American Values Review: Orange is the New Black

There are many Christian values media reviews out there – these are often targeted at Christian parents and discuss how they can keep their children occupied without endangering their faith.  This week I’d like to introduce a concept I’ve been considering for a little while: reviews of movies and other media that, like Christian values reviews, discuss media as a source of entertainment while respecting its power to do much more than simply entertain. The only difference is I will move beyond Christian values to American values. These are the values that have defined the United States for much of its lifetime. They are the values enforced by Martin Luther King Junior, by Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin. American values are the ones pressed forward by the labor movement when it was at its peak, and by the civil, women’s and gay rights movements, the last of which is experiencing a peak today. They draw heavily from Christ’s teachings as laid out in the New Testament and are stronger for it. American values respect the rights and freedoms of all people, and seek to expand these freedoms, especially to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses whose freedoms are most likely to be restricted. These are the values that made America “the land of opportunity,” in the last century, and they are the values that will see us through this one. Just like many Christians feel it’s important to enjoy media that supports their values, I want to encourage Americans to enjoy the media that supports their values. So I hope to use the American Values Review to point out these values when they appear in media and decry the lazy, greedy, or actively hateful writers and directors whose works rely on outdated concepts that run contrary to the American way. I will start with a positive example: Orange is the New Black.

If you’re addicted to HBO and wonder if you can get the same kind of content without the price tag, look no further than Orange is the New Black. Jenji Kohan takes the true story of a privileged white woman’s time in prison and turns it into a Netflix drama with all the intrigue, complexity, and yes, sex, that one could expect of any HBO offering. The dialogue is witty enough to be intellectually stimulating and delivered well enough not to feel scripted, and the plots will make you argue with your friends or your partner about who can be trusted, who’s giving bad advice, and what, really, is the right thing to do in the many terrible situations  in which inmates, guards, and executives of Litchfield Correctional Facility find themselves.

Kohan’s work provides more than just thrills, however. Its contributions to feminism, gay rights, and transgender rights are obvious from the first few episodes, but Kohen’s work offers still more for fans of human rights. Despite taking place in a correctional facility with plenty of murderers cramped in close quarters with each other, Orange is the New Black is relatively low on outright violence compared with conventional Hollywood fare. The dichotomy of good and evil gains no purchase in Litchfield Correctional facility. Conflicts take a variety of forms, often fading into subtlety only to rear their heads again later on and then end in wary forgiveness. Characters seem to start out trustworthy, become villainous, and then realize they’re the villain and try to reform themselves. It seems like every recurring character eventually gets to be humanized, and that’s a strength. Orange is the New Black, at its core, is about human beings, and it’s entertaining enough to get people to look closely at human beings that, as the inmates of Litchfield frequently note themselves, have all too often been ignored.

I give Orange is the New Black an A for entertainment value and an A+ for American values.


4 thoughts on “American Values Review: Orange is the New Black”

  1. I haven’t seen the show yet, but I loved your review. Your first paragraph sounded like it had been written by a progressive super hero.
    This reminds me a little bit of the concept of ‘Quaker movies.’

  2. As you know, Sam, I too am a big advocate of paying attention to the values inherent in the media that we consume. And I, too, like Orange is the New Black. Sadly, we just finished the last episode.

    I was a little put off by the first episode in which the privileged protagonist was dumped into prison and surrounded by stereotypes of scary prisoners. Later, I realized that that was the perfect setup for the humanization of the rest of the inmates in subsequent episodes.

    I object, too, to the photograph, with its five white and two black prisoners. The show is more balanced, with a prison split three ways between white, black, and Latino. All receive attention.


  3. I have not seen Orange is the New Black, but I like the concept that you found in the show. There are so many layers to all people and that includes prisoners. To label them as all bad is most often not valid. Just as labeling ourselves as all good is probably also not valid.

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