Piper’s Comeuppance: When Tribal Turns Racist on ‘Orange is the New Black’

piper

Let’s take a moment to remember the pilot of Orange is the New Black. Particularly the look of shock on Piper’s face when Morello handed her a tooth brush and told her, “We look out for our own.” And then: “Don’t get all PC on me. It’s tribal, not racist.” I can’t think of a single other television show that could get away with creating a community that operates with segregation as its primary social structure. Maybe the lay-viewer, unfamiliar with prison life, was able to easily digest that line as the truth. Maybe it’s the lack of a class system to distinguish inmates. But I think stating “tribal, not racist” so early on in the series, compounded with the show’s eagerness for representing real people from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities, is what allowed OITNB to segregate its racial groups and make it a non-issue.

Though skillfully handled, racial tension has always been bubbling under the surface of things, and it was bound to come up every now and then. When Red had control, Vee gathered “her girls” to get it back. Healy only ever took white inmates under his wing. It’s not hard to imagine white privilege was the reason Piper got furlough. But this season has ripped the cover off the show’s secret weapon and with this episode, Piper may have finally been taught an actual lesson.

Piper’s shortsighted selfishness is something I bring up in almost everything I write about her because it happens to be her primary personality trait. I’m always reminded of when Larry called her out on always playing the victim. “I didn’t ask for this,” she’d say every time she got herself in a bind, and a version of that has repeated each season when someone had a vendetta against her. This episode Nicky confronts Piper on her new Aryan friends, to which Piper unsurprisingly responds: “I didn’t have a choice.”

It may be hard to spot, but Piper is growing as a character, if only very slowly. When she gave up Larry and Polly she gave up her WASP identity, and ever since she’s been trying to reconcile the person she actually is with the part of her that’s in prison. It may be a form of self preservation she’s using as a coping mechanism. It may be a release of expectations now that she doesn’t care enough about what her family thinks of her to even rebel against them. The trouble is that she doesn’t know who Genuine Piper is, and so Prison Piper is winning. And Prison Piper is all about posturing, because she’s not actually a gangsta with an A.

That posturing was always a problem for a handful of people closest to Piper, but now that there are twice as many inmates with as many opinions, her ego has caused some of those under-the-surface racial tensions to start bubbling over. Judy King has a part to play in that, too, with her extraordinarily racist puppet show. Perhaps Morello was right again in saying, “I don’t think racism should be a group activity.” Let’s be real: racism shouldn’t be any activity. It’s philosophically dangerous when one person thinks it, but when a group unites under a common hatred, it becomes a real force that inflicts real violence. Piper’s involvement with this new White Power group is a symptom of her classic shortsightedness, but this time it’s being met with actual retribution. She’s got her label, all right. Maybe now she’ll finally allow Genuine Piper a chance to come out.

And more!

Best line of the episode: “Okay, that’s insane. You cannot block out voices with cheese.” – Lolly. She’s probably right.

Thank you!: For the Lord of the Rings references! Makes me a happy fangirl.

Questions: What will Red do to Nicky when she finds out about the heroin? Will Lolly continue to spiral? Will Healy become a genuine good guy? Who will Piper turn to now?

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3 responses to “Piper’s Comeuppance: When Tribal Turns Racist on ‘Orange is the New Black’

  1. I kinda want to comment on all of your posts, but I’ll stick to this one. Over-eagerness is the kiss of death in any new meeting. I dig your analysis. This show is hard to watch for me for all of the reasons you outline. Piper recalls so many of the simpering, childish, narcissistic girls I knew growing up–the ones who marginalized and bullied people because they could. Our culture gives girls like her permission, so she takes it without asking and cries when confronted. Look at Trump. He’s an uglier, more disgusting version of this, but a version none the same.

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    • I totally agree! Simpering is the perfect word for Piper, and Trump. It’s funny that this is the one you chose to comment on (also, I understand your discretion on over-eager commenting, but have at it if you feel so inclined!) because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about violence/gratuity on TV. I think a lot of how viewers accept the violence depends on how we see the character. It was horrifying to see someone get branded, but that it happened to Piper, didn’t it feel like she had it coming? It felt narratively satisfying, like it’d be the thing that would finally teach her a lesson, but I’m not sure how I feel about feeling like someone deserves that. (Does that make sense? I guess, is there a moral line audiences cross when it comes to enjoying on-screen violence? It’s an idea I’m still working through.)

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      • It makes perfect sense. We are find catharsis in these moments. Inherently we are savage beasts who are only partially tame. We require outlets to soothe our wild feelings. I believe you get Republicans like Trump, Giuliani, Bannon and the lot when you don’t learn to channel that nature appropriately. But then we have to ask ourselves, when is it time to turn it off? When do we check it? What is it doing to our sense of empathy?

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