The Season 1 Orange is the New Black marketing materials had what we would consider one of the best show taglines we ever encountered: “Every sentence is a story.” Both a groan-worthy pun and a mission statement at the same time, it perfectly sums up the show’s comedic yet deeply humanistic take on its subject matter. We’re reminded of that tagline with these two episodes, which treated us to flashbacks for two peripheral characters of varying importance to the storylines up until now. Two flashbacks that are quite literally about the silent and the invisible in any group. While Norma has always been a bit more central to events, including her participation in the downfall of Vee last season, and her rejection of Red at the end of season 1, making her flashback seem a perhaps a little overdue, it was a bit of a surprise to see any time spent on learning about Chang, who’s barely spoken ten lines since the series began. Then again, Rosa was a largely unimportant side character and she wound up having one of the most poignant and impactful of all the storylines last season.
These two episodes illustrate the different ways the flashback structure can be utilized within the story; either as a way of fortifying and underlining a theme or a way of putting a present-day storyline or series of events in context. The results are two of the more effective episodes of the season, both for advancing multiple plotlines and enacting multiple character moments, but also for doing a little world-building on certain “background” characters and especially for remaining true to some of the themes of the season.
Chang is a character whose actions have little consequence or impact on the main characters or any of the main storylines. And we’d argue that, outside of an interest in diverse storylines, there was no real “need” to spend time on her, if one can even apply the idea of “need” to a story. Her flashback is used then to thematically tie an episode together rather than provide background for any story point. In her case, it’s the story of a woman whose life seems bound up in the idea that she’s not considered attractive; that in fact, she’s considered so unattractive as to be invisible, which warps her sense of self and sense of justice to the point that she may or may not have eaten the gall bladder of a man who insulted her looks. And it sure as hell isn’t a coincidence that it’s a story told as a backdrop against which the main characters discuss where they’re situated on the beauty scale and how unlikely it is for any woman to live up to the unattainable beauty ideal that Marisol points out in one of the many discussions on the topic among the inmates.
“What do you think it’s like to be her in real life?” Piper asks Marisol about a random Whispers model. “She eats pills and ice cream, and cries at night. And she cuts herself, but on her scalp so no one can see,” she responds without even thinking about it, adding “I would be her in a second.”
Red sets Healy straight and shatters a bunch of his illusions while making absolutely no apologies that she tried to seduce him to get what she wanted. “You take a women’s power away – her work, her family, her currency – you leave her with one coin. The one she was born with. It may be tawdry and demeaning, but if she has to, she will spend it.”
Gloria teases Sophia about presenting an unrealistic version of women by not letting her roots grow out or showing the bags under her eyes, but Sophia argues that she and reality don’t have the best relationship and she has the right to define for herself who she is as a woman.
Piper flirts with model-gorgeous (because she’s played by a model) Stella who teases Piper for the privilege of her good looks (just as characters also take her to task for growing up in a mansion and referring to hard work as “slavery” – it’s been one long “Shut up, Piper” lately) while apparently unaware that she herself is a major winner in the genetic lottery. Piper insists that, pretty white blonde girl or not, she hates her thighs like anyone else.
Cindy and Marisol discuss the likelihood of a blonde catalogue model being a Latina (not very) and the idea that black women have a much wider range when it comes to their cultural definition of beauty. Marisol sneers and immediately points out Beyonce, who embodies, according to her, white woman beauty ideals.
Lorna piles on the makeup and presents a succession of false images to a succession of creepy pen pals. In fact, her makeup is slightly different each time she presents a different version of herself.
The implication in all of these interactions is that a woman’s looks, her “coin,” as Red put it, are a burden, a tool, a mask and even a lie. Against all these conversations, Chang stands up, shows what it’s like to be so far outside the beauty conversation as to be considered invisible, sneers at them all and says “ALL FAKE.” As flashbacks go, hers was one hell of a mic drop.
Unlike Chang’s Norma’s “origin story” has a direct correlation to (and explanation for) her sudden allowance and even desire to let a cult spring up around her, something which is having a somewhat ominous effect on prison culture at the moment. It’s also fueled by other storylines, like Red’s attempts to get back into the kitchen, Gloria’s deteriorating mental state as she buckles under the pressure of trying to be a mother to her son and a mother to her increasingly fractious prison family at the same time, and the takeover of the prison by a cold corporate concern who’d rather feed the inmates dog food than pay for someone to cook meals for them.
Like Chang’s story (and let’s face it: quite a few others’ in the Litch) Norma is marginalized, silenced (“You don’t ever have to speak with me” aren’t the words of an open and kind person to a stutterer; they’re the words of someone who’d prefer if people around him didn’t question him or express opinions) and mistreated by a man until she snaps and visits violence on him. And like Chang’s story, it provides an opportunity to continue the conversation about the ways in which women present themselves and are perceived.
Ironically, in the midst of telling stories about women who can’t be seen and can’t be heard, a plan is hatched entirely around the idea of women’s natural odor, with much comparison over who has the more “potent brew.” If you can’t be seen and you can’t be heard, you might as well be smelled, then. In fact, you might as well “spend the coin” of your own secretions and try to make a buck off them. It’s a cynical little take on empowerment and agency in a situation and culture that doesn’t allow for them.
Even so, Piper’s scheme to sell used prison panties on the internet is, on the one hand, one of those “wacky prison hijinks” storylines of this season that tend to make it seem a little bit like a sitcom. And it doesn’t even make much sense on the surface, because she’s risking having her sentence extended or even being sent to Max if her scheme is discovered. And for what? It’s not as if she needs the money. On the other hand, it demonstrates fully that Piper is, despite her upbringing and privilege, a criminal at heart and she probably couldn’t deny herself this behavior anymore than Nicky could when she had a ton of heroin at her disposal. She came to prison to find out who she is. She’s a self-absorbed opportunist.
Similarly, Norma’s sashay out of the kitchen and straight into the loving arms of her flock is a twisted take on self actualization. Note how Norma only stands up for herself when it becomes obvious that Red has no power anymore, just as she was only able to stand up to her guru – and in the worst way possible – once he lost all power. In other words, Norma’s story isn’t empowering, even though it has all the trappings of a typical “woman stands up for herself” tale. She’s literally using the tools she learned from her abuser to get people to give her power. She’s enacting the only thing she ever really learned: how to manipulate people into feeling good so they will in turn worship you for it. At this stage in her life, the only things she knows how to do are peel potatoes and be a cult leader – and she’s done peeling potatoes.
So, to sum up, what do the women of the Litch do when the world silences them, ignores them and imposes unrealistic and damaging standards on them? They manipulate you, make you smell their shit, and then cut out your gall bladder and eat it. And the world they live in is so fucked up that you actually sit there as an audience member and cheer them on, because you know they’re only spending the last coins they have left.
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