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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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.