8 things I love about the TV series Dietland

There are television shows that I watch, enjoy immensely, and then forget almost immediately. Then there are shows that stay with me, that give me something to chew on for days or weeks. I think AMC’s Dietland is one of those. Certainly the book Dietland is, and the TV series is fairly faithful to the spirit if not to the denouement of the book.

I just finished the TV series recently, once it came to Hulu, and I find myself equally compelled to recommend it to friends and to qualify my recommendation. It’s not perfect. A few things that made me uneasy:  for example, the show seems to view sex workers as enemies rather than allies in the movement to end sexist oppression. Plum’s decision to go off her meds cold turkey is definitely made for TV and not made for human bodies. The show probably could have used a few more sensitivity readers to look at its treatment of race. If any of these things are dealbreakers for another viewer, I get it!

But look. Every show I’ve ever recommended, nearly every show I’ve ever loved, is fatphobic. In Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99–among the warmest and most humane sitcoms out there–fat bodies are mostly played for laughs or disgust. (Bless Retta for turning Donna’s spicy love life from a Season 1 joke to a series-long nuanced characterization, but that is an exception in a glut of cheap junk food jokes.) In other feel-good comedies like The Good Place and Jane the Virgin, fat bodies simply do not exist. Yet I still rave about these shows, recommend them, promote them–because fatphobia is just the price of admission if you want to watch TV. In that respect, it is extraordinary that TV series based on a flawed but likable obese woman even exists.

Apart from existing, Dietland does a lot of other things well too.

  1. At the beginning of the season, Plum is what fat acceptance blogs in the ‘aughts used to call a Good Fatty. She does everything that is expected of her. We see her preparing herself sad little dinners and faithfully attending the Waist Watchers meetings. We see her hating herself. Despite all her efforts, she is not losing weight–so we see her talk to doctors and Waist Watchers staff for support, but they are quick to assume that she must be doing something wrong, and have no further help to offer. It’s amazing to see this losing game depicted on television in place of the usual assumption that your body directly correlates to your habits.
  2. Even better: it becomes clear through these glimpses that the driving conflict of the series is not Plum’s body and how she cares for it, but that decades of being dehumanized by doctors, strangers, and well-meaning friends have left her divided from her own needs and wants.
  3. Plum is loved. Her mother, her best friend, and her new crew at Calliope House may not love her in exactly the way she wants or needs, but they like to spend time with Plum and want to see her thrive. I like this for two reasons. The obvious one, still revolutionary: Plum’s body is not a joke but simply part of a flawed but compelling human being who is worthy of respect and affection.
  4. Less obvious: despite her supportive crew, Plum is desperately lonely–and the show lets this be a complex matter, not easily solved by developing gratitude for her loved ones or simply trying to be body-positive. Sometimes people are just lonely, even though we’re surrounded by love!
  5. Although Plum’s body is a focal point of her loneliness and social angst, it doesn’t have to be. Other fat women on the show–from a short-lived Waist Watchers appearance by flamboyant Janice to the diverse inhabitants of Calliope House–  demonstrate confidence and self-regard. Again, it’s complex: Plum’s experience of discrimination and its effects on her mental health are real and serious. But the diversity of body attitudes suggests to Plum (and to us) that self-hatred is not inevitable.
  6. This is the aspect of the show I discuss with friends the most: in this universe (and ours), learning to love yourself is hard. Plum is smart, eloquent, and well-read: she knows the scripts of body positivity backwards and forwards, so talk therapy alone isn’t much help to her. Even the immersion tactics don’t work at first, as Plum’s mind skips ahead to what she knows the outcome is supposed to be; “I get it and it’s stupid,” she says as she undergoes a painful makeover sequence. But there’s a wide gulf between getting it and believing it, and bridging that gulf requires work. The New Baptist Method is weird and cruel and not to be tried at home; for the purposes of storytelling, though, it forces Plum to grapple with the reality behind the words that come so easily. As another savvy customer who learns by doing, I see Plum’s struggle and think about habits that help or hinder my own journey.
  7. While this show dives mostly deeply into the specific oppressions that Plum faces, it doesn’t shy away from showing how women with different kinds of privilege can (unintentionally or not) hurt one another. White feminism is, rightly, the primary culprit. Kitty Montgomery is the epitome of a privileged white woman who uses the language of resistance to promote her own financial interests, but there is a stunning moment near the end where we see soft-spoken, supportive Verena striding away with a beatific smile after destroying the lives of three black women. And Plum may be clever and loving, but she does mess up–mainly by letting her own struggle blind her to anyone else’s. I think that the way this is handled on the show makes it clear that she’s in the wrong even as it invites us to sympathize with her shame and reluctance to apologize. Resolving emotional conflict is messy and not always successful in this universe.
  8. How can I talk about Dietland without talking about Jennifer, an anonymous cell that threatens and kills men who have committed sexual assault? For most of the series, as in the book, Jennifer’s dramatic and symbolic acts of violence form a backdrop for Plum’s journey, keeping the protagonist safely removed from the vicarious thrills of a feminist revenge fantasy. What I particularly like about this is how supporting characters demonstrate a realistic range of reactions to Jennifer’s violence: inspired, titillated, worried, unconcerned, disgusted. In particular, the men on the show get irritable: even men who aren’t at risk for being targeted for sexual harassment, like Plum’s gay friend Stephen and wish-fulfillment Good Cop Dominic, get a little jumpy and defensive. We’re seeing a fair amount of that out in the world in the #metoo era, and I find it cathartic to see onscreen.

You may have noticed that nearly all of the Things I Love about Dietland are like two things in one: Plum is loved, but lonely; she’s right, but also wrong; etc. The series is at its best when it is using its striking imagery and appealingly complex characters to tease out the nuances of misogyny and fatphobia. I’m sorry to say that the thoughtful storytelling completely falls apart by the final episode, when the show attempts to transition from bildungsroman to action sequence. I see why the show put Plum in a position to see inside the Jennifer cell, but once they got her there, it’s like they didn’t know what to do with her–and they made some shallow narrative choices that make me wonder if the showrunners already knew they weren’t coming back for a second season. 

Despite that, I do want friends to watch Dietland if you’re up for it. It’s legit not going to be for everyone, but it’s a rare bird and worth discussing… as we wait to see if the upcoming series Shrill brings the “flawed but likable fat woman protagonist” count up by one.


Elsewhere on the Internet: Summer Movies Matter

Where have I been these last few months? Writing. Cooking. Job-hunting (again). Updating my food blog. And watching a lot of new TV and movies.

I have not and probably will not read anything about Jurassic World I like more than this post by Michelle Vider, “Drink up that toxic masculinity”:

So I’m walking away from Jurassic World having enjoyed it an enormous amount, both for the spectacle it provided and for its view of toxic masculinity. It isn’t enough to consume media and check off the Y/N box next to IS THIS FEMINIST. That’s not how it works. Feminism is a lens through which we can mark the continued growth and evolution of gender roles, and that learning process should never be as easy as a Yes or No question.

That’s a pretty fair summary of my own response to this movie. I had a blast.Was it a good movie? Nah, I don’t think so. Can I recommend it? Probably only if you, like me, went to see Jurassic Park twelve times in the second-run theater when you were a kid. Yet I woke up thinking about the film for several days after, and there are very nearly enough Things I Love about this movie to make a list!

  1. So much homage to Jurassic Park. Jurassic World is basically a Jurassic Park fanvid. Some of the shots are framed exactly the same. JW characters revisit the location of a significant JP scene and it’s all lovingly recreated and covered with a layer of bones and dirt. A character wears a vintage JP tee.
  2. The movie’s twin villains are Big Corporate Entity and the Greedy General Public who forces Corporate Entity to churn out bigger and scarier attractions. This conflict is delivered without either irony or false earnestness, which is remarkable because of course churning out bigger and scarier attractions than JP is exactly what the movie itself does.
  3. The level of depth, dialogue, and character development was pretty much exactly what I expected when I saw the following bit in the trailer: 
  4. i.e. not very deep, not very developed. And yet! I was pleasantly surprised by this film more than once. Mostly by which characters were allowed to survive.
  5. My companions and I laughed so hard throughout the whole movie that a man across the theater yelled at us. That’s how much fun we were having.

I would never in a million years have gone to see Mad Max: Fury Road if not for Tumblr. I’m not familiar with the series, I’m not into vehicle-based action movies, and if you told me that the series centers around a lone wolf type who wanders around the desert, I would have politely declined. But instead I heard that the film centered around women. Not just one token female character, but lots of women. “Dodecabechdel test,” actually, was the line that hooked me. I couldn’t think of another film that featured twelve women all talking together. And talk about a movie that I think about for days after viewing it: I saw MM:FR in theaters nearly a month ago and not a day goes by that I don’t reflect on it at least a little.

There’s so much good writing about this movie online and, to be honest, some of my favorites are just the one-off posts on Tumblr that zero in on tiny character moment like Nux not knowing what a tree is or the implications of Max’s back tattoo. But here are a few longer pieces I liked:

  • From The Daily Dot: “Fury Road passes the Bechdel Test, of course; it also passes the Mako Mori Test, on at least seven different counts.Mad Max: Fury Road leaves those mediocre measurements of gender representation—which the vast majority of Hollywood films never even attempt to pass—so far behind that it seems almost silly even to use them as yardsticks in the wake of the strength of Fury Road‘s narrative. . .  Fury Road is every inch the high-testosterone, manly action movie of your dreams. And even when they show weakness, its female characters are still fully in charge of their own destinies.”
  • Tumblr user and fetal amputee Laura wrote about how incredible she felt seeing Imperator Furiosa kick ass onscreen with one hand. Then she created fictionability.tumblr.com to write about it some more. Then she was interviewed by Nerdist.
  • In addition to having beautiful composition and dramatic use of color in each shot, this movie is remarkable in its use of center-framed shots to focus your eye on the action in the center of the screen. Tumblr user bonehandledknife digs into this a little further, comparing Fury Road to The Avengers: Age of Ultron and reframing shots from MM:FR to show how they would have looked if they had been framed in more traditional golden ratios. Conclusion: center-framing was crucial to portraying the female characters as people rather than decorations.
  • More Tumblr: here’s how the narrative would have gone if Mad Max got the conventional Movie Hero treatment.

I did watch the new season of Orange is the New Black. I probably won’t make a separate post–most of the Things I Love about the show still stand–but I did just want to say that I really enjoyed the season. Seasons 1 and 2 had unmistakable villains and high-stakes conflict; Season 3 stands out because those elements are much less clearly defined. On the other hand, S3 focused more on developing and deepening relationships–and showed that the ability to grow and connect is the defining trait of which characters become heroes or villains.

  1. Taystee, Poussey, Suzanne, Black Cindy, and Janae have to mend their relationships after Season 2’s big villain, Vee, tore them apart and left them wounded. Their process of making peace with themselves and each other is mostly private and internal, which is not something we’ve gotten to see much of in a show with a billion characters, most of whom don’t go in for long earnest talks.
    Taystee’s been a favorite of mine for a while, and her realization that she is effectively the new mother of the group was hilarious, touching, and wrenching all at the same time.
  2. Big Boo and Pennsatucky have both been villains of a sort in earlier seasons, but it’s impossible not to root for them in S3 because we watch them grow and confront some of their fears. I’ve always felt that Pennsatucky was a character not well understood by the show–one of the few in S1 who didn’t get a lot of depth or sympathy from the plot–but she certainly got her character development in 3.
  3. On the other hand, Piper seems not to have learned a thing. Like the New Corporate Overlords who take over management of Litchfield, her decisions generate a lot of pain and conflict and serve no one but herself. Arguably, she and they are the two Big Bads this season.
  4. Season 1 dropped the viewers right in the middle of an insular community with tensions and hierarchies firmly in place; we see through Piper’s eyes as she learns to navigate them. Season 2 shakes up those dynamics by introducing a rival queen. But in Season 3, we see a lot of the characters we’ve come to know either on their way up or down. The previous leaders have left, died, or stepped down; we’re seeing their followers attempt to step up and lead in their place. Even the subplot backstories for Chang and Norma, who are both typically treated as ciphers or jokes, have narratives about choosing to lead or follow. It may feel like a radical shift to see origin stories three seasons in, but as the series continues I think we’ll get a sense of the circular pattern of such shifts.

I am also watching Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and I have so many feelings about it, but since most of those feelings are “!!!!!!” I think I’ll have to wait until the series ends before I can gather my thoughts. But if you want to talk about it with me in comments, have at it.

5 Things I Love About the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall

As I noted in my books by women roundup, I loved Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. I had grown very skeptical about historical fiction, because I’ve read very little of it that had writing chops necessary to sell the historical research. Mantel’s books work for me because they are so well written and carefully observed; it’s an interpretation of history, but it’s also a really absorbing narrative. And while there is certainly plenty of the sex, poison, and political intrigue that make long-dead royalty so fascinating to us now, the conflict in these stories go much deeper than greed or sexual jealousy. England under Henry VIII is on the verge of its Renaissance, but half the country is still wild, muddy, and savage. The protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, spent his young adulthood overseas, learning the art of war from the Italians, the science of memory, and the craft of good business in Italian and Dutch counting-houses. His Continental education makes him a rich and influential man in England,  while England’s court is torn apart by terribly primal, carnal matters of husbandry and breeding.

The character of Cromwell as drawn by Mantel fascinates me because he does nothing without a purpose, and yet it’s not clear what drives him. He accumulates wealth, but gives much of it away, so greed  isn’t his motive. He cultivates safe spaces for Protestant religious practice but retains a lifelong loyalty to a Catholic cardinal. He rises in court and in authority, but doesn’t get drunk on power; his inner monologue reveals a man who never believes he is completely safe. But he likes good things and an orderly home; he likes for jobs to be well done and for a kingdom to be well run; he likes for people to get their due–and he will take risks–calculated risks–to procure these ends. Mantel weaves these details into complexity rather than inconsistency, and if we don’t get to know Cromwell deeply, we can still recognize what is human in him.

Every time Cromwell walks into Anne’s rooms, he is greeted with an exaggerated tableau of virtuous domesticity.


I drank up the BBC adaptation as soon as I could get it, and it was overall an extremely satisfying experience, although I still can’t believe they crammed two books into six episodes. I would watch another six hours of this adaptation, no question. Here’s what made the television version work for me:

  1. After the hot mess of The Tudors, it’s such a relief to see a well-cast ensemble. All the characters look just as they ought. Henry is older–old enough to know better–and kingly, a big man who is imposing but not menacing, princely until he loses his temper. Anne is small and tightly wound, pretty but a little drawn around the eyes, a raw nerve. Cromwell is perhaps more handsome than he ought to be, but retains just enough roughness that you can see why other characters think he’s a thug. I have a slighter harder time telling apart some of the senior lords and the boyish courtiers who put on the pantomime skewering Cardinal Wolsey, but one might easily argue that the latter are interchangeable.
  2. Along the same lines: age appropriate actors. Mark the dancing-master is young, just a boy really, which makes his involvement in the trial even more tragic. Cromwell’s nephews and ward are very young men, and Thomas More is very old. It’s more than an aesthetic choice. For the men, age diversity underscores the dynamics of apprenticeship to mastery and old guard to new guard that shape political change. For the women, realistic age diversity shows us insight into womens’ lives we don’t always get to see, since we have these ideas that older times must have fetishized maidenhood even more than we do, and that women young and old were equally powerless. Anne, nearly 30 at the time of her coronation, is noticeably older than many of the women in her court, and for the most part considers them unworthy of her attention. Anne and Mary Boleyn are both very beautiful; though some members of the court have taken mere children as brides, it’s not exactly the norm, and it’s clear that the Boleyn women know the value of their adult beauty. Johann, Cromwell’s sister-in-law and sometime lover, is attractive and appropriately lined and aged for a fortysomething woman who hasn’t had the costly cosmetics and care of the court. Jane Seymour, 20 years old, looks real-20 and not Hollywood-20, still girlishly round and blank in the face.
  3. Jane, Jane, Jane. I love Mantel’s Jane. In so many versions of this story, Jane is the milquetoast angel in the house, so acquiescent that she demurely dies after giving Henry his much-longed-for son. In Mantel’s books and in this adaptation, Jane is weird. She is quiet and awkward, certainly inexperienced, but not stupid or simple. No one likes her or pays any attention to her until Cromwell does and then (always more of a follower than he’ll admit) the king does. Her family panics and starts trying to teach her how to be courted; she basically ignores them, prioritizing her own safety and sense of rightness. Jane is on the rise just as Bring Up the Bodies ends; I cannot wait to see her as Queen when the third book is published.
  4. Henry is well-cast and well-played. Somebody in the show refers to Henry as a lion; you can pet him and pull at his ears if you like, but you have to remember that he has claws. Book and film depict this Henry, a Renaissance prince who must be many things to many people. He is a man who was raised to be king, and he is indeed very regal and knowledgeable and artful–and he also believes in profane female magic and a vengeful God. He is a man who loves his buddies, and craves their approval as well as that of the woman he loves.  He is a man who is surprisingly prudish about sex–at least, people talking about it openly–who has at least one child out of wedlock. He is a deeply vulnerable and frightened man, who has bad dreams and imposter syndrome. One of the big questions of the book is: what is it to be a subject of a man who is, after all, just a man, yet who is said to be God’s anointed ruler of the land? Henry onscreen is a man who to all appearances believes himself imbued with divine right and power, and yet glances out of the corner of his eye at his lady love or his laughing court, smiling tightly, uncertain what the joke is or what her reaction will be. Cromwell is loyal to this sovereign lord and serves his interests, yet to do so, he must monitor those moments of weakness closely and swoop in before the king does something rash.
  5. This is not to exclude the excellent performances by Claire Foy and Mark Rylance, written about elsewhere. This show has excellent face-acting all around. In court you can’t say everything you feel–that’s a good way to lose position, or perhaps even your head–and in the book, part of Cromwell’s job is read between the lines and understand what the king means apart from what he says. For example, when Anne demands that Thomas More be arrested, Henry lifts his eyes eloquently to Cromwell–what can I do?–and Cromwell understands that he must arrest More but leave him a way out. For his part, Cromwell says little to the gentlefolk, especially when they say and do crazy things to him. Mary Boleyn practically throws herself at him, and his face is mostly impassive–waiting–but you can also see a little fear, because what would happen to him if he were to forget his place with her? Mary is not too greatly loved but her family, but a breach of conduct with her would be a good reason for his enemies to attack him.

More fun: Hilary Mantel published an excerpt from her character notes for a stage adaptation of the books, and it is a little bit of prose poetry itself.

An Unnumbered List of Things I Love About Gone Girl

Another day, another think piece about Gone Girl–but this New Yorker article is the first I’ve read that almost exactly nails what I like about the movie and book, especially the book: they show us what happens if we take a story we already know to its furthest logical outcome. Comparing Gone Girl to Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Elif Batuman writes:

Both books restage marriage as a violent crime—an abduction. . . . These narratives speak less to the specific challenges of having a sociopath for a child or a spouse than to the pathology of the unstated assumptions that we all pass along and receive. They speak to the revelation lying in wait for women when they hit the ages of marriageability and childbirth: that their carefully created and manicured identities were never the point; the point was for it all to be sacrificed to children and to men.

That’s more or less what drew me into the story, from the moment I picked it up (on a rare break during a hectic, draining destination wedding weekend) to the moment I came to the bleak, inevitable ending (on the flight home just a day or two later). I once read that detective novels are always about policing social order: the plot is initiated when a transgressor with irregular desires disrupts the status quo, and resolved when the transgressor is captured or killed, allowing survivors to return to normalcy. But Gone Girl is a thriller about two people who try to want exactly what they are supposed to want; achieving their perfectly normal goals is what’s killing them. What fascinated me about the book is how it depicts casual, everyday cruelty—and how much of that cruelty is permitted or even encouraged by cultural expectations for heterosexual romance. Until Amy’s dramatic exit, she and Nick hide their escalating emotional abuse and daily deception in plain sight simply by following well-worn paths within what we consider normal human behavior.

Beyond this point there will be spoilers.

When I read criticisms of the film or book—rightful criticisms, I think—they often come down to the way Amy is characterized and the way the narrative ultimately compares her unfavorably with Nick. Amy acts out every misogynist nightmare known to the internet: she fakes rape, she traps men into emotional and legal commitments, and by “crying victim” she is flooded with public support. Her character is troubling because she performs the strawperson that is invoked whenever the public refuses to believe a female survivor: the mythological woman who voluntarily ruins a man’s life due to self-righteous fury or mere buyer’s remorse. But one thing that is, I think, better explained in the book than in the movie is that Amy would never have won over public support in any of her schemes except that she presents herself as the perfect victim. She is blond, beautiful, educated, wealthy, even a little famous. If she had even one less drop of privilege—if she was dark or plain or struggling financially—her character would be raked over the coals like any other female survivor. (The book makes this much clearer than the movie can, as Amy is repeated described by the news with a minimum of two glowing adjectivies. And when Amy lives alone in the Ozarks, it becomes very clear how much her wealth and beauty have sheltered her, as she is incredibly unprepared for life on the run.) Further, Amy maintains careful control over her public image, so that there are many people who can attest to her good character and none who can safely speak against her. From extensive research, Amy is keenly aware of what makes a good victim in television in movies, and takes steps to ensure that the public also sees her as a supportive wife, a mother-to-be, a good neighbor, basically a beautiful and selfless woman who lives for others.

That’s a pretty brutal critique of news media. It takes Amy a year of planning and sharp PR work in addition to her inborn privilege to make herself into the kind of victim who will be believed.

And Nick? Nick in the film is perfectly cast, with Ben Affleck’s beefy, cleft-chinned, ruggedly handsome bro who’s not into sharing his feelings. But we are incredibly used to seeing similarly shiftless, emotionally stunted husbands with sharp, nervy wives onscreen; this kind of man is usually the hero of a TV series, the guy everyone likes. It’s hard not to see him as the good guy in the film, especially as the plot traces his race to outsmart the evil mastermind, Amy. The film is slick and scary as a thriller ought to be, but that leaves little time to flesh out the inner monologues of Nick and Amy, which in the book makes clear that Nick, too, is a sociopath.

Nick hates women. He thinks that he loves them: he falls for Amy, he carries on a single affair for years, he adored his mother, he has a close bond with his sister. He has a throwaway line about loving ugly women in particular, since ugly women raised him. He actively fights to block out the voice of his father’s misogyny. But let’s tally again. He loves his endlessly-maternal, never-complaining mother. He loves his tomboyish, brilliant sister, who achieves professional success first but also fails first; at her first and only moment of questioning him, he feels irreparably cold toward her. He loves Andie, a very very young woman, until she starts needing too much–then we hardly ever hear about her again. He feels warmly toward Detective Boney, until it’s plain that she will not coddle him, and then he mocks her continually (and often sexually) in his head. And he falls for Amy, who is playing the role of Cool Girl until she doesn’t. He loves her and admires her, but eventually he starts to bait her, to set traps she cannot help but fail. Their relationship starts out with her consciously being “cool” about everything, but he increasingly tests her boundaries, and punishes her for protecting those boundaries. In other words, he loves women who he believes are perfect and better than him, and he loves them as long as they do not challenge him to do better or show themselves to have human needs. Then he becomes either emotionally distant or emotionally violent, even physically violent. Even his family values are motivated by narcissism rather than care: Nick marries Amy because he knows he won’t find someone with the pedigree Amy has, and in his own words he wants to have a baby to see if he’ll give it a better shot than his own father did.

It’s difficult to see Nick’s cruelties in broad daylight, in part because they are outshined by Amy’s extravagances: Nick lays traps, lies, lashes out physically, fantasizes about killing his wife, but Amy’s plans, lies, and murder are planned in such detail over such time that they steal the show. But also, we take husbands like Nick for granted. Of course men in failing marriages date younger, disposable women; of course they grow bitter and resentful and lash out at their wives; of course they aren’t as empathetic as they (and we) expect the women in their lives to be. That’s just men, amirite?

That, to me, is the most frightening and compelling lesson of the book, and what kept me interested through two readthroughs and one film. A cruel woman like Amy can get away with murder only by being extraordinarily clever at planning and pretending. A cruel man like Nick can hide in plain sight just by being himself.

8 Things I Love about Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

It’s not an unproblematic love. I’m well aware that as a privileged television viewer–one who has never been incarcerated and most likely never will be–there’s necessarily something lopsided about my enjoyment of a prison drama. A prison dramedy, even, as this show can be very funny. But I think it’s a well-made show that does some valuable things, as shows go.

A lot of the conversation about Orange is the New Black revolves around whether or not it is a realistic depiction of life in prison. Let’s go ahead and settle that debate for the purposes of this post: it’s not. How can it be? And why should it be? It’s riveting television: hours of boredom and dreary routine have to be collapsed to make way for plot advancement; some aspects of the prison complex must be exaggerated and others must be downplayed in the service of narrative and character arcs. For example, with the exception of Piper’s first stint in solitary, we only get to know the horror of SHU by the way people look when they come back from it; Piper’s Thanksgiving SHU experience will probably be the only time the show spends much time in a solitary cell, because without the narrative frame of “new girl’s first SHU” there’s not much you can do with it storywise. It’s not a realistic depiction, it’s realistic fiction: its purpose is to present situations that could happen, place them in a coherent narrative, and in so doing provide us with insight into the time and place of its setting as well as our own.

And as a fictional narrative, this show does that extremely well.

  1. Drawing from Piper Kerman’s experience and additional research, the show depicts more of prison life than most viewers will ever see, and has sparked a great deal of interest in prison conditions. That’s a meaningful step, and I have to say that it works on me: I find myself reading reports and articles about prison life that I might well have skipped otherwise, because now I have a frame of reference for it.
    But in a fictional narrative, imprisonment also works as a conceit for other types of containment and restriction. Since it’s a women’s prison, we see again and again the ways the female characters are trapped because of being women. For an easy example: Season 2 opens with Piper overhearing a lewd conversation among COs referring to women as “poochies;” one CO explains that he can no longer say “bitch” because it’s degrading. Piper’s face shows how she feels about being subjected to this conversation, but obviously she is not in a position to give one of her signature prim corrective speeches. And how many of us have had to swallow our words because speaking up about sexism will open up a world of trouble? [Link goes to a classic Shakesville piece on daily negotiations with sexism.]
  2. Of course, sexism is not the only oppression at play in this show, and Piper’s sheltered character introduces a lot of sharp criticisms of race and class privilege. Piper is often criticized for being the least interesting character who is given way too much screentime; I don’t disagree, exactly, but I also really love what the show does with her. She’s very recognizable to me as a product of a certain kind of education and upbringing; I find it hilarious when she goes off on her little rants about how “The Road Less Traveled” is commonly misinterpreted or how emperor penguins care for their young. She could easily be someone I know: over-educated by birthright and irritatingly proud of it.
    In Season 2, Piper goes off on a loud public rant about how she understands that she received her furlough because she’s white but it shouldn’t matter because she’s going to see her beloved grandmother. It’s hard to watch–I’m not much for cringe comedy–but I’m glad it’s included. Piper learns a lot in the course of this show but there are a great many things she resists learning; her little cafeteria rant about race gives voice to white resistance you can plainly see anywhere on the internet anytime a nonwhite person is speaking about their lived experience of injustice, and I’m frankly glad that OitNB shows us how pointless and wrong it is to be that person. Sometimes Piper’s narrow-sighted naivete offers a lesson in How Not To Be.
  3. One more for Piper: I also love/hate her character for her insatiable need to be liked. Piper’s need to be liked drives her to do and say some completely stupid things: for one minor example, she gets a little miffed when Luscek refers to Alex as “the hot one” (as opposed to Piper); more egregiously, she argues with Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” that she (Piper) is too a nice person, despite the fact that she has deeply hurt Suzanne’s feelings. Piper is an asshole, and has no idea she’s an asshole; when she does have her occasional flashes of insight and realizes that she’s a total tool, self-awareness brings her to her knees more painfully than any external antagonism.
    On the other hand, her need to be liked also leads her to do some genuinely nice things for other inmates, and form a legitimate bond with other inmates such as Miss Claudette, so that’s nice to see.
  4. Enough about Piper. The next few things I love are similar to other Things I’ve Loved about other shows, but they are still are unusual enough to be noted–starting with the fact that this show is almost entirely about women! Here is a critically respected show with an enormous ensemble cast and almost all of that cast is women. Women of many races and ages and sexualities and backgrounds! Although the male characters get just enough backstory that we can see their complexity and feel sorry for them if we so choose–even the Big Bad of Season 1, Pornstache–it’s really not about them. Honestly, I could do with even less of certain men, like Boring Larry, but then if we didn’t have some reasons to sympathize with him, we might get too sympathetic with Piper. (Truly they are two of a kind; my grandmother would say that it’s a shame to waste two houses on them.)
  5. Did I mention women of all races? Women of various races who have their own friendships, rivalries, and interests that have nothing to do with the white “main character.” It seems pretty basic, but it’s rare. (Here’s an older but still relevant post from the Angry Black Woman about the need for a Bechdel Test-style rubric for nonwhite characters.)
  6. Female desire is obviously foregrounded in this show–in a closed system of women, most of the romantic plots are between women. This is one of the points on which the show is often criticized, actually: lesbian action is so often eroticized for a male gaze in visual media that it’s really difficult to depict same-sex sex without traipsing a little into erotica territory. Fair. But what’s remarkable about the show is that female characters get to to be sexy and sexual without necessarily conforming to conventional (i.e. male, heterosexual) standards of desirability. Women express desire and desirability whether or not they wear makeup and fix their hair. They express sexuality regardless of size, appearance, or age. Toward the end of season 2, longtime inmate Red lays back on her medical seg bed with her face all bruised and discolored, and purrs like a cat as she talks about sex with her husband. Why shouldn’t she? But then, how often do we get to see older women depicted as sexual without it being a joke?
  7. Speaking of sexuality–I really enjoyed this piece by the OitNB writer who realized she was gay while working on the show. I was gratified to see that this is the writer who was responsible for that sweet scene between Piper and Alex when Alex tells her “I heart you.” Cheesy, absolutely–that’s why it’s perfect. Alex is definitely a character who is afraid of being vulnerable, so of course she would try to throw a Cloak of Plausible Deniability over her admission of love. In general, I think the writing on this show is great–very smart, very sharply observed, very revealing of various characters’ fears and longings.
  8. There are so many characters and I can’t think of one who I could do without. Even in Season 1, which had the busy work of introducing them all and setting the major plot points in motion, allowed even the minor characters to have little moments which revealed their motivations and personalities. Season 2 really opened up a lot of those storylines, and for the most part they are consistent with those little glimpses we saw in Season 1. It’s all about the long game, as more than one character has noted.

For more  thoughts on the series–some positive, many not–see the Round Table at Public Books. For fun, an insider view on how hair and makeup achieves some of the main characters’ signature looks.