As the focal point of the series, Piper Chapman is the viewer’s introduction to prison life in Orange Is the New Black (2013 – ). We experience firsthand her entry into Litchfield and follow her as she acclimates to her new environment. At the onset of the show, Piper serves as a proxy for the audience. She introduces them to unfamiliar new circumstances and people and, as such, is intentionally relatable. Piper stumbles through the beginning of her time at Litchfield, making profound mistakes right and left and struggling to adapt to a place that is so different from her native Park Slope. As a result, Piper became instantly empathetic, holding the Netflix-binging fans’ hands as she strived to navigate the social rules in this new environment.
Piper’s instantly relatable role as privileged prison newbie was an intentional move — even, one could say, a tool of misdirection — by Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator and writer. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Kohan called Piper the “Trojan horse” of the show:
“You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”
Indeed, Piper’s empathetic role of the bumbling noob is short-lived. After leading the majority white/middle class audience to OITNB, Kohan revealed the show to be a powerful venue for discussing race, queerness, and criminality. Moreover, Piper ceases to be the oblivious, innocent Smith College alumna we met in Season 1. As the show progresses, we see a new Piper emerge, one who is inherently unlikeable. So why do viewers still empathize with her?
Wishy Washy from the Start
At the end of Season 3, we see Piper embrace what little power she’s found on the inside and latch onto a kind of agency it doesn’t seem she ever experienced in her life on the outside. Through flashbacks, we learn how Piper has taken the backseat in both her relationships with Alex and Larry, allowing them to make the majority of the relationship decisions. Her lack of confidence is palpable in even the most mundane activities. When she does take control and subsequently fails, they both treat her like a puppy attempting to execute a cute trick. In Season 1, she suggests a “juice cleanse” to Larry, who begrudgingly supports this endeavor. When she caves and eats their favorite pork rinds while he is starving, he playfully tells her he’s “won” because she was the first to give in on the cleanse. Alex treats Piper in a similar manner, teasing Piper’s naiveté when she’s panicking at the airport in Season 1. Everyone in Piper’s life treats her as a child, coddling her simple mistakes and believing she is adorable in the process. This leaves her with even fewer life skills to assist her acclimation to Litchfield.
Discovers her own Agency
With her dirty prison panties business, we see Piper in a position of power for the first time in her life. She is the driving force in a profiteering empire that gives her agency over a group of the other inmates. However, Piper’s lust for power soon begins to consume her. When she is double crossed by her new prison paramour, she doesn’t hesitate to destroy her life by planting tons of contraband in her bunk and sending her to max days before her release. Gone are the halcyon days of Piper trying to stay on her best behavior and out of further incriminating prison drama. As Piper takes ownership of this new power and her desire to throw it in the other inmates’ faces, our empathy for her begins to wane. Piper seems incapable of appreciating when she’s got it good.
As Yoga Jones warns in the pilot, nothing is permanent inside or outside of prison, and that is certainly true of Piper’s agency. Once she is removed from work at the sewing factory, her business is over. As “gangsta” (“with an a at the end,” she’d have me remind you) as she thinks she is at the start of Season 4, it all comes crashing down around her. She returns, in part, to being the bumbling noob from Season 1, no longer knowing her place in the prison social structure once she’s lost her newfound glory.
Though I constantly find myself cringing at Piper’s naiveté, I’m also drawn back to her story time and time again. Sure, Piper may make some horrible decisions, but there’s something realistic and nerve-hitting about her difficulty navigating prison’s power hierarchy. Piper oscillates between her ability to finally understand her surroundings and her talent to completely screw it up anyway. Perhaps that is something we all struggle with in navigating our own social experiences, even if it doesn’t occur in such a profoundly alienating circumstance like prison.
Though Piper flirts with power in Season 3, it is towards the end of Season 4 that she finds a sense of true agency. Instead of seeking agency over other inmates, she eventually comes to the conclusion that it is the guards, not her peers, that are at the top of the prison’s insidious power hierarchy. When a rival group undermines her panty business, Piper retaliates by framing the group’s leader, Maria. Unbeknownst to Piper, the new guards employ much stricter punishment than their predecessors. As such, Piper is taken aback when she discovers more time has been added to Maria’s sentence. It is at this point that Piper realizes she’s no longer playing a “gangsta” game. Rather, her actions have deeply impacted the other women’s lives. This increased abuse of power by the guards leads her to literally take a stand; when Blanca’s punishment is to stand on top of a dining hall table, Piper joins her. She rallies to the cause, using her privilege to help draw attention to the unfair and unjust treatment the women have been experiencing.
It is only at this moment that I allow myself to notice how much I root for Piper. Even with her bumbling ways, she willfully puts herself in harm’s way when she believes in the cause. At the heart of it, Piper is a good, if often misguided, character who acts out of both insecurity and fear. As a viewer, I love and hate her for that.
This article originally appeared on Screen Prism.