And other things you learn while in prison.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably seen, or at least heard of, the Netflix original show Orange is the New Black. For those of you that don’t know, this show is based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman.
Here is the summary of the memoir, courtesy of Amazon:
With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187–424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison—why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.
Sounds pretty interesting; but wait, where is all the talk about lesbian sex, brutal beatings in the yard, and scandalous acts of infidelity? If you have seen the show and are wanting to read the book, reset your expectations ahead of time.
I would say the show is inspired by and loosely based on the book. Although the book barely touches on (and Kerman never partakes in) sexual acts while in prison, it is a huge aspect of the show (I mean, do you remember the opening scene of Season 1?!). The reasoning for the sexed-up version of the show is obvious: to garner ratings. And it works – the show is a huge hit.
Other deviations made in the television version are less obvious to me. A few key characters had changed ethnicities in the show. Suzanne Warren, better known as ‘Crazy Eyes’, played by Uzo Aduba, is Latina in the book, and the transgender Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox, is a white woman – both are black in the show. Maybe races were changed based on the best available acting talent, but part of me wondered if it was to make an added commentary on the number of African American woman behind bars (although it is statistically less than Hispanic women). I might just be over thinking it, but the thought came across my mind and I wondered if any of you had the same.
Another change made in the show is the dramatization of some key characters. Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov in the show, played by Kate Mulgrew, is actually called ‘Pop’ in the book and is one if Kerman’s closest friends during her time behind bars. In the show however, Red and Kerman have a tumultuous relationship. The same goes for Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett, played by Taryn Manning. When leaving Danbury for Chicago, Kerman actually cites Pennsatucky as one of the women who most made her time in prison bearable, while in the show they nearly kill each other with mutual distain. I am sure this heightened dramatization was again added for better ratings, but it is somewhat shameful and disappointing that it is more effective to pit women against each other rather than showcase a supportive environment that was actually established in Danbury.
Along with undercutting the communal environment that was in place, another key element was changed as well. A common theme, and overarching purpose of the book, is to voice Kerman’s insider knowledge – and judgements – of the prison system. The current state of the penal system and the need for prison reform, comes up time and time again in Kerman’s book, a topic that seemed under-emphasized in the show. This book has become a launch pad for Kerman’s advocacy of prison reform since leaving Danbury, a fight she wants you to get involved with. One again, I am left wanting clarity on why the show, and Kerman in particular, are content with such great deviations for the sake of ratings.
While reading the book, I was continually surprised to see how much Kerman’s portrayal changed – the show paints Kerman in a much more negative light that appears to be true in her book. In the memoir, Kerman remains faithful and loving to her fiancé, whereas in the show she is much more…consumed with…sexual exploration with her fellow inmates. As a lead writer for the show, second only behind Jenji Kohan (Kerman helped write 39 episodes, Kohan 50), Kerman is not only approving of these changes but also helping to write them in. Maybe Kerman hopes that by having her show reach a wider population through its dramatization, the risk to her personal reputation is a small cost to pay to more effectually spread her message of prison reform.
Reading OITNB taught me a few key things though. The first is to make the most of your current situation and learn from your mistakes. What I most respect about Kerman is that she confessed to a crime she had committed a decade earlier while young and dumb. Having spent two years working with law enforcement, arresting customers and employees that stole from my store, things are very black and white to me: you do the crime, you do the time. Although Kerman identifies these black and white areas, she also makes the read recognize the grey expanse in the middle. By doing so, Kerman shows that even criminals can be loved and respected, even more so if they own and grow from their mistakes.
In comparing the show to the memoir, I learned that things are not always what they appear. In order to gain attention, fame, or press, some are willing to sell their (one that I found inspiring) to the highest bidder, even if it detracts from the bigger picture and paints you in a negative light.
Orange is the New Black adds a hopefulness to all of us, showing that it is ok to make mistakes, even grave ones. Like Kerman, we are not perfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from using our experiences of the world and to make it a better place to be for all.
Have you read or seen OITNB? What were your thoughts? Let us know below.