Orange Is the New Black gives us a different view of the debate over "privilege"

Netflix's newest production offers nuance and subtle insight into the uses and abuses of power.

In episode four of Netflix’s House of Cards, Congressman Francis Underwood (a knowing Kevin Spacey, whose performance is almost but never quite over the top) asks the wildly ambitious young journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara): “Do you have a man that cares for you? An older man?” Then he asks if she knows that older men hurt women like her before discarding them.
 
“You can’t hurt me,” Zoe replies, almost mockingly. In a certain light, it seems as if she’s in charge: it’s her flat they’re standing in and her tone suggests that this isn’t her first rodeo. She knows Underwood’s power in Washington but, crucially, she is also aware of her own –of her job, her desirability, her clear-sighted understanding of their transaction. All of which is interesting, because although she has shown flashes of initiative up to this point, most of the power on display has been his.
 
Zoe has the weight of popular culture on her shoulders. We know that these women rarely get out alive, metaphorically or otherwise, and we expect whatever control they have in the moment to be fleeting. Young women looking to make something of themselves and older men with the clout to help them do so . . . It’s a cliché for a reason.
 
I was thinking about this as I watched Netflix’s newer production Orange Is the New Black. It’s set in Litchfield, a women’s federal prison in upstate New York; we get to observe its in and outs through the experiences of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a middle-class white woman doing time for transporting drug money a decade earlier. The set-up has a very clear line on who’s powerful and who’s not. Almost all the women in the show –happily of many ages, races, classes and religions – are incarcerated and almost all the men, with the exception of Piper’s fiancé, Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), are in charge of maintaining that incarceration.
 
It’s a stark gender divide and every episode sends the message even more forcefully: these women are powerless and the system that has imprisoned them and enforces their passive state has a male face. It takes a little time to scratch the surface, however, and then it becomes clear that as far as this programme is concerned, the most interesting relationships –those that explore the day-to-day dynamics of power – exist between the women.
 
Piper, whose mother has told friends that she’s “doing volunteer work in Africa” for the duration of her sentence, is the newbie, always on the back foot until she has picked up enough prison smarts to get through the next 15 months. On her first day, she manages to offend the long-timer and kitchen head Red (Kate Mulgrew) by insulting the prison food. The gasps that follow show us just how grave a mistake this was.
 
When Piper attempts to make amends, Red says to her, “You seem sweet, honey. But I can’t do shit with: ‘I’m sorry.’ Not in here.” Later, she growls, “March your yuppie ass out of my kitchen.” The apology, when it is finally accepted, comes at a cost and perfectly illustrates Red’s influence over the entire prison. This is reinforced throughout the series by everything from the “elections” to the contraband routes. The system has not beaten Red and she’s holding on to her limited control.
 
Another long-time inmate of interest is Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), a woman of few words but great presence – no one knows what she’s in for but they know she hasn’t taken a visitor in a decade because she “won’t do strip-search”. Her power manifests itself in the order in her bunk space – no mess and no noise. She tells her rude new bunk mate: “Watch yourself, little girl. This is not America. This is the Litch and I’ve been here a long while.” It sends shivers down your spine. Miss Claudette knows her power and her backstory shows just how formidable she is.
 
Power, in essence, is relative: that’s what we debate in those endless online conversations about “privilege”. Powerlessness in the wider world does not translate to powerlessness in the microcosm. Orange Is the New Black gives us a different view of this debate, layered with nuance and subtle insight and without the commonplace device of a “great man” and a “naive girl”. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colours and it is, in every other way, a winner.
The cast of Orange Is the New Black. Photograph: Netflix.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism