Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Orange Is the New Black

Robert and I have a few shows we binge on when they come out. Orange is the New Black was a quick favorite when it debuted on Netflix last year, and we have been pretty excited about the new season. Over the past few days, we dug in and watched the lives of Piper, Crazy Eyes, Red, Tasty, and all the other folks at Litchfield Women's Prison. I will try not to have any spoilers below, so fear not if you're still partway though the 13-episode release.
Rob played around with Piper's weird skull
and sunken eyes and Crazy Eyes' scowl.

For all you cartoonists, there's a little sub-plot that harkens back to what all of us were probably doing in high school: drawing pictures of ourselves with our crushes and drawing mean caricatures of the administration. You'll get to see Daya, the pregnant inmate, develop her drawing ability and even put it to use in some animal-themed caricatures that poke fun at some of the prison staffers.

This show offers another unique thing that should appeal to caricature artists: very "imperfect" female faces with no makeup, every episode, all episode. I cannot recall any television show that showcased women's looks quite like this. And sure there is makeup of a sort--it's television, everyone has some makeup done in some way--but the look on OITNB is definitely "natural and haggard," with just a few traditional shots at beauty makeup here and there . . . we have the transgender Amazon who goes to great lengths to maintain her appearance, the shaggy-haired lesbian who is never seen without panda-like circles of cheap mascara, and the red lips of the Italian mail-fraud queen (who ends up getting asked to write a "makeup tips" column for the prison newsletter and recommends instant coffee as an eyeshadow alternative). Oh wait, I said no spoilers, sorry.

It's a treat, visually, to see all these female characters stripped down bare to their humanity. I don't mean stripped bare literally--though that certainly happens quite a few times--but just laid out without the artifice that usually accompanies every female character on television. I have rolled my eyes at shows that feature a plucky female sidekick who is supposedly "not comfortable" wearing makeup and makes a point of saying she never uses it, when it's clear that there's an inch of smoothing foundation, lip color, natural-shade eyeshadow, and mascara on that actress. Just because it's just not glaring, like Mimi from The Drew Carey Show, doesn't mean we don't notice it's there, honey. We all have HDTVs today.
"Golly, this prison would be insufferable if it weren't for the
unlimited rations of hair spray, concealer, and pantyhose."

This laying out of female features, unsmoothed and raw, is reinforced by the opening sequence. Close ups of lips, noses, eyebrows, all beset with age spots, creases, blemishes, and the scars of everyday living. The lyrics of the theme song ring out "Animals, animals, trapped trapped trapped, till the cage is full . . . " making you think of these women as primates living in a confined space, which is what they are. They certainly don't embody the typical femininity portrayed on television and movies. There is no Vaseline-smeared lens in this TV show, no soft focus. Scenes of women stuck in solitary confinement aren't shot with dim lighting, which has become a trope in prison films . . . rather, Kohen shoots those scenes with harsh florescent lighting, bright and inescapable.

Femininity's mystique goes out the window too. There are conversations about female anatomy that are usually taboo on television. One scene has the transgender woman deftly explaining the different holes, vagina versus urethra, and the labia majora and labia minora, to a mesmerized group of young women who have never learned their own anatomy. When asked how she knew so much about the hoo-hoo, the trans Amazon replies "Please, honey, I had to design one." Jokes and remarks about menses and blood-stained panties are served up with unabashed glee. Two older women discuss female masturbation.

While in some ways the characters can typify stereotypical "masculine" behavior, usually to comic effect (two of the more adventurous lesbians have a "sex contest" and assign point values to all the other inmates), there is a noticeable difference in how these characters act compared to what we might expect from male prisoners. This is not Oz with vaginas. Several moments felt like they were building to a violent climax, only to have the women talk things out, figure out a compromise on their own, and even remark that they should be able to settle things diplomatically because they are women. This is not to say the show is without violence . . . just, it won't come to blows as often as you might expect it to.

There's this thing called a "Bechdel Test" (named for a cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, who came up with the idea and presented it in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For). It asks whether a movie features at least one scene where two female characters talk to each other, and the conversation is not about a man. Think about that--how many movies out there fail this test? Even Avengers, from Joss Wheden, who is known for writing excellent strong female characters, fails this test. With Orange Is the New Black, it's honestly hard for me to figure out if there's even a single episode that lives up to the REVERSE of the Bechdel test. When two male guards are conversing, it's generally about a female inmate. It's like Jenji Kohan has purposely taken the typical entertainment model and turned it upside down.
Alison Bechdel, Dykes to Watch Out For, circa 1985.

Anyway, it was a blast watching these new episodes, and I couldn't help but draw a bit. Rob doodled out some studies in his sketchbook and I sat with my Ipad and knocked out a Piper and a Crazy Eyes.  

Crazy Eyes (Suzanne Watson, played by Uzo Aduba) has been a favorite since the start--she is such an unpredictable, yet endearing character. Crazy Eyes takes a dark turn this season, coming under the influence of a new, incredibly manipulative inmate that seems to make everyone else in Litchfield look like a girl scout in comparison. All the characters take different turns this season, and you find yourself rooting for people who before had seemed irredeemable; likewise, characters that you thought were in the "nice" category show some pretty glaring flaws as they deal with problems that are too big for them to handle.

Now I just have to wait another year before season 3. 

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting and insightful post. OITNB is a fascinating serial and story about characters and faces (uniquely women.) I think there are quite a few levels at work here. and depending what you you bring to the story will determine what you take away. Celestia, thanks for lifting the bar.