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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Why is “Despacito” so popular?

An investigation.

It’s the first (mostly) Spanish language song to nab the Billboard Hot 100 top spot since 1996’s “Macarena”. It’s topped the charts in 45 different countries, from Austria to Japan to Uruguay. Its (quite rubbish) video has garnered almost three billion views on YouTube. A video of a young girl dancing to it in public places has more than 69 million views. It’s been covered on the harpsichord. It’s even been discussed on Radio 4. And it’s now the most streamed song of all time with nearly five billion plays. First released back in January, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” is indisputably the song of the summer.

Why?

When last year’s song of the summer, Drake’s One Dance, broke Spotify streaming records, critics observed that the record's combination of a superstar rapper and the “globalised” sound of the record, with its Nineties British pop, Afrobeat and Jamaican dancehall influences, attracted “an audience outside rap’s core demographics”.

“Despacito” has some of the same key elements. The song’s combination of styles (traditional guitar, reggaeton – itself a mix of Latin, Caribbean and mainstream pop – influences, rap verses, and catchy melody) and Spanish lyrics give it that “globalised” sound. Puerto Ricans Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are already some of the most famous Latin stars in the world, while Justin Bieber’s appearance on the remix in May lent the song the level of mainstream popularity only a truly super-famous global artist can bring. (“Despacito” has also been helped by some bad press: Bieber fudging the Spanish lyrics on tour.)

But, in another sense, “Despacito” has a number of elements that work against it. “One Dance”, was noted as having a “vagueness” that is “perfectly suited to listening on repeat in the background” and “sits at the heart of a listening-activity Venn diagram”, as it “works for jogging, for driving, and at any point on a night out”. But “Despacito” is full of has heavy beats, vocals high in the mix, rapid and verbose lyrics, intricate guitar strumming, and even different but overlapping melodies.

Basically, it’s distracting. So distracting that more than 285,000 people shared a video of a girl dropping everything in the supermarket, restaurant and street to dance to it.

Instead, it has more in common with 2015’s song of the summer OMI’s “Cheerleader”. First released in May 2014, it was given a more globalised remix for international palates by German DJ  Felix Jaehn. After that, it was massive hit in Jamaica, streaming trends saw it become popular in Swedish markets (thanks, Spotify) spreading to European territories, until Simon Cowell snapped up the song for a UK release. As it peaked in the UK, it started to take over the US charts, too.

“Despacito” follows suit as a global earworm that is inherently danceable, one that makes you think of sun, sand, sweat and sex, even while you bore yourself to death on your Windows PC in an airless grey office in Farringdon.

Oh, and did I mention? It’s really, really catchy.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.