“Horror” – what a shapeshifter of a word. We use “horror” to describe a film genre that we associate with Freudian fear and fantasy, buckets of blood, an exaggerated picture of the dark; and yet we can also call race-based state violence a “horror,” or watch a TV special about the “horrors” of Black Americans forced to live in rat-infested ghettos. This week I found myself really interested in the multi-faceted uses and interpretations of horror – how do we reconcile the human anxieties we represent with fictionalized atrocities, vs. the real atrocities of human life that manifest in deep fissures of anxiety in society?
So I just heard this interview with Jenji Kohan, where she expounds on the heap of race/class/gender complexities embodied in Orange is the New Black. And there I am, sucking on my chia-seed-riddled smoothie and listening to NPR on the 405, thinking about the idyllic Los Angeles fucking nightmare that my life has become, and I’m like JESUS CHRIST I’M CHOKING ON WHITE REALITY. This interview frustrated me. It’s an extension of the frustration I feel generally about OITNB.
Awhile back, I wrote a little bit about the show. I’d only finished a few episodes, but I was annoyed because my mind wasn’t blown enough. Yes, there are all of these previously-unknown actors of color being given screen time, and meaty stories, and brilliant dialogue. There are more black and brown faces in front of my audience face than I’m used to. Females vastly outnumber males. There’s a thoughtfully written transgender character, and the nuances of social class and the prison-industrial complex are not ignored. And the lesbianism is honest, and hot, and fun. This should be a big moment for all of us! I should be as excited as all the other media studies majors on my Facebook feed. I should feel better about the show now that I’ve concluded the season, and the white protagonist has gotten thoroughly served. But I’m not.
Kohan calls heroine Piper Chapman her “Trojan horse” plot device. She basically says that in order to mine the rich depths of characters normally relegated to short side roles (the black and brown faces I mentioned earlier), she has to bring her audience in through an accessible narrator. The “cool blonde” next door, Kohan says, is the perfect draw for viewers who would not ordinarily seek out a show about Latina and Black women prisoners; they need to have Piper to cling to as they walk further down the dark halls of OITNB addiction.
Now, I have no issue with all of that – in the sense that Kohan speaks the truth. When I compared OITNB to Weeds, I noted that Kohan has a VICE GRIP on Stuff White People Like, and she knows that they are loathe to experience the stories (and the histories) of people who they routinely indirectly stomp on. They need someone like themselves to hug for reassurance. If Crazy Eyes’ revelations about black-white divisons in prison populations makes you uncomfortable, you always have Piper to hold your hand, mirroring your nervousness and confusion about such issues.
My problem is that Kohan calls the Trojan Horse principle “useful.” She kind of posits it as a necessary evil of making her show, like it had to happen or OITNB would have never made it on the air (or on our computer screens, as it were. Yo, Netflix, respect). It’s wildly annoying to me, as if none of us already knew how much she loves and fetishizes middle-class white people. You didn’t pop her in there like a pale cherry on top, to make your chocolate sundae more delicious! You STARTED with the cherry, Jenji. You love the cherry.
To me, OITNB doesn’t succeed because of Piper’s presence. I think it’s obvious to TV critics, audiences on social media, even Kohan, that literally the entire cast has Breakout Roles EXCEPT for the protagonist. And that’s kind of a feat in television – to produce a show in which almost every supporting character catches a special place in the audience’s heart. The show is, in fact, NOT as good as it could be because of the mere fact of Piper’s presence. Her story is boring. It’s privileged, and the drama between her and her ex is super manufactured, and it’s not even relatable, and Taylor Schilling’s performance reads like Diane Kruger after a prolonged visit from a Dementor. Piper sucks. No one likes her except maybe sometimes when she’s making out with Laura Prepon, because Prepon can get it.
Personally, I think that this show could have taken off without a Trojan Horse character. Actually, Kohan could have achieved a very similar show had she simply relegated Piper to another supporting role. OITNB could be perfectly watchable as an ensemble prison comedy-drama, like a lighter female-driven Oz. Piper doesn’t have to be the entrance point, you know? She can still function as a white-people security blanket without sitting in the middle of every promotional poster, and taking up my precious time with her tearful entreatments of Jason Biggs. Nobody. Cares.
I will say, however, that OITNB is a big step, regardless of the misguided way Kohan rationalizes its structure. The deep dimensions afforded to every character, the cultural contextualization of their stories, the endless in-jokes that only gay women will get – these are all things that have been long overdue on mainstream television. And Netflix, at this point, is approaching the mainstream. I would argue that it’s pretty positive that millions of casual viewers binge-watched OITNB for its addictive drama and humor, and simultaneously got hit in the face with narratives they’d usually avoid like the plague.
I guess this post is a bit of a re-tread of last time, but needed to reiterate that OITNB ain’t the brilliant groundbreaker or the saving grace that some critics, and Kohan herself, are making it out to be. It’s just a show, created by a human with the same cultural limitations that we all have. Yeah, it’s important, and yeah, sometimes it says something new. Now, if Kohan would depart radically from the source material and kill off Piper dramatically in the second season…we’d have a real Subversive Winner on our hands.
Thoughts? Objections? You’ll shank me later.