming, (“House of Cards,” and “Arrested Development” were reboots). The show exercises a restraint that Jenji Kohan’s “Weeds” often did not, flirting with kitsch without veering headlong down its awkward path. OITNB’s story lines are emotionally steeped, sympathetic and sentimental in the best way.
Naturally, many will perceive the show as intended for a female audience, but what makes the show so engrossing to me as a white male is just that individual connection. Here we are, immersed in a world unlike what we know, or have even seen portrayed, of prison life. The thing most prison movies and TV shows have in common is the construction of exchange that replaces the infrastructure of the outside world. In the male prison this construction is the commerce of ego and status. Dominant sexual relationships, religious demagoguery, brute supremacy and tribal affiliations according to race or gang membership. Hostility toward the other forms the marketplace. All this violence establishes man as animal, clinging to hyper-masculinity as a form of survival. But for the women of Litchfield, it’s compassion, loyalty, love—their utter humanness, rather than toughness that allows them to survive.
The inmates arrange themselves into cliques but the overlap seems far more substantial. There are fights and there is intimidation but we see little serious physical damage. The ultimate punishment is a form of shunning. While the institution itself has the power to isolate difficult prisoners, the prisoners themselves have a way of isolating as a form of governance. Piper is denied food after insulting the chef. The denial of nutrition is only part of the punishment; without the ability to break bread with the others, she has been denied a powerful social ritual and therefore, diminished to solitude and rejection.
As in “Weeds,” all the central characters are women and men are relegated to foolish or sinister caricatures. While I found that somewhat useless and annoying on “Weeds,” (one guy teaches his pubescent nephew to masturbate using a banana peal) it functions in this far more sincere world as hyperbole, reminding us of the very absence of macho-mentality that we are used to among prisoners. Much of this comes courtesy of Piper’s bourgeois-journalist beau Larry (Jason Biggs), who cashes in on his struggles with an inmate fiance; Officer Caputo (Nick Sandow) who is interested primarily with climbing the institutional ladder; and the magnificently sleazy “Pornstache” Mendez (played superbly by Pablo Shreiber). The distillation of males to only their weakest qualities, though exaggerated, provides a nice foil, the prison serving as an institutional microcosm of females literally imprisoned in a male-controlled world.
Rather than read the differences between XX and XY lockups as some deterministic commentary of female/male nature on the whole, I think it much more fitting to consider that characteristics like compassion and camaraderie are not limited to females. Despite the advent of great change, we continue to live in a world dominated by aggressive white males, the most influential of whom are intent on defending a medieval state of oligarchy, warfare and oppression. Whether or not those are distinctively male phenomena, they form our history and it’s engrained. A more female world won’t change that, only a more diverse one can do that.