Orange is the New Black (OITNB): The New Women’s Empowerment?

By Kathy Korman Frey

Why you think you are watching Orange is the New Black: There is an upper middle class girl who went to Smith who was put in a Federal penitentiary. Holy…!

Why you keep watching Orange is the New Black: The women – with a few exceptions – find their inner strength against all odds. They find it together. They find it on their own. They find it. It’s awesome.

This is after people are sitting around saying, “You can’t”…in a BIG way.

Sometimes for years.

Outside the prison.

Inside the prison.

But then…there is light.

There are a few people…that say, “Yes you can,” like angels in orange and tan jumpsuits.

And then – character by character – damn if they don’t just do it.oll

They do exactly what someone told them they could not do.

Even when that someone was themselves. 

This is why we severely heart Orange is the New Black.

Sometimes, it’s something as small as making it through the cafeteria line, or figuring out the bathroom procedure, or making a friend, or making a deal, or standing up for themselves.

Sometimes, it’s just standing back up again. Seriously. That happens a lot. 

Piper as a newbie in the cafeteria


This is rough stuff on a HNL (Hole.Nother.Level.)


Chances are, you may feel a lot less sorry for yourself after you watch #OITNB. Putting it lightly.

I did NOT find myself saying:

“Oh, I chipped a nail.”


“Dang –  I’m late for the carpool – look at this traffic.”

There will be thanks, perhaps. Just maybe, if you’re an introspective one, it will remind you of a story you know. This is about stories, as is the Hot Mommas Project award-winning, confidence-boosting women’s education mission.

WARNING: OITNB – OD Syndrome. If you watch the entire series back-to-back, as I did this past week, watch out for the following: OITNB – OD Syndrome. Symptoms include a sudden, irrational fear that someone will come steal your mattress or that Red will starve you out.

Not that that stopped me….I mean, what’s a few irrational fears compared to the SHU?

Then there are the characters. 

Laverne Cox as Sophia

After watching #OITNB, you will feel thankful for the crazy you feel while PMSing, because of the transgender character Sophia who is – out of nowhere – restricted on her hormones, thus holding her body hostage.

Who saw that coming? Feeling thankful for your hormones. Yeah.

We will feel thankful our kids who hate us for normal stuff, versus we were born in the wrong body and had to make a life-altering decision that has rocked everyone’s world – including our own – and we don’t know if it will ever be okay again. It hurts Sophia. But it hurt more to be false and live a lie. What a mental tug-of-war. And it’s portrayed so brilliantly. 


Crazy Eyes

Uzo Aduba as "Crazy Eyes"

Or the character “Crazy Eyes” who struggles with sanity at times, and we think “it’s her” and then we realize “it’s not.” She’s sane enough to know good people from bad people. She has coping mechanisms figured out. She wants love and to be loved. So she pees on the floor every now and then..hey.


J. Harney as Sam Healy

Or even the guards, who you want to hate, but then the writers show you sympathetic sides of them. As Vinnie Barbarino says, “I’m so confused!” I decided my personal philosophy:  It doesn’t make it okay, it just helped me understand how they got that way. 


Then I thought: Wait! These aren’t real people!

Or are they?

Because, sports fans, #OITNB is based on the memoir of a real person. Piper Kerman. True. 

In conclusion – for me #OITNB was fascinating and empowering.

For women’s leadership nerds: And for those of you intimately familiar with our work, you may even see the Alfred Bandura (most famous living psychologist) parallels in the plot lines. Other than the film “Elizabeth,” I’ve been hard-pressed to find such well-rounded female characters that make it all the way through a plot without collapsing into a boyfriend, tiara, or other feel-good gimmick.

I’m in business, so I can’t say I don’t get it. It’s just great when it’s a win win.

Orange is the New Black *is* that.

If it were a little less contro, I’d assign it to my class at GW. I still may (parts). And I may make a curriculum element out of it for the award-winning Hot Mommas Project (we boost confidence).

What aspects were particularly impactful to you? Do tell.

The series left me constantly thinking: “What’s next? What would I do?”

And I wonder if that is what the writers intended.

Talk about an in your face genre. I felt like I was there.

The small screen just had a head-on collision.


Watch #OITNB on Netflix


18 thoughts on “Orange is the New Black (OITNB): The New Women’s Empowerment?

  • Friend of the Hot Mommas Project @Deziner is addicted like us..

    From Twitter..

    @ChiefHotMomma OMG… love that show… watched it all in a matter of a week, I swear!

  • Thanks to Cadre’s @Melanietc for favoriting this on Twitter. We’re sharing this with the cast and writing team tomorrow.

    • Seriously, I am addicted to this show! Love your post and for articulating what I was feeling, but couldn’t quite pinpoint. I fell in love with each of the characters for their strengths, their coping mechanisms and even their flaws. I am definitely in #OITNB withdrawal and will be anxiously awaiting season 2!

  • I just absolutely loved that series and it may be time to rewatch it already. I got much the same thing out of it as you did, but hadn’t quite figured out to articulate it. Watched it a weekend and feel extreme withdrawal.

    • So true. What will we do until next season? We’re obsessed. And to be fair, while the criticisms and discomfort of … Say ..this person (link below) are valid…past the third episode is where it turned around for us. Also, aren’t you supposed to flip the stereotypes and just feel all the in-your-face discomfort …just as do the prisoners?

      A theory…the grossness and mass stereotyping is strategic. Prisoner eyes. Prisoner world.

      • I hear that – fully agree with prisoner eyes, prisoner world, what a perfect way to phrase it! It would have been much more upsetting if they’d glorified prison. And of course things in the show are going to be different from the book. That’s just how that works. Thankfully less so with Netflix, but you just knew they were going to add elements that don’t stay true to the original story.

        I also get why the person from that link stopped watching. I really do understand that. And really? Not liking Piper worked for me. I kept watching so I could laugh at how dumb and weak she was.

        Then she stopped being dumb. And stopped being weak. And started to learn and grow. And HELLO the other characters, and their backstories. I also loved how the season ended with her having a dumbness relapse – HAS she grown? Or were the changes superficial? HAS she really accepted responsibility for all her actions?

        Have any of us?

        • Yes! Dumbness relapse! So true. She seemed wise in ways of the world – then got into the themesong (we all play sometimes, right, but we hoped she wouldn’t) “If we tell ourselves this, it will make it true, and then everything will be okay….”

          The Pennsatucky thing – too – she got all “high road” with that. Dumb, or great, or some new weird word we need to invent that is a combination of “martyr” and “dumb?”

          Also understand why person – above – stopped watching too. Is not for the sqeamish. Fo sho.

          • Yes. There are certain shows I know aren’t for me. But in this age of social where everyone gets to play expert, I think we’ve lost the distinction between “not for me” and “this is bad”. If I don’t like action films, maybe to me, The Long Kiss Goodnight is a bad movie.

            But if I do like them, maybe it’s a celebration of how a lead character in an action movie can be capable, beautiful and sexy, without being a stereotype.

            Oh and by the way a woman.

            I like your idea of smashing a hybrid of dumb, martyr and great together into a word that means all three. LIke Bravmartrystake, LOL. Love how her dumbness relapse is so true to life, as you’ve pointed out. Didn’t think about that much.

          • Yes. Like how Dustin Hoffman “reinvented” how we thought of leading man. She’s kind of unlikable at times, and we accept her as the lead. I combined enough with gender studies with lit and film enough to know there is a double standard.

            Also, there is always a skim and polish and elimination of plot lines that takes place from lit to film. Mist be adapted to make it work. This is just a given. Makes many people angry because a truth (the book) is not being told, but, this is why film companies buy rights: To be able to so what they want. If they care at all – they involve the writer…which they have here.

          • Indeed. Great example with DH. The trend is now that in all aspects of entertainment and art, we want to see shades of Realism in characters, even if we don’t necessarily Like the character, we Appreciate believability.

  • I watched it, I like it enough to watch the next season. But it’s entertainment. It’s not going to cause revolution on the prison system. It does not even begin to share what happens in prison and isn’t even a complete account of what happened to the author while in prison. If you need fiction to make you feel better about your life, then you are in a really rough place. It’s not real. Its a show. It’s just entertainment and story telling. If you listen to the real Piper talk about her experience, you can see how far off this show is from what happened. So feeling like you were really there? Please don’t insult women who are actually enduring prison.

    That being said-
    It’s a good show.

    Dr. Letitia Wright

    • This is Kathy Korman Frey – Hot Mommas Project founder.

      No claims it will reform prison system.

      Just that it follows steps of Bandura’s confidence-building model.

      “Feeling” like you were there is a story-telling reference a la Hitchcock, and was bookended by references to the writers and the “small screen.”

      I like to say, “Question mark before explanation point.” Many assumptions and tear-downs do not in any way negate the confidence-building power of the series.

    • I forget who said it, but the expression is “all revolution starts in the art”. And I don’t think it’s going to cause revolution in the prison system – I didn’t think the article here was about that or insulting prisoners or that fiction makes anyone sing Kumbaya. Nor is the existing discussion about presenting fiction as reality. Not even close.

      By no stretch of the imagination did I see the show as being an accurate portrayal of prison life. Oz wasn’t, but it was still not only a good show, but one that helped to break some barriers down. And that still isn’t the point I got from the article.

      It’s very rare that any One show breaks all the barriers and pushes all the boundaries. It about what Kathy said “This is about stories, as is the Hot Mommas Project award-winning, confidence-boosting women’s education mission.”.

      Storytelling, historically and especially in America, has on the one hand presented as being Central to how society and culture progress, but on the other hand, in mass media has been notorious for leaving so many people’s stories out of the narrative. A quick example would be Roots.

      Does that tell the whole story of slavery? Not even remotely close. But from the time it aired to now, it’s still sparking related discussions. And those conversations, and heightened awareness, when these shows are widely viewed, they DO impact society. Storytelling shows up everywhere – it’s one of the main ways we communicate. Fiction may not be the right medicine to make one feel better, but I didn’t see anyone say that was why it’s an example of female empowerment.

      Culture, especially American culture, is deeply rooted in the stories we tell and also don’t tell, as well as how we tell them. Storytelling factors into everything from politics to marketing. Content marketing is most successful when it involves storytelling.

      Now, I’ll concede the point that this particular show is almost assuredly not giving an accurate view of prison on the whole. Of course, no one here said that it was. But, it is, on a micro-level, sharing stories of women, just wrapped in an alternate situation than we’d usually see it. THAT is the area that intrigues and one that could possibly advance the public mental narrative about women.

      It’s important for the same reason that it’s important for mainstream America to see more people of color in our entertainment and art. The stories being told may not be accurate on a macro level about prison, but many of them are very accurate on a micro level about women. That’s how I took Kathy’s points.

      • Thanks Tinu. Great examples of other story-tellying greats. They want to grab us, not be 100 percent accurate. That’s a different form called: Documentary.

        One thing, also, the women did in the show and we do in the project was help one another. Nice example. Granted, it’s in a do what you have to do kind of way. But, dramatized well which is the point (so many are not). The last step, always forgotten in media, is the reinforcement of their own self- belief. In media this is often externalized (e.g. The love of a crowd, boyfriend, etc). So, yes, this story was played out particularly well along Bandura’s four steps of self-efficacy..had it been at a camp ground, construction site, whatever. The prison is not what makes it – it’s the people and the story. That is why my comments – as you mentioned Tinu – had nothing to do w/ the prison reform movement.

        • I don’t mean to sound like I know everything LOL. It’s just with my background as a writer, having started out in college as an Ebglish major, and taught for a while under the eastern system of art-as-metaphor and life-as-inter-related… There used to be a time when you could express an idea in the abstract and not be taken literally.

          Besides, even male inmates, who supposedly have it worse, say that they got prison at least partly right – – and the same article admits that there’s a dilemma in making a setting whose “defining characteristic is boredom” into a show people would watch.

          Not to mention that Not getting it right is what opens the dialog — if you gt prison portrayed with perfect accuracy, there’s nothing to talk about, and a cancelled show to boot.

          • Tinu – wait, you don’t know everything?

            I find the whole think fascinating. I am an English major too. Heavy gender studies. Film.

            Found undertones of earlier comment interesting b/c assumes lack of familiarity w/ prison system. You just never know someone’s background, their family. You just don’t know.

            I always assume – too – making a comment and then wandering off, leaving your site, someone in media…they’re a pro. Come on. This is entertainment. Gotta respect it. Trying to generate some “lookie here” for their show and that’s okay too. Of COURSE the post had nothing to do w/ reforming the prison system. Someone would have to not read it or be totally in left field to think that. And personally insulting the author of the post? Provoking. It’s all a game. It’s fun! Join in! Guys do it all the time! It’s called football.

            Back to the desk job: Saying what YOU want, no matter what was said, is media rule #1. Rock on!

          • I know Dr. Wright, had her as a WGBIZ guest once, don’t have a problem with her or her comment. I just disagree. But yes, football, it’s so not that serious.

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