It’s safe to say that Netflix’s latest original series, “Orange is the New Black,” is nothing short of binge-worthy. I devoured the entire first season in under 96 hours (seriously). Groundbreaking on many levels, the show openly displays queer female sexuality and features a uniquely complex portrayal of a black transgender woman (played by the brilliant black trans actress Laverne Cox). What’s more, the vibrant cast of diverse characters offers viewers a rare exploration of what privilege is and how it works. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the show’s main character, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a perfect lesson in privilege.
I can’t stand Piper. I find her whiny, entitled, possessive, incredibly self-obsessed, an emblem of unchecked privilege. But I actually think that’s intentional; Piper would be the character we all root for, when in reality, she seems to be one of the least liked. As Salamishah Tillet noted over at The Nation, the main character of “Orange” probably had to be white and college-educated for the show (and memoir upon which it’s based) to get picked up, and this is a valid point. But with Piper, we’re also forced to come face to face with her privilege, and we can’t stand what we see. [Spoilers after the jump!]
Tall, thin, and blonde, Piper embodies the “all-American” girl next door. She leaves her comfortable life and handsome fiancé to serve a 15-month prison sentence for her brief involvement a decade earlier with a drug cartel run by her former girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). Her Manhattan home, organic juice cleanses, and luxury line of bath products juxtapose vividly (and often humorously) with the uniform beige jumpsuits, forced strip searches, and door-less bathroom stalls of prison life.
Piper enters prison as the outsider, a sophisticated yuppie who was unlucky enough to get busted for her brief walk on the wild side. Contrasted with poignant stories of several women of color for whom crime wasn’t an optional joy ride but a means of survival, like Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) and Tricia Miller (Madeline Brewer), Piper’s privilege becomes even more pronounced. Thought she accepts culpability, her myriad privileges often seem painfully evident to everyone but her. Upon first entering the prison, Piper also subtly employs the race, class, gender identity, and (assumed) sexual orientation privileges at her disposal. She initially forms an alliance with her counselor, Officer Sam Healy (Michael Harney), who is virulently homophobic and crusading against lesbianism in prison. Officer Healy paternalistically befriends the seemingly-straight Piper, a privilege she often tries to utilize to her advantage. After Officer Healy gives her a seat on the supposedly democratically-elected inmate counsel, Piper, the only white woman, dominates the meeting with her visions of changing prison policy. She self-righteously assumes that her voice will be heard and heeded because, as a white, college-educated, upper-middle-class woman, it more or less always has been.
Piper also has the privilege of belittling, ignoring, or outright betraying a support system that many other characters lack. Her fiancé Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), his wealthy parents (including his father, who is her lawyer), her best friend and business partner Polly Harper (Maria Dizzia), and her own quirky but supportive family are a continual source of love that she often openly dismisses. Then we have Taystee (Danielle Brooks), a black woman who gets out on parole, only to voluntarily return to prison due to a lack of familial support, suitable living space, and job opportunities. It’s hard not to resent Piper for bemoaning the smell of her mother’s perfume lingering on her jumpsuit when women like Taystee return to prison because they simply have nowhere else to go.
Piper enters prison conveniently aloof as to what privilege is, yet she knows all too well how to leverage it. And that’s an important lesson for all of us viewers: we don’t have to know that we have privilege to actually use it or rely on it. Piper teaches us that those who remain convinced of their own specialness, who refuse to acknowledge and grapple with their privilege(s), can still do incredible damage with it.
So yes, loathe Piper. Cringe at her unchecked privilege. Shake your head at her obliviousness. But through it all, learn from her and most importantly, do better than her.