If there’s one thing you take away from the opening sequence of Orange Is the New Black, it is that despite the standard-issue prison clothes and the shared state of incarceration, each of these women is an individual with her own story. She is more than the consequences of her actions. She is a human being.
This post will also address who these women are and why they have been used instead of the actresses.
[Last updated June 4, 2016]
Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time” was written and recorded specifically for Orange, which is appropriate seeing as the song is as unique as the women whose stories we come to know throughout the show. As a whole, the song encompasses the two major themes of the series: inescapable imperfection and indelible humanity.
The song immediately compares the experience of the incarcerated to that of animals forced into crowded cages, and this metaphor exposes the general philosophy of the United States prison system: those who are incarcerated deserve to be there because of their own transgressions, and they will only be released when there is either no more room for them or when they have learned to submit. Spektor sings,
“Animals, the animals
Trapped, trapped, trapped ’til the cage is full.”
Seeing as the main theme of season four is going to be about overcrowding and prison privatization, these two lines take on a special significance. Because Litchfield Penitentiary is now in the business of making money off of the incarcerated, the women will be packed into prison like sardines in a can to maximize profit. Tensions will subsequently run high. Spektor continues,
“The cage is full
In the dark, count mistakes.
The light was off but now it’s on
Searching the ground for a bitter song.
The sun is out, the day is new
And everyone is waiting, waiting on you
And you’ve got time.
And you’ve got time.”
While season one initially led us to read this verse in terms of the experience of entering prison, the overcrowding of Litchfield now suggests that the incarcerated women must “stay awake” to ensure their own safety. Whereas Piper might have stayed awake at night thinking about the decisions that led to her imprisonment (as suggested by the verse above), she will probably spend her nights in fear during season four, seeing as she is becoming more powerful by the moment as the kingpin of Litchfield’s panty business. The “light” might have initially symbolized the recognition and clarity that a prison sentence affords the convicted, but now this light can be interpreted as a judging spotlight, one which this show shines on the United States Criminal Justice System and the Prison Industrial Complex as a whole.
When combined with the expectant stares of the women whose faces flash before us during the opening sequence, the last three lines of this verse–“And everyone is waiting, waiting on you // And you’ve got time // And you’ve got time”–seem to ring in our ears. Perhaps Spektor and showrunner Jenji Kohan’s intent all along was to turn the spotlight back on the American public. If you look closely, most of these women are of color. They almost seem to judge us, but why? As fans of the show can gather, the system is disproportionately filled with non-white individuals. Although the creators endeavor to represent as many ethnic groups as possible, we might lose sight of the fact that the system is racist, and black and Latino prisoners comprise the majority of the prison population. The only problem is that we don’t have time. The United States has already locked up so many people of color and destroyed so many lives, families, and communities. What we must take away from this is that these people are waiting on us to effect change in the system because they, much like black Americans in the time of Jim Crow, are no longer allowed to participate in elections. The viewers must be the ones to rescue the men and women who have been unfairly incarcerated. We are asked to
“Think of all the roads,
Think of all their crossings.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Remember all their faces.
Remember all their voices.
Everything is different
The second time around.”
It’s not exactly difficult for us to sit before our televisions and binge-watch the way millions of incarcerated Americans live every single day. Perhaps the fictional nature of the show helps us to forget that what we see is a reality (more or less) that we choose to forget because many of us live sheltered lives. But these opening titles beckon reality.
There is a reason why none of the women pictured in this sequence are actors in the series. Instead of glamorizing the experience of incarceration by featuring images of the actors and actresses bonding and fighting in prison, we are forced to look at women who have actually spent time in prison. And perhaps you are here precisely because of this artistic choice. Our favorite inmates do not have a place in the title sequence because this series is not about glorifying the actors; it’s about the individual women–the individual lives–that are forever destroyed because of a corrupt criminal justice system. This system has institutionalized racism and criminalized minor drug offenses instead of recognizing the country’s drug epidemic as a call to action. These faces haunt us, and we wonder who these women are because this series reminds us that there are millions of untold stories about the ways that the United States Criminal Justice System has failed a large chunk of its population. While society remains critical of the incarcerated today, the women’s watchful eyes suggest that the incarcerated are just as critical of the viewers who now know of their plight and the injustices of the system and yet stand idly nearby.
The only things that we can glean from these women’s faces are their races and hints of their individualities; moreover, these women are divided into two categories–eyes and mouths–as a result of two conflicting forces: (1) the public’s scrutiny and metaphorical dissection of the American prisoner and, in turn, the incarcerated’s prerogative to judge the viewers who keep them incarcerated through inaction and (2) to reclaim their own voices.
Their eyes function as previously suggested–to turn a watchful eye on the viewer who voyeuristically indulges in a show about incarceration, sometimes unwittingly and unfeelingly. However, these frames also allow us to study them back through the screen. Their individual features convey race, potential accidents, and perhaps some form of character and/or emotion. Squinting eyes or crow’s feet suggest happiness or amusement, whereas a more serious stare betrays hardness. Each woman’s decision to either don makeup or relinquish it, as well as her decision to shape her brow, also conveys a sense of personal style or conformity to conventional beauty standards, which are typically snuffed out by the system through the distribution of uniforms and the prohibition of cosmetics. Some even display wrinkles and scars, evidence of past trials and tribulations such as drug use, sunbathing and/or accidents. Others don tattoos and piercings, parts of their individualities which are impossible for the System to erase. One woman (pictured below) even has the audacity to toss her head back in laughter. But we should not be surprised by this band of women who might be read as jovial; in fact, they understand the length of their sentences. They’ve served their time. Now it’s our turn to do some thinking of our own about the criminal justice system and the state of our society.
While these women obviously have committed crimes that have warranted punishment in the eyes of the law, statistically speaking, many of these women are serving sentences for actions committed out of self-defense or as a direct result of the environment in which they grew up or previously lived. Their eyes convey conflicting interests and desires. Moreover, they might have harmed someone, but they likely did so to provide for their families. There is something in these women’s faces that suggests that they are not entirely at fault and that their punishments were perhaps harsher than what was deserved.
Plainly put, the incarcerated are still human beings, despite how society, prison administrators, and the system choose to think of them. As C.O. Susan Fischer observes, “the only difference between you and me is that you got caught for the bad things you did.” In recognizing and accepting their own imperfections, these women are able to carry on, not despite of but because of their wrongdoings. Ultimately, they have come to accept themselves, flaws and all. However, it is up to us to consider their time and to ask more questions about the purpose the criminal justice system serves. While it might operate as a refreshing wake up call for some individuals, the experience of incarceration maintains destructive behaviors for many others. Although prisons initially began in order to rejuvenate societies and strengthen their communities, it appears as though the United States will forever be arrested in its ways if it does not take a harsh look at the policies that keep the United States as the nation responsible for twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. The Orange opening sequence is a call to action, a demand for criminal justice reform. These individuals “got time,” but we don’t. We must act now.