In case you haven’t heard yet, everyone’s talking about the new Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black. My girlfriend and I watched all thirteen hour-long episodes in two sittings. Basically, it’s about a white, middle-class woman who finds herself doing thirteen months in a prison in Danbury, Connecticut for carrying a case of drug money across the Atlantic Ocean–ten years prior.
There has been a lot of dialogue and discussion taking place re: Orange Is the New Black all over the internet. (Some of the best discussions have been taking place at Autostraddle.) I think any show that inspires constructive dialogue is valuable, even though the show may in some ways be problematic. (For example, the narratives of women of color are secondary to the show’s white, middle-class protagonist, and racial stereotypes run rampant.)
I’m not here to talk about the show in particular, but my thoughts and opinions of the show will inevitably be interspersed throughout my review of Piper Kerman’s memoir. Although I’ve read quite a few opinion pieces on the show, I haven’t yet read any reviews of the book, so I’m coming at this with my own thoughts. (I am myself a middle-class white woman.)
The only thing I’d heard, before reading the book myself, was that Kerman comes off in her memoir as even more obnoxiously privileged, entitled, and ignorant than she does in the show. I actually found the opposite to be true; at least in the memoir, I had access to Kerman’s thoughts and feelings of remorse. (While watching the show, I often find myself wondering, what is she thinking?) Of course, it bears mentioning here that the show and the memoir do have significant narrative differences.
In her memoir, Kerman does seem to be aware of her privilege (although often she calls it “luck,” which I found a bit annoying). She mentions, several times, that she could not have survived prison without the support she receives from her well-to-do family and her many friends on the outside. Not only does she have plenty of incoming money–so she can afford not only good legal aid but also whatever commissary items she might desire in prison–she also has a marketing job (created just for her!), a fiance, and an apartment waiting for her on the other side. She recognizes that many of her fellow prisoners–who are poorer than she or who are women of color–often have very long sentences that seem disproportionate to their crimes.
I was impressed by Kerman’s (perhaps after-the-fact?) optimism, though, and by her ability to form meaningful relationships with many of the other women at Danbury. She respects and admires many of the women with whom she does time–and she comes off in her memoir as very genuine, if a bit patronizing. She humbles herself and owns up to her poor choices, and she even largely reconciles with her ex-girlfriend Nora, who first introduced her to the drug cartel.
Kerman wants desperately to maintain her dignity and humanity while in prison, but I noticed that at times she treats her fellow prisoners with less than the dignity they deserve, occasionally labeling them “freaks” or “crazy,” especially the women at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Chicago. I think that Kerman’s intention may be to put us in her prison mindset, but it also gave me the feeling that at some level, Kerman does think she is “above” the MCC, that she doesn’t belong there, and that she is better than the women there, especially the mentally ill women.
Orange Is the New Black has opened my eyes to the futility of imprisonment in many–not all–cases, especially low-level drug offenses. People find themselves in prison, and there they are taught, as Kerman says, to survive prison–not to survive and function in the outside world. And so they often end up back in prison, or they find themselves without housing or jobs once they are released. And of course, the “justice” system is much, much harder on people of color and poor people.
Kerman’s memoir is an interesting read, and one that has made me do a lot of thinking. It was, in many ways, very moving and funny. I recommend both the book and the television show, and I look forward to the continued dialogue.