But while viewers are treated to a wittily rendered primer on the complexity of queerness, they’re presented with stock characterizations of people of color, and of poor people of all races.
White women and women of color in the prison get not only different kinds of nudity, but different kinds of agency. Chapman may be the deluded and confused white chick in the midst of women who are mostly of color and from much scrappier backgrounds, but she’s also portrayed as the only one who can rise above her own needs to consider the larger issues facing inmates. In one scene, Chapman and a few other inmates are in the warden’s office, after being elected to an advisory council. Only she, the sole white woman, raises the most pressing issues, like the discontinuation of GED classes and the closing of a running track. In contrast, the others are silenced by the threat of not getting doughnuts and coffee at these meetings. Their most pressing demand is Sriracha.
This goes against what we know about prison movements, which have often been and continue to be led by women and people of color, many of them queer and trans people. Angela Davis, who spent time in prison, is one of the world’s foremost abolitionists, as is Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a formerly incarcerated trans prison activist with roots in Stonewall (and the subject of a forthcoming documentary). Yet, from the perspective of the show, only white women have the wherewithal to understand and contest prison conditions.
Which leads us to one of the show’s underlying problems: Orange ultimately sees prison as the logical, if slightly flawed, corrective to society’s problems. Rather than recognizing the prison as the Prison Industrial Complex and questioning a system that keeps recirculating people (mostly of color) through its doors in order to survive, the show sees prisons as housing units, almost like sorority houses. The rationale here is that prison can be a fun place, if only some of the worst elements, like solitary confinement or bad food, were taken away.