It’s taken me months and months to admit that Orange is the New Black is officially over. We bid a dramatic farewell to Piper Chapman and cast after spending seven seasons behind bars with them and getting personally invested in a multitude of diverse storylines.
The show offered such a rich exploration of its diverse cast that very early on in the show, the protagonist’s story seems to pale in comparison, and Piper remains at the forefront throughout the series. Less as an important narrative thread and more as a glaring social commentary of how good intentions do not eradicate white privilege.
The more obvious reason for this is simple as she represents the main character of the memoir the show is based off (Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman). The memoir and the beginning of the series show Piper as a naïve, white, suburban girl who ended up fooling around after college and is now paying her dues. The audience follows her into the prison on her first day and is witness to how quickly and easily she becomes a target for most women already present.
It is Piper’s faith in the broken system to keep her safe that makes her complicit to her privilege.
As the show progresses, we see Piper become well-adjusted to the system in place but her identity on the outside still speaks volumes for the other prisoners. Sometimes it is addressed as a comic-relief one-liner and sometimes in more overt and dramatic scenes, such as when Piper’s panty-selling business snowballs into a Neo-Nazi self-proclaimed group (Season 4 Episode 5).
It wasn’t just the fact that her race allowed her to remain unsuspected by the guards – hence proving her privilege – it is Piper’s faith in the broken system to keep her safe that makes her complicit to her privilege. The lenience that she experienced in the first three seasons reassures her that she can remain under the radar, until her privilege finally speaks up so loudly, it gains a cult following.
However, because she is the main character, we get to experience this transition with her. And so in the first three seasons, we saw Piper as a rich kid that needed to be humbled and a system that is definitely racist, but we didn’t see a racist protagonist. In fact, because the audience experienced her journey with her and from her eyes, we saw that she didn’t want special treatment because it would’ve made her stand out. We saw her trying to bond with the girls and adjust to life. We saw that Piper had good intentions.
But she’d also had good intentions behind the panty-selling business (as good as an illegal business can get). And we also see how living in ignorance of your privilege does not make it go away – for Piper, it quite literally made a Neo-Nazi group gravitate towards her.
So what does this mean for Piper Chapman?
Does this mean she remains a misunderstood character, or does it make her immediately unlikeable? I don’t believe it is that simple because while I believe that the plot holds a great significance, there are nuances that add a relevant social commentary to the show, and Piper’s character is the culmination of these nuances to provide us with a commentary on privilege even when one means well.
These nuances are what we were acquainted with as we followed Piper’s story. In her footsteps, we can understand that she was a liberal, well-intentioned woman who was naïve to how ignorant she was about her privilege until she was ripped out of her bubble and placed amongst women from all walks of life.
Your intentions are insignificant if you deny your privilege while being in a position of privilege.
In the cramped four walls of the prison, there was no room for ignorance and so every day, Piper was forced to confront a truth that is extremely pertinent for anyone in the position of privilege to understand – it doesn’t matter if you aren’t actively oppressive because we belong to an oppressive system; your ignorance in itself is an act of oppression. Therefore, when her Neo-Nazi group remained undetected, the prisoners took it into their own hands and, in a horrific turn of events, branded Piper with the Nazi symbol. This visual conclusion to her metaphorical-turned-literal incident is fitting because it is, quite literally, asking Piper to take ownership of who she is.
It’s 2020 and, at this point, I think we are past the point of raising awareness about how racially and culturally corrupt our systems and societies are. The awareness is there, but a lot of people don’t understand their personal roles in not only maintaining a broken system, but also helping perpetuate it. A lot of times we hide behind the masks of a good education or liberal conversations or a well-respected family, but those aren’t enough.
Your intentions are insignificant if you deny your privilege while being in a position of privilege. In a society that is racially and culturally aware as well as evolving, self-awareness and self-accountability are essential if you claim to be a part of the change.
Good intentions, as Piper Chapman learned, are no longer enough.