THE DYESSERTATION: 'Orange Is the New Black' provides diverse, untold prison stories

The Daily News

Piper Chapman’s past has caught up to her in the form of a 15-month prison sentence for internationally transporting her ex-girlfriend’s drug money. While serving time in the women’s Litchfield, N.Y., federal prison, Piper tries to deal with her outside life — her relationship with her fiancé, Larry, and her new business with her best friend — and survival in the prison. However, the show is not just about Piper; it also explores the other inmates and their pasts.

One important thing to know while going into this based-on-a-memoir show is that you probably won’t unconditionally love the main character, Piper, played by Taylor Schilling. She’s entitled, she’s selfish, she’s manipulative. She’s a bit of an anti-heroine, and that’s fantastic. She’s allowed to have flaws, something that you don’t get to see many female characters have. She isn’t all great or all bad: she’s human.

Another thing is that “Orange Is the New Black” isn’t a story that is just about Piper. This isn’t a prison show that is about violence or a prison show that attempts to scare people out of crime (nor does the show glamorize it). It is the story of the women who found themselves in prison, from a wide range of crimes, not all of them being violent.

It gives a voice to many who have not had even a whisper in other media — entertainment or news. Hearing the voices of these women, and not just straight, white women, is so desperately needed, and it’s sad that it has taken this long.

This show isn’t whitewashed like most of Hollywood, either. The characters are incredibly diverse from race to sexuality to religion and more.

One character, Sophia Burset, is a transgender woman in the prison. Sophia is portrayed by Laverne Cox, an African-American transwoman, and gives one of the first voices to the struggles of transwomen in the prison system. Cox’s twin brother (musician M. Lamar) actually plays Marcus, who is pre-transitioned Sophia, in episode three directed by Jodie Foster.

Laura Prepon (“That ‘70s Show”) also stars in the show as Alex Vause, the former girlfriend of Piper. As another inmate at the prison, Piper and Alex have to face each other for the first time in years.
In addition to how well done and intriguing the show is, “Orange Is the New Black” serves as a starting point for conversations about the current prison system in the U.S.
On MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry,” Piper Kerman (the author of the book that inspired the show), Kate Mulgrew (who plays Red), Uzo Aduba (who plays Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes”) and Cox spoke with Melissa Harris-Perry about the insight the show gives on the prison system as well as “complicating stereotypes.”

As said in the interview, it can be easy to ignore or not care about inmates.

“Stories are pretty much the only way to break through, in my experience, in my opinion,” Kerman said. “The statistics are very overwhelming, but they also become somewhat meaningless to folks. They’re really, really willing to tune out statistics, but stories get them in their gut and in their heart, and they stay with them.”

The interview also touches on the treatment of transgender women in prison, such as being denied their hormone medication, an example in the show.

“Transwomen, who are often placed in men’s prisons, are routinely placed in solitary confinement,” Cox said. “The system so often stigmatizes our identities and misgenders our identities.”

Ashley Dye is a senior journalism and telecommunications major and writes ‘The Dyessertation’ for the Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. Write to Ashley at


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