“I wanna be your prison wife”: Nice Blonde Ladies, Broken Rules, and Subversive Marriage Plots in Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black

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Constantine, Alexis Casey
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Middle Tennessee State University
In a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Piper Kerman, author of the bestselling memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, stated that books served as “complete lifelines” and the “only legitimate forms of escape” she had during the thirteen months she spent incarcerated at a federal women’s penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut. Kerman, who was indicted on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking for a crime she had committed more than a decade previously at the age of 24, serves as the inspiration for Jenji Kohan’s hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black. It only takes viewing a few episodes of the series to see that Kohan understands how significant books were to Kerman during her time behind bars: They are everywhere. Whether shelved in the library, actively being read by inmates in their bunks, or simply alluded to in conversation, it is clear that the ladies of Litchfield take their reading material almost as seriously as the prison’s seemingly endless catalogue of social codes. Appropriately enough, many of the books most prominently featured on the show are novels of manners. These include works by Tolstoy, Dickens, and the innovator of the genre herself—Jane Austen. While it may seem odd to compare Austen’s work to Kohan’s OITNB, I put forth the notion that like the couples in Emma and Pride and Prejudice, Piper and her girlfriend Alex are involved in a marriage plot that engages a variation of the lover-mentor convention. Though Austen’s settings of quaint villages in Regency era England are a far cry from the 21st century U.S. prison system, both Austen’s couples and Piper and Alex follow Robert Kiely’s description of the marriage plot’s narrative sequence: “encounter, attraction, break, and resolution in either final reunion or separation” (Beyond Egotism: Fiction of James Joyce). In addition, both Austen’s characters and Piper and Alex live in a world that is regulated by strict social guidelines. Despite this, Piper and Alex never conform to societal expectations in the same way that Emma, Knightley, Elizabeth, and Darcy do, and the duo consistently keeps up their status as anti-heroines throughout the series. By intentionally adhering to the structure of the marriage plot and knowingly subverting many of its most traditional tropes, Kohan provides viewers with an Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy for the 21st century. They might be felonious women with a penchant for outraging critics and fans alike with their self-involved disobedience, but as Piper tells Alex in season two, “Rules aren’t any fun” anyway.
British and Irish literature