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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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses