Because female relationships are rarely depicted well on television, Orange Is the New Black stands out from the norm.
Above: Publicity still by Jill Greenberg © 2013
Much has already been written about the excellent female representation in Orange Is the New Black, and rightfully so. A great deal of that praise owes itself to the variety of relationships portrayed between the different kinds of women in the series. Because female relationships are rarely depicted in layered, multifaceted ways on television, Orange Is the New Black immediately stands out.
While television has embraced the male antihero wholeheartedly, the women who exist alongside them are often vilified or dismissed as annoying, shrill, or just plain unnecessary. Either because writers choose to write women in such a way, or because audiences read them that way, it’s important to point out just how groundbreaking the representation is on Orange Is the New Black.
Female friendship, as depicted on television, isn’t always as thoughtfully or realistically portrayed as to feel real, so it’s especially unlikely that a series about women in prison would manage to do so as well as it does. Though Orange Is the New Black may exist within the heightened reality of prison, it still manages to understand the nuances and the specificity of female friendship in ways that make the women and their relationships meaningful, no matter their circumstances.
The relationships in Orange Is the New Black are forged for a variety of reasons, which include convenience, safety and protection, and genuine affection. The reasons for their friendships are important in understanding them, but they’re also only one aspect of what bonds them. In other words, the fact that these friendships don’t follow a template makes them feel singular rather than pale imitations of one another.
Perhaps the central friendship in the first season of the series, Taystee and Poussey’s closeness is fleshed out even further in the second season. Where the first part of the first season focused more on their similar sense of humor and general camaraderie—their running bit as Amanda and Mackenzie is a perfect example—the ease and shorthand of their friendship was immediately obvious. As the season progressed and the second season began, their friendship was complicated by outside manipulations in the form of Vee, as well as Poussey’s attraction to Taystee. Though shown through the lens of a drug dealing past and a current life in prison, the wedge driven into Taystee and Poussey’s friendship is relatable in many ways, none more so than in the jealousy that can often manifest in friendships, regardless of romantic interest. What’s especially important to note is that the jealousy isn’t reduced to pathetic or played-for-laughs characterizations. Instead, it’s a layered study of the complexity of Taystee and Poussey’s friendship that’s allowed to play out as a season-long arc.
The series does a wonderful job of showcasing more than one kind of female friendship. For instance, one of the unspoken rules in prison is that certain groups and races tend to stick together. That means that these friendships are often determined by circumstance, at least at first, rather than by more traditional methods. However, that doesn't mean that there aren't exceptions and these initial friendships can't grow into meaningful ones. Gloria and Aleida’s friendship is an excellent example because it shifts from an uncomplicated superficial relationship based on their Hispanic roots, to a grudging respect and an honest friendship as their mutual concern for Daya initially confuses things.
Piper's friendship with Nicky is another highlight of the series because the affection between the two is so unexpected. Nicky is the quick-witted, unflappable ex-junkie full of quips and one-liners, while Piper is timid, unequipped to handle prison life, and decidedly not a criminal, at least at first. The relationship they initially develop sometimes feels just shy of friendship, but it eventually becomes clear that they sincerely like one another. Nicky might play up her bemusement in the face of Piper's ridiculous naiveté when it comes to prison life, but in a particularly telling scene in the second season, it's obvious there's more to their friendship than just amusement, even if it's complicated by their now shared history with Alex.
As for the ones that defy the established prison system, like Sophia and Sister Ingalls or Yoga Jones and Watson, they could use further fleshing out though they still convey the essentials of a genuine friendship. Sophia and Sister Ingalls are an interesting relationship because though they may seem completely incompatible at first glance, they're both outcasts in a system that groups people immediately upon arrival. As a trans woman and a nun, they don't necessarily fit into these groups neatly, but they share a sense of humor about their place in the prison, as well as a fearless persona. They're both unafraid to express themselves, no matter how controversial or unexpected their opinions are.
Conversely, Yoga Jones and Watson bonded in a moment of vulnerability that could've easily been exploited by either woman. There's a moment in the second season in which Watson explicitly calls out their relationship as less than it is, albeit in a difficult personal moment, yet the genuineness of their bond still comes through precisely because of how clearly hurt Yoga Jones is by Watson’s rejection of their friendship.
The friendships between the women of Orange Is the New Black are most notable because they are never portrayed as static. They evolve throughout the 26 episodes and are affected by any number of scenarios that may seem extreme because they occur in prison, but are often just a different setting and approach to showing specific friendship dynamics at work.
The show’s use of flashbacks not only offers insight into the imprisoned women’s lives, and the circumstances that led to their imprisonment—it also links them in unexpected ways. The prison microcosm rarely allows for the women’s pre-prison lives to play a direct role in how they are perceived, or even how they carry themselves in prison. Certainly, their pasts are an integral part of these women, but their current circumstances and the ways in which they choose to serve out their sentences take precedence. This makes for unlikely allies and enemies, as well as friends.
What makes Orange Is the New Black so watchable is first and foremost the relationships established in the series, friendship chief among them. They can be messy and complicated, and they frequently are; yet, the series consistently provides layered, three-dimensional portrayals. Too often female friendship is reduced to clichés and thin characterizations, but Orange Is the New Black makes it a point to offer fully realized women interacting with each other in ways that feel relatable, regardless of the circumstances.
While female friendships have traditionally gotten short shrift on television, Orange Is the New Black has succeeded in showing the varying shades that exist in these relationships without having to resort to tired tropes or weak characterizations. On the contrary, the women in the series are strong, vibrant representations that have long been absent on television. Just as the medium is expanding in new and exciting ways, the complex, three-dimensional portrayal of women is also gaining the level of attention that seems almost inexplicably overdue. Orange Is the New Black is not a perfect show, but it has gone a long way in showcasing women in ways they’ve rarely been seen, and that includes offering real insight into the relationships between women.