politics

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.

Who is Ayn Rand? And Why is She So Damn Controversial?

This post is the SIXTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-born immigrant to the U.S. and subsequently, an accomplished American author and screenwriter. She is perhaps best-known for her seminal work of fiction Atlas Shrugged, the characters of which embody in word and action Rand’s own branch of philosophy known as Objectivism.

In recent years, the Tea Party movement has coopted Rand’s language in support of their campaign. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that were Rand still alive, she would have lent her voice to the libertarian cause, uncomfortable as she was with any political party or model other than that which espoused pure laissez-faire capitalism.

To clear up the many misconceptions, here’s how Rand *actually* felt about a wide variety of topics. Quotes have been sourced from the anthology entitled Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed (edited 2009).

Definition of Objectivism

How Objectivism Differs from Conservatism

Objectivists are fundamental capitalists, a notion diametrically opposed to today’s conservatives.

Taxes and Federal Government

Rand objected to the income tax, believing that mankind was entitled to profit from business to the utmost extent that his mental faculties afforded him. Recognizing that government still needed to be funded in some way, Rand advocated for an optional contract tax. In this scenario, any business transaction conducted contractually could be subject to an insurance fee (a set percentage of the transaction) at the signers’ discretion. If they chose not to pay the fee, they could not seek legal arbitration from the government in the event of a party’s non-compliance—which Rand further saw as the federal government’s only acceptable role: a police force meant to uphold the law.

Women’s Rights

Rand hoped all women everywhere could one day be the masters of their own destinies, choosing to work (or not), to marry (or not), to have kids (or not), to in all ways create and prosper … recognizing, as she did coming from a Communist state, that only in America were such dreams possible, as women here “have the opportunity to live happier lives than anywhere else in the world.” (7)

Media

“The culture of a country is influenced by its predominant philosophy.” In this country, the culture “tends toward the gray, the timid, the non-committal, the middle-of-the-road,” with the effect that “television [and the news] is a vast wasteland.” (77)

The Death Penalty

“Capital punishment should be outlawed—not out of moral consideration for the murderer, but to prevent the rare instance of an innocent man’s being convicted. It is better to sentence nine actual murderers to life imprisonment than to execute one innocent man.” (64)

Education

“As a system, public education instills social conformity and obedience, not independence. If education is in the hands of the state, then the teachers, in order to be honest, will tend to support the system in which they work. They will tend to endorse the ideas of statism … In private schools, self-reliance and rationality are stressed. If it weren’t for the public school system, private education wouldn’t be an expensive as it is today. Competition in private schools would have the same beneficent effect that it has in all other activities … furthermore, it is in the interest of the industrialists to have an educated work force.” (82-83)

Civil Rights

“The cause of civil rights has to start at the level of defining, protecting and fighting for the individual rights of all men, which of course includes minorities. The smallest minority on earth is the individual. If a man wants to be segregationist, he is evil and we have to fight him, but we have to do so by moral means. We cannot violate his rights. We don’t have to deal with him, but we have to protect his right to be wrong on his own property.” (88)

Raising children

“consists of one simple principle: never deliver moral ultimatums to a child. Never tell a child: ‘This is good because I say so.’ Instead, always say, ‘This is good because …’ Give the child a reason he can understand.” (91)

Joy

“The two great values in life [are] career and romantic love.” (231)

Sex

“It is a main source of happiness. If you regard sex as a value … then you carry on only one affair at a time and only very serious ones, not casual, one-night stands. If on the other hand you regard sex as evil, you either forbid it, as the religionists do, or you consider it so unimportant that you go around having sex like animals, as the hippies do.” (236)

Purpose of Life

“Life is the purpose of life. And nature has given us a very good way of knowing whether we are spending our lives properly or not: namely, whether we are happy or not.” (247)

Age of Envy

Today, the subconscious philosophical force driving our culture is envy. The actual feeling is: hatred of the good for being the good.” (207)

Drugs

“I am against all controls on drugs—except insofar as sale to minors is concerned. The government has no right to protect a man from himself.” (221) 

Guns

“If this country falls apart or the government collapses in bankruptcy, having a handgun in your pocket isn’t going to save your life. What you need in order to fight for a proper system of government are the right ideas.” (249)