The Intensive Company of Women: Five Reasons Orange is the New Black is Useful for Clergy Women

Post Author: Erica Schemper

prisonMy three-year-old loves me: he aptly timed a few sick days of moping around the house with the Netflix release of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black. While he was settled in to nap or watch cartoons, I moved through the house with my iPad and binged my way through the whole season.

Orange is the New Black follows the prison time of one Piper Chapman (It’s based on the book of the same title by Piper Kerman). At the beginning of the series, she’s living the super-WASPy, affluent dream: educated at the best schools the East Coast has to offer, engaged to a writer, living in a lovely home in New York, planning a business making homemade soaps and lotions with her BFF. And then, she gets busted in the takedown of the drug ring her ex-girlfriend was involved in ten years earlier, and winds up with a 15 month prison sentence.

It’s one of those shows I’m not always sure I can discuss with my parishoners, but I’m convinced its edifying for my ministry, and that its a must-watch for female clergy. Here are five reasons why:

  1. It introduces me to a whole world that desperately needs compassion. At the start of the series, it was easy for me to tick off the advantages Piper’s life has over my own. I’m educated, but not Ivy League or anything. And her parents clearly have more money than mine do. Then we wind up in prison with Piper, and the women Piper encounters in prison are a checklist of the people Jesus says we ought to care about. The orphan, the widow, the poor, the prisoner, the alien…Watching OitNB in itself is not exactly a huge commitment to social justice, but the show deals honestly and compassionately with these stories, and it expands my imagination about who, in our world, are the “least of these.” And, in fact, as we learn more about Piper’s own story, it’s a reminder that despair and the need for grace transcend privilege.
  2. The cast is dominated by women. Women of all shapes and sizes and ages and colors and orientations. Most of the media I consume provides a very narrow spectrum of womanhood: young, skinny, pretty in the same way, straight, white. The very concept of this show is a bonanza for highlighting the gifts of women actors we rarely see. It is good for my soul to see womanhood in all of God’s intended, varied, creational glory. And the skill of these women in acting reminds me that I, too, am created as I am and good at what I do even if I don’t fit every last item on the checklist of society’s ideal for womanhood.
  3. The plot lines are honest about sexuality and gender identity. There’s a lot of sex in this show, and it runs the spectrum: loving, violent, playful, straight, gay, bi, committed and all over the place. I’ll be honest: sometimes I think it could accomplish what it needs to with a little less sex, but I appreciate the diversity even when I don’t always agree with the morality. As a pastor, I most appreciate the compassion with which it treats some of these issues. There’s a plot line, in the first season especially, around a transgendered person that highlights the complexity of emotions and relationships. Wherever your ethics fall, some of the plot lines are like a refresher course in pastoral care.
  4. I love a good morality play, and there are more than enough ethical conundrums to go around here. Characters are not, usually, all good or all bad. They’re complicated, from the reasons they wind up in prison, to the people they become there. There are, of course, exceptions. But then you get into these fascinating plot questions about what would be the just way to deal with characters who are pure evil. You’ll see that coming a few episodes into season two!
  5. Sometimes, when confronted with the darkness of the world, all we can do is laugh. I’m a great believer in letting the absurd shine in the darkness. OitNB does a masterful job of balancing the darkest moments with tenderness, and bringing out the humor and the absurd in even the worst parts of human life. It’s not making light of the seriousness of the situation, just reminding us to laugh in the midst of anxiety, because that little chuckle might be what frees us up to sort things out.

If you’ve not yet binged through, or are carefully rationing, it’s time to schedule a viewing, perhaps with a few other YCWs and bottle of wine…or a sick toddler.

Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian pastor and mother, currently concentrating on the mother part after a decade of ministry in various settings in the Chicago area. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their two children. She blogs at Don’t Flay the Sheep.

Image by: kIM DARam
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Krista Zimmerman
    Krista Zimmerman says:

    THIS IS BRILLIANT! I love love love this show and before I even read the article I was all gitty about the title! Thanks for sharing:) I havn’t started watching yet for fear I will binge and I can’t really afford to right now. But I look forward to doing just that:) Thanks!!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *