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

Still from Being 17
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A guide to the top ten London Film Festival screenings you should go and see

Some of the most-celebrated films on at the 60th year of the BFI London Film Festival are sold out. Here are the ones that are still available – and worth seeing.

Feeling panicked because you haven’t booked any tickets yet for the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which is now less than two weeks away? Confused because you don’t know your Chi-Raq from your Paterson? Fed up that the movies you have heard good things about (La La Land, Toni Erdmann) are all sold out? Sick to the back teeth of being asked rhetorical questions which presume to know your state of mind?

Fear not. Below is a handy, whistle-stop guide to ten promising festival screenings for which, at the time of writing, there are still plentiful tickets to be had.

Being 17

Veteran director André Téchiné delivers what is rumoured to be one of his best films: a tantalising and exuberant tale of two teenage boys engaged in a mysterious mutual antagonism.

Elle

All hail the return of master provocateur Paul Verhoeven with this highly-regarded psychological thriller starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman whose response to being attacked is unorthodox and full-blooded.

Frantz

The mischievous writer-director Francois Ozon is always a good bet. I’ve heard two things from friends and colleagues about his new film, a wartime drama. First, that it’s brilliant. And second, that it is best watched without knowing anything about it beforehand—not even the name of the play on which it is loosely based. So I’m passing on those tidbits to you.

Heal the Living

Love Like Poison was a subtle and deeply affecting coming-of-age story set in rural France. Now that film’s director, Katell Quillévéré, returns with a drama about the emotional complications arising from organ donation.

King Cobra

A real-life murder case was the inspiration for this seamy but sensitive journey into the world of gay porn, in which a deadly tug-of-war ensues over a hot new teenage star. The cast includes James Franco, Christian Slater and Alicia Silverstone.

Mindhorn

Anyone who saw Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt in Will Sharpe’s brilliant Channel 4 show Flowers earlier this year will know that he has developed new muscles as an actor. That bodes well for this comedy, which he also co-wrote, and in which he plays a washed-up actor recreating his best role – a detective with a robotic eye.

Moonlight

The acclaim from the Toronto Film Festival for this story of an African-American boy growing up gay in 1980s Miami has been deafening.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart gave a revelatory performance as personal assistant to a lofty actor (Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Now she’s sticking with Assayas and keeping it personal by playing a shopper to the stars, with a supernatural element thrown in – she’s a medium hoping to make contact with her dead twin brother.

Raw

Universal Pictures has snapped up this bizarre-sounding French-Belgian drama about a teenage veterinary student turned cannibal.

The Reunion

I’ve heard only good things about this tender love story set in Madrid, with one colleague even describing it as a Spanish Before Sunrise. Praise doesn’t come much higher.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 5-16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.