In case you were wondering, I can confidently report that Orange is the New Black is still the new black. I thought that because of the supbar third season of OITNB, that the crowd at Piper Kerman’s (i.e. “Piper Chapman”) talk last Tuesday (10/13) in Rackham auditorium would be moderately light. However, tons of OINTB fans and Piper enthusiasts alike filled the foyer of Rackham as the anxiously awaited Piper Kerman–the woman, the myth and legend.
Having read Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (and by read I mean having listened to the audiobook), I went into Kerman’s talk with high hopes. The book, a poignant collection of one woman’s personal experiences within the prison system, explores complex social, political, racial and emotional issues. And while the Netflix series can go off the rails a bit, it does an adequate job bringing these issues to light as well. It would seem,then, that Piper Kerman’s speech would cover these important issues.She could have chosen to relate her speech to the issues of race plaguing the nation and how that has a unique representation in prisons. She could have related her experience in the Danbury Correctional facility to the overcrowding happening at Women’s Huron Valley, a prison only 25 miles from where Kerman stood that day. Piper Kerman had the fucking buffet of social issues to talk about and instead produced a brief and shallow synopsis of her story and the prison system.
Kerman opened her talk by relaying the basics of her story. Granted, from listening to the audiobook multiple times, I had every minute of this intro memorized, but still it was quite amazing to have the real person telling it 10 feet away from me. Kerman explained her lesbian affair (with euphemisms, of course) that led her into the world of drugs and eventually forced her into carrying a bag of drug money from Chicago to Switzerland. Kerman told us that she was from Boston, the offspring of two teachers and a graduate of Smith College. When referencing Smith she called it “the first women’s institution she would be held at.” On the surface the joke is funny. I’ll admit it, I laughed. But come on, Piper, you’re really going to compare college to prison? From what I read of the book–of all the abuses and human rights violations that happen in prison–it seems demeaning to the experiences of prisoners to compare them to my pampered life as a college student. Look, I know you were just trying to lighten the talk with a joke but strike one, Kerman. Strike one.
Strike two, came at about one hour into her talk. Piper began speaking at 5:10 P.M., and she did not bring up the word “race” until 6:01 pm (yes, I did indeed record these numbers). She spoke about race and class together, with a powerpoint slide that had an image of an two hands of different races embracing in cultural connectivity. Because of course, right? Kerman stopped talking about race and changed the slide at 6:07 P.M. Six minutes. She dedicated a mere six minutes to talking about race. I’ve read (read: listened) to her book. She intimately and beautifully talks about race and the way it shaped her prison time. She breaks down her assumptions about her new friends and the racial stereotypes that used to occupy space in her brain. Instead Kerman only mentioned race once more when she compared “ConAir”–prison flight transit–to “modern day slave ships.” At that moment Kerman threw out a powerful image and didn’t give any more evidence to back it up. From reading her book, I know about the shackling of prisoners tightly for hours at a time, how one is often refused access to a bathroom, and how food service is seen as a luxury, not a necessity. I have read how prisoners are treated like the cattle of the Bureau of Prisons, unwanted extra baggage of the federal government. I encourage you to read her book, or others like it. The prison system in the United States is atrocious. Incarcerated people are the victims of a broken system that collects every bias and corruption imaginable. As a public figure, Piper Kerman literally has the stage to make change. In this talk, someone I had admired for a clever delivery of a revolutionary topic gave a puff piece covering just enough, yet barely anything at all.
Don’t get me wrong Kerman’s talk was enjoyable. She made other jokes that were funny and showed us pictures of her and the ‘real’ Larry which, let’s face it, every Netflix binge watcher wanted to see. She filled her hour well, kept a good pace, and delivered decent material, but she didn’t do anything meaningful. So while enjoyable, it was not at all impactful. That was strike three for me. I left the talk excited that I was in the same room as someone who has met Laverne Cox, but I was not moved in any way. When I put down her book (paused the recording), when I walked away uncomfortable, festering with ideas about what we do with the incarcerated. I walked away from her talk, however, unfulfilled.
For those of you who wanted more than Kerman gave and haven’t read the book, I urge you to read it. Or even better, buy the audiobook–you won’t regret it. For those of you who can’t commit to the book, stick to the show. However, do this for me: watch it with a skeptical eye. Parse every representation, understand that Piper Chapman the character may not exist, but the system of Litchfield does. Remember that what we are using as entertainment is actually someone’s reality. One thing Kerman said at her talk that I agreed with is that the show is making people think and talk about prisons. So please, keep reading, keep watching, keep thinking, and keep talking.
What the F Campus Coordinator