The Lesson OITNB Teaches? Everyone Has a Story
Everyone has a story. Some are, to be blunt, rather uninteresting. Others, like those presented to us in the original Netflix series "Orange Is The New Black" are dynamic. Often, they're tragic.
Everyone from this prison drama/comedy has a past. Certainly it's a criminal past, but to write off any one of the women featured in this "based on real life events" TV series would be to sell short a great plot line and force us into a shallow view of prisoners.
What OITNB really pushes us to do (and rightly so) is to see the criminal beyond their individual crimes. It's far too easy in a society divided by an unspoken class system to lump anyone spending time behind bars as nothing beyond a prisoner, criminal, felon, etc. OITNB does more than peel back the curtain on the lives of the women who are spending months and years in prison; it completely rips down the shades and shatters the window so we can walk step in step with the ladies in their lives before prison.
For example, you have Red, a Russian immigrant who never fit in with the popular girls in high school despite a deep yearning to be in their clique. Eventually she grows up and marries. Her husband gets involved with a Russian mob, and likely through events down the line this relationship led to her arrest.
Another character named Taystee grew up an orphan and was eventually adopted by a woman named Vee. Vee turned out to be a drug dealer, and through that relationship Taystee got caught up in assisting with the drug trade and consequently got arrested.
Then there is Sophia, a transgendered woman who earned her time behind bars when she couldn't afford the high cost of a sex change surgery and began a life of thievery to do so. Her relationship with her wife and son is greatly strained.
Yoga, an older string-bean shaped woman in the facility was arrested after accidentally shooting a little boy that she had mistaken for a deer in her marijuana field late at night. Her constant grief over her mistake is evident during one dramatic scene in season one.
Several other stories abound from other inmates, pointing to a past life of innocence that, like it can do to anyone, transformed through events into a darker life, one that these women either couldn't escape or didn't know how to.
Because none of us are good by nature, we are all prone to selfishness, which often leads to sins punished beyond our own personal conviction. When these women in Litchfield prison begin their new incarcerated lives, they still can choose to live rightly or wrongly. The sentiment taken from each story is one of personal struggle. A struggle soaked in poor decisions, yes, but a struggle that few relate to. Facing turmoil of sexism, homophobia, and general human disrespect while in the prison sometimes exacerbates the problems.
You never would guess, however, how the women do overcome personal sins and scarlet letters to shine through with positive actions. Red, the Russian mob queen becomes the head chef in the prison and works to help the inmates addicted to drugs to overcome their demons. Taystee focuses herself on education, soaking up all the knowledge she can from the books in the library in which she works. Sophia, though constantly struggling with her identity, is generous in providing hair care for the women. And Yoga is a great dispenser of advice, helping women to find inner peace with her yoga techniques.
This doesn't erase their crimes. This doesn't reduce their sentences. What these stories show are the human desire that, when hitting rock bottom, there is a choice to stay there or claw your way back up. Even if that climb is in an orange suit with bland food and awkward strip searches from time to time.
What does OITNB have to show us as Christians? The content of the show is riddled with crudeness and an obtuse amount of profanity, all of which you would likely expect from a prison. There's blatant racism, verbal abuse of women, drug use, and sexuality between inmates and prison guards. What the series can point us towards, however, is that we are all fallible; men and women riddled with our own guilt. We're not all criminals, but we are all people. OITNB gives us more than the face in the mug shot with a short description of a crime; it opens doors and windows into the lives of women who at their most desperate moments made grave mistakes. Mistakes they're spending years in a relative hell to make up for. Piper Chapman, the main character OITNB is based on summed up prison perfectly in season one: "I'm scared that I'm not myself in here and I'm scared that I am. Other people aren't the scariest part of prison...It's coming face-to-face with who you really are."
OITNB yearns to change our thought process. Yes, taken at face value it's a dramedy based on the horrors of prison life and the light-hearted "taken for granted by free people" situations that take place. But if we peel back the layers of rust and faded paint, we begin to view not just actresses playing out their roles, but the raw earthiness of people. The stories that define them, that define you. The stripped down reality that makes us who we are.
We all have a story. Yours may read like a fast-paced thrilling James Patterson novel. It may bore to tears like Moby Dick. Regardless, you have a reason why you are where you are and why you're doing what you're doing. God has blessed each one of us. He's challenged each one of us. How will we react to our own story? How will we react to the stories of others? Like Christ did: with love and grace. Sweet, amazing, boundless love and grace. Even to the transgendered. Even to the crack addict. Even to the repeat offender. Even to the most broken sinful people we come across.