Since its premiere in 2013, the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” has become one of the streaming service’s most successful shows. Following the story of the prison-bound, privileged and white Piper Kerman, OITNB has taken viewers on a dark, comedic look at minimum-security prison life, initially through the eyes of Kerman, and slowly through the experiences of many other inmates. While the show has had many moments of devastation and heartbreak, the recently released 4th season has proven to be its most difficult watch.
From the corporatization of the prison to the militancy of the new group of corrections officers, Litchfield Penitentiary goes through a lot in season 4. As the prison gets an influx of new inmates, there is a wave of racial upheaval, from the fight for power between the Dominicans and other Latinas to the White Power group angling for dominance. It’s interesting and entertaining enough to watch these events unfold on the screen, but with issues of racism, corporatization and militarization flooding the mainstream, it’s striking to see entertainment as powerful political commentary.
The 1960s were a time of significant social upheaval, from the Civil Rights Movement to Women’s Liberation, but the time I grew up in was not rife with protest. While there were issues, everything seemed pretty sedate as compared to other cultural times, the mechanisms of injustice continuing to exist while easier economic times made the flaws less visible. In recent years, social upheaval has become apparent at a slow simmering level, but how deeply politics and protest enter our lives has not necessarily changed that much.
At the 2003 Oscars, the filmmaker Michael Moore created a stir when he won the award for Documentary of the Year for “Bowling for Columbine”. Instead of a predictable thank you speech, Moore said:
“We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious President. We — We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it’s the fictition of duct tape or the fictitious of orange alerts. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you…”
While there was a lot of dispute about the election and the war, Moore was assailed mostly with boos that evening in the throes of a Hollywood ceremony, a part of the world often referred to as being ‘full of liberals’. The general consensus of such a response seemed to be that the dazzling, red-carpeted glow of the Oscars was an inappropriate place for a political statement. However, is there such a thing as an ideal context for an act of protest?
Political acts can exist in a variety of forms but what’s so refreshing about OITNB’s fourth season is how its political statements, particularly in an age of reality television, have managed to enter the stream of pop culture. As the character Poussey Washington lies suffocating under a corrections officer after a peaceful prison protest has gotten out of hand, it’s easy to mourn her like she is a real person because we know the large-scale story; we know that things get out of hand and that innocent people suffer as a result. However, for a show whose primary responsibility is to be entertaining, it’s a decisively brave act to make a statement that goes beyond entertainment and manages to politically engage in a way that might not be so welcome or agreeable.
It is hard not to mourn Poussey because she is a kind, funny and intelligent person, but her death resounds beyond itself because it’s such an unnecessary one. Through a combination of humour and storytelling, OITNB has managed to be more entertaining than ever, but its latest season is a reminder that there is no improper place for protest, and political statements have no responsibility to exist within the confines of what’s expected. To negate an act of protest as occurring “at the wrong time” seems to suggest that our institutions are more important than their intrinsic uprightness, and this kind of assertion robs a political statement of its power.