It’s Just So Real! The Appeal of Orange is the New Black

The new season of Orange is the New Black is out, which means that everyone I know is talking about it on all the social media because let’s be honest, it’s that good. One of the articles that made the rounds recently was an ex-con watching OITNB and talking about whether or not it’s realistic. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Prison is not like TV prison. And yet one of the things that people often applaud OITNB for is the fact that it’s “realistic”. I have this feeling that most of us are aware that prison is not in fact full of ladies fisting in the chapel and yet we continue to talk about how real the show feels (I have even been guilty of saying this myself).

So what on earth are we talking about when we say it’s so real? Why do we all get so drawn into this show if we know that it’s painting a nonrealistic picture of prison?

What sticks out to me when I identify OITNB as an amazing show is not the realistic portrayal of prison, but rather the realistic portrayal of human beings. Perhaps this is not how human beings actually act in prison, but it is how a lot of the human beings that I know act. It’s how they look. It’s how they talk (ok, maybe a bit snappier than my friends, but basically the same). It’s how they fight (a bit bloodier, but about the same things). It’s how they fall in love. It’s how they fall out of love. It’s how they make stupid mistakes. It’s a little bit like high school but with higher stakes, which essentially is real life.

The thing that people love about OITNB is that they can see people who look and act and talk like they do, people who aren’t used as the butt of a joke (not even Suzanne, who started off as a joke and now is really coming into her own), people who are trying to survive. There is an open trans woman (PLAYED BY A FOR REAL TRANS WOMAN HOLY SHIT), there are people of color, there are people of all body shapes and sizes. There’s people who aren’t fit, there’s people who are gay, there’s people who aren’t sure if they’re gay. There’s people who are all about sex all the time, and people who really couldn’t give less of a shit about people. There’s honest to god old people who have real personalities. There’s people who are/were teen moms and that is not the defining characteristic of their lives. There are so many women, all kinds of women, women talking to each other and women having problems and women thinking about women.

These things should not be revolutionary or amazing, but they are. It seems to be a decent indicator how ravenously hungry the public is for TV shows that focus on the perspectives of people who are not often represented. And what’s real about this show is that when we see someone like Red, we all know people like that (a momma bear who will rip you a new one if you fuck with her). When we see Soso being an obnoxious social justice pain in the ass, we’ve all known someone who did that crap, and we get both where she’s coming from and how flipping annoying it is to be around her. We look at Alex and Piper’s relationship and dear sweet lord we’ve all known that couple.

The point of OITNB is not really being in prison. Prison happened to be a convenient place to throw together this disparate array of people and let them get down to the business of being people. It introduced some power dynamics and some limitations on behavior that are interesting. But at the end of the day, what drives the show is the characters (and the writing through the characters). And while it’s a good idea to point out the ways the show gets prison wrong (because honest conversations about prison are also few and far between), continuing to praise the show for realistic portrayal of human beings is also a pretty good plan.

It’s important when we use adjectives that we’re clear about what noun we’ve attached that noun to. Especially when it’s a piece of media, it’s better to be specific about what is realistic or what is sexy or what is dehumanizing or what is sexist. Because media is complicated and can have good and bad parts (gasp). Being able to have a complicated handle on media is really incredibly important if we want to have real and good criticisms of media.

So yes, OITNB is both realistic and not. And I’m ok with that.

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