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Orange is the New Black: A New TV Show Featuring a Humanist Behind Bars

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If you’ve been on the Internet lately, you’ve probably noticed that the new Netflix original series Orange is the New Black is the topic du jour across Facebook feeds and entertainment blogs alike. The series takes place in a women’s correctional facility where the main character Piper Chapman is a new inmate serving 15 months after being arrested for her past involvement with an international drug cartel.

Orange is the New Black has received acclaim throughout the interwebs for its compelling storylines, brilliant blend of humor and drama, and diverse cast comprised of approximately 80% women. Even more remarkably, the series carefully and intelligently handles storylines featuring characters of several races and ethnicities, queer women of varying identities and presentations, prisoners from different socioeconomic classes, and a trans woman of color (played by Laverne Cox, who is trans herself).

While the show is not perfect and there are some differing opinions as to whether some of the characters are stereotypical, the overall consensus is that Orange is the New Black is headed in the right direction and features much more diversity than other shows on television now. After all, how many TV series do you see with a main character that identifies as a secular humanist? Although it goes unspoken for several episodes, Piper matter-of-factly states that while she “always thought agnostic was kind of a cop-out,” she would “say that she’s a secular humanist” in one of the last episodes of the season. She later goes on to declare “I believe in science, I believe in evolution. I believe in Nate Silver and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Christopher Hitchens, although I do admit, he could be kind of an asshole.”

Now you might be thinking, “Do I really want one of the few out humanist characters on TV to be imprisoned for their involvement with an international drug cartel? Is that really the best example of humanists and what we stand for?” Despite the character’s not-so-exemplary position, I’d argue that Orange is the New Black is one of the shows humanists should absolutely be watching right now.

Aside from the diversity factor, which Humanists can and should get behind, one of the primary plotlines in the first season revolves around the religious conflict imposed by an evangelical. Doggett (referred to as Pennsatucky by her fellow inmates) is first seen attempting to hang a giant wooden cross in the chapel, although she is repeatedly told by the chaplain that it is against the rules, as it represents her beliefs but not others. She protests in a thick drawl, bearing her rotting teeth. At times the character may careen into caricature of the meth-addicted working-class, but Pennsatucky’s character is infused with an all too real conviction and pathos recognizable in both the Tea Party and anti-choice movement.

The series is critical of Pennsatucky’s fundamentalism and often pits her against the more likable and sympathetic characters. As Pennsatucky attempts to hang her giant cross from a pipe, Sister Ingalls, a pacifist nun, refers to the chaplain’s instructions not to. Pennsatucky claims that “It’s our right as Americans to religious freedom. Ain’t you heard of the 3rd Amendment?” Sister Ingalls fires back, “Soldiers should not be given quarter in a house in times of peace?” The series contrasts the two most prominently religious women in the prison and highlights the drastically different ways in which they approach others. While Pennsatucky is loud, pushy, and outspoken about her beliefs, the nun is knowledgeable, private, and respectful of the beliefs of others.

The series also highlights the differences in religious values between Piper and Pennsatucky, a storyline which takes a larger presence in the later episodes. Orange is the New Black is careful not to assert that Piper is better than Pennsatucky because of her humanism. In fact, while Pennsatucky is the first to draw the line in the sand by tattling on Piper for dancing suggestively with a female inmate and ultimately getting her thrown in solitary confinement, Piper retaliates harshly. In what begins as a joke, Piper leads the other inmates to trick Pennsatucky into believing that she is effective at faith-healing, leading Pennsatucky to be sent to the prison’s terrifying psych ward. Both women treat each other badly, and both women make missteps in dealing with one another. While Pennsatucky is wrong to try to baptize Piper against her will, Piper is wrong to tell her that her religion is “bullshit.” Obviously those two actions are not exactly equivalent, but they demonstrate both women’s unwillingness to live and let live. While Piper puts on a front of being open-minded and makes nice for the sake of relieving the tension between them, she proceeds to turn down the proposed baptism disrespectfully.

Orange is the New Black makes it clear that it is not Pennsatucky’s and Piper’s religious values that make them good or bad people, but how they treat others. It is a respect of others’ beliefs, a willingness to coexist, and an avoidance of extremity that allows many of the other prisoners to befriend one another and avoid conflict. This struggle to firmly maintain one’s own beliefs while living amongst others is a universal issue that humanists can certainly identify with.

All unwanted baptisms and unconstitutional crosses considered, Orange is the New Black is an excellent show for humanists. Its stories feature a diverse cast of characters, all of whom are treated and respected as human beings with their own backstories and lived experiences. The show’s focus on the women’s moral and ethical dilemmas is especially relevant to humanists and our values. In an environment where living ethically and living at all are at times mutually exclusive, the women behave in ways that make us question which courses of action we would take ourselves. In a system that effectively dehumanizes people, Orange is the New Black sheds light on the humanity of prisoners in ways humanists will certainly appreciate.

Sam Mauceri, Communications InternSam Mauceri is the Summer 2013 Communications Intern for the American Humanist Association. She is a rising senior at the University of Maryland pursuing double degrees in Theatre and Arabic Studies.

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