Orange is the New Black: Feminism without the F Word

The Feminist Premise

o-ORANGE-IS-THE-NEW-BLACK-facebook Orange is the New Black’s female cast (image from Orange is the New Black Facebook page)

As I prepare to teach a Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Popular Culture class this coming spring, I have been looking for an example of a television show or film that can start out the term, offering a strong jumping off point for our feminist analyses of pop culture. And I am thrilled to have found it in Netflix’s newest original series, Orange is the New Black.

[Spoilers ahead, so only make the jump if you have seen the show; if you haven’t yet seen it, stop reading and go watch it]

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The Casual Vacancy

 

The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s rather brilliant introductory immersion into the world of adult fiction. There is no magic, nor any hint of feathers and light. It’s as dark as the day is long, and it’s absolutely dazzling. I was skeptical when I heard my literary hero had decided to write for an adult audience, but she’s really nailed it. The book had me in tears after a few pages, because it’s powerful stuff. Suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and thoughts of patricide adorn it’s pages. This is not a story for children. The tale has recently been adapted for television too, and it’s fantastic. It’s a must see, and let me tell you why.

The story is set in the tiny, fictional English village of Pagford – think the Costwolds in rural splendour, and you’re there. It chronicles the political and personal fallout created by the sudden death of a member of the parish council named Barry Fairbrother. We are introduced to a colourful cast of characters, varying from hideous and hypocritical snobbery in the form of Howard Mollison, the parish council leader, and Krystal Wheedon, the spunky daughter of a heroin addict, who is single-handedly bringing up her toddler brother and caring for her mother. Howard Mollison strives to bring Pagford to tourist status, and therefore wishes to wipe away the housing estate that surrounds the picturesque village. Other members of the council wish to create a rehabilitation centre for the less fortunate.

This clear societal division lays the groundwork for an in-depth exploration of many underlying issues in present day society. The main conflict is between those who believe in rural preservation and those who have a duty of care towards the less fortunate, and it’s gripping stuff. In last night’s episode, we see a battle of wits between both parties. Howard Mollison discusses the lower echelons of society. He states that they choose to ‘put needles in their veins,’ and that they should effectively be wiped off the map. He claims that they need to take responsibility for their life decisions. The hot-headed village GP argues that he is a hypocrite. His ever-increasing weight is a burden on the NHS. She states that his medication costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, because he has made a lifestyle choice to remain horrendously overweight. Howard Mollison is less than pleased, and takes it as an insult. His pompous ignorance and arrogance is exposed, and the audience are forced to re-think their sociological ideals. Are we all making life decisions that directly contradict our own value systems and beliefs?

This drama is superbly acted, and in episode 2, Howard Mollison has a harrowing dream about what ‘the casual vacancy’ truly is. It’s the grave that waits for all of us. It’s a powerful adaptation, and questions what our legacies will be. The Casual Vacancy deals very vividly with social conscience, and I think it’s superb. If you aren’t watching, then you really ought to.