When TV Turns Political: The Power of Story in OITNB

I just finished season seven of Orange Is the New Black. Having followed it from its inception on Netflix, I have a lot of feelings about this show. Primary among them is awe.

OITNB is a Fictionalized Version of the News

Between 2013 and 2019, this series variously explored the all-too-real effects of corruption, funding cuts, privatization, overcrowding, guard brutality, and racial discrimination on prisoners’ and correctional officers’ health and safety in a maximum security prison. Few shows have made me feel as sympathetic toward, helpless over (but the good kind, that moves you to learn more), or inspired to care about the American criminal justice system in general, and women in prison in particular.

Orange Is the New Black  sheds light on the American criminal justice system.

Orange Is the New Black sheds light on the American criminal justice system.

In season four, it was the senseless death of beloved inmate Poussey. In season five, the power and unpredictability of pissed-off women ready to riot. The seventh and final season sees more lives lost, this time to the dual threats of an underground drug pipeline and an unofficial human pipeline (i.e., the lines of bodies led by coyotes moving through the Mexican desert). It might have been this last—the introduction of a storyline about an illegal immigrant detention center—that hit me hardest of all. 

We are living in the era of peak TV, when streaming services have made television production cheap, quick, and lucrative, and amazing writers are in demand. At the same time, companies and writers alike are increasingly turning to the media and the current events of our everyday lives for source material, resulting in hard-hitting “fictionalized” commentary on the world as it is right now. We cry when, in episode 13, Carla breaks her ankle and gets left behind, because we know what it means. She isn’t going to see her kids again. She won’t even make it out of the desert. We know this because we’re hearing and reading about real-life versions of these stories in the news.

OITNB Acknowledges and Contradicts How the World Sees America

OITNB isn’t the only show to do this—to dramatize, and occasionally even satirize, American life and shove it back in our faces. The Handmaid’s Tale is doing it, too. Real-world politicians who want to outlaw abortion even in the cases of rape and incest? Of course there’s an immediate and abiding backlash. We’ve been watching the same play out on Hulu, and we know such lines of thinking lead only to the deepest, darkest level of hell; a.k.a. Gilead.

Women march in 2018 to demand basic human rights.

Women march in 2018 to demand basic human rights.

Where my “awe” enters is in these shows’ deft handling of politics, and the skating of that razor-thin line between rebuke and outright open-faced condemnation, between a call to action and a treasonous turn against our own country. Never once, while wading beside June through the pit of despair called Jezebel’s, have I felt ashamed to be an American. But I have felt ashamed of America—of the people we elect to represent us; of the messages of hate, fear, and control we keep sending to the wider world like an SOS.

Stories such as those in OITNB and The Handmaid’s Tale help to contradict those messages by 1) acknowledging that they exist; and 2) offering a different perspective—the human perspective. When Maritza, an OITNB character whom fans have known and loved for years, gets deported to Colombia in episode 5, by the time her image finishes fading on the plane we’re already crying. She’s not a “ bad hombre” or a nameless face in the sea of asylum-seeking rapists “invading” America’s southern border. She’d lived here for 20-some years and knew no one in Colombia. We mourn with and for her.

OITNB Paves the Way for Your Story

What this TV trend means for you is that as we step away from entertainment for the sake of escapism, and embrace shows and stories that teach us more about the world we live in, space is opening up for you, too. What OITNB did for gay rights, mental health, prison reform, drug abuse, and poverty cycles, The Handmaid’s Tale did for motherhood, reproductive rights, child brides, corporal punishment, and international war crimes—and that’s just the beginning.

Your experiences—the things that are weighing on you right this very moment, the battles you’re currently fighting—are valid, because someone else is fighting that good fight, too. Like you, they need to know they’re not alone. They need to see their story reflected in yours, so they can feel the same kind of “awe” that I do—and the rest of us can be made to feel sympathetic toward, helpless over (but the good kind, that moves you to learn more), or inspired to care about your issues. Because there are so. damn. many. (issues worth caring about, that is).

So get out your notebook (or hire a ghostwriter) and start putting your story on paper. Our TV has turned political, and stories have never been more powerful.