In Defense Of Piper Chapman
Like lots of you, I was psyched for the release of Orange is the New Black season two this month. So thrilled that, against my better judgment, I binge-watched all 13 episodes within days and now I have to wait another year for new material to come out. As much as I’ll miss having fresh installments and great storytelling to look forward to, I can honestly say I’m satisfied with the progress made in season two, particularly by main character Piper Chapman.
When OITNB premiered last summer, it was an instant success. There was nothing else like it on TV and reviews were mostly positive. The show resonated with viewers everywhere, but lead character Piper Chapman did not. Portrayed by Taylor Schilling, Piper is an educated Northeast woman who finds herself in prison a decade after helping her former girlfriend Alex with international drug-smuggling activity. Piper leaves behind her yuppie Brooklyn life, including kind, mild fiancé Larry to do her time, but her behavior didn’t sit well with many viewers. Piper was seen as privileged, spoiled and lofty, not just by deranged inmates such as religious extremist Pennsatucky, but fans of the show.
“Piper Chapman’s story deserves to be told, as it can help put a face on the prison issue, but we must remember that Piper’s greatest privilege is that she gets to be that face in a way others do not,” Nico Lang wrote last summer. “She might be everyone’s least favorite character on their new favorite show, but as the lead, it’s still Piper’s story we’re telling.”
That same month, Claudia Liss-Schultz wrote in Ms. magazine, “Unlike most of her fellow inmates, though, Piper’s fate was not overdetermined by her race or class. She’s unlike Daya, whose mother occupies the same prison: Piper did not inherit a propensity to illegal activity or a likelihood of getting caught. And she’s unlike Taystee, who leaves ‘the Litch’ only to realize, ‘Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone. Don’t nobody ask ’bout how my day went.’ Piper will be protected by her family, her money and the color of her skin when she gets out.”
It was easy to assume this during season one, when Piper is still very much in touch with her family and friends outside the correctional facility. Without spoiling too much about season two, I will say that she receives less and less support from loved ones as time goes on. Her dad still refuses to visit, justifying this by explaining he doesn’t want to see his only daughter in such bad shape. Her Stepford Wife mother hasn’t changed at all, and things with Larry and her BFF Polly don’t inspire much hope. A family member Piper loves deeply passes away before she has a chance to say goodbye. We see Piper connect with her brother a little more, and surely he’ll be there for her after her sentence ends, but even he’s married now and starting his own life. Everyone is moving on while Piper tries to get by as the self-proclaimed “lone wolf” in prison.
It’s true that Piper has a better shot at success after getting out the other inmates, but one of the big draws of OITNB has always been the fact that it’s about a relatively normal girl who makes poor choices and is unprepared for the consequences later on down the road. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, just as many of us wouldn’t know how to navigate prison.
In season two, we’re introduced to a naive new inmate named Soso, a young girl doing time for political activism. She walks into the experience believing it will be like Girl Scout Camp and that everyone is besties. She maintains her optimism until the very end of the season, when she finally admits to Piper she doesn’t think she’ll ever be the same after rotting behind bars. But Piper not only threatens and mocks her, Piper is different now, and she doesn’t feel bad about the fact that she’s changed in prison. She feels like she might have always been this way and only had a chance to see her true colors when she started wearing orange.
Piper makes questionable decisions in season two, jeopardizing her relationship with Larry and potentially adding more time to her sentence for attacking an inmate. She pays for her bad choices, and though you could argue that she gets what she deserves, I can’t help rooting for her and being angry with Larry’s weakness and disloyalty. Piper is flawed and hard to feel sorry for compared to others around her, but that’s a major part of what drives the show. When a family member is on her deathbed, Piper is granted furlough and taunted relentlessly by other inmates who insinuate the furlough was grated because she’s white. Piper eventually gets fed up with the nastiness and tells them off. She’s constantly reminded of her privilege, but finally strong enough to say she’s tired of being shamed.
As Chuck Barney of the San Jose Mercury News put it, “[A]s Orange returns for another 13-episode binge-fest on Netflix, there is a darker edge and considerably more grit to her. . . If anything, Orange, like Piper, comes back with even more swagger—bolder, darker and tougher.” No matter how out of touch her character may seem, she comes into her own at Litchfield overtime, and like many of the characters surrounding her, she’s a hardened anti-hero I can’t help rooting for.