(Un)likeable characters in Orange is the New Black
Nothing is simple in Orange is the New Black.
The show has received a lot of praise for its diversity, but it’s just as noteworthy for the complexity and moral ambiguity of its characters. We’re used to seeing male characters like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White walk a path of questionable-at-best choices and to rooting for them despite the terrible things that they do, but female characters are usually forced into much narrower moral narratives. They’re good or they’re bad, the hero’s girlfriend or a bitch, and one questionable decision or moment of weakness can catapult them into the realms of the unlikeable “annoying bitch.”
Not so with Orange is the New Black. Moral ambiguity is the name of the game. And, aside from a couple of villain characters, likeability doesn’t really play into it.
A lot has been said about writing “likeable” female characters, as though palatability should be the main goal of fiction, but Orange is the New Black challenges that by making all its characters unlikeable at moments. We sympathise with Red for her new outcast status, but she also accidentally set her friend on fire in her desperation for revenge and has yet to apologize for it. Nicky often has words of wisdom and is a good friend, but she’s not above manipulating other inmates for sex or playing a game to compete for them. Morello is a sweet girl who provides emotional support in a lot of key moments, but she’s also an obsessive stalker who put a bomb under somebody’s car. Even Brook, possibly one of the most irritating characters on the planet, does both stupid things and good things, and is the only character to even attempt to challenge the corruption she sees around her. Every character challenges the idea that they’re “nice” or “likeable” at some point.
It’s a very challenging viewing experience, because its almost impossible to put characters into convenient boxes like “good” or “likeable” or even “sympathetic.” Take Taystee, for example. She starts the season fighting to win the job fair, because she has ambition for herself, and in her flashback, we learn about her lonely childhood and how a drug dealer named Vee took her in and gave her a family. We spend a lot of time on her friendship with Poussey. Yay, likeable character! Sympathetic character! We’re totally on her side. But as Vee’s reign of terror in the prison continues, Taystee does more and more questionable things. The breaking point, for me, was she puts a packet of heroin into a recovering heroin addict’s hands. In terms of “likeability,” that should be the point of no return. She’s done something incredibly manipulative and damaging, possibly even deadly, to another person for her own personal gain. And as viewers, we like Nicky, right? So someone doing something to hurt her makes that person unlikeable. The amount of time in the following episodes dedicated to Nicky’s struggle with this definitely place her as sympathetic and Taystee as cruel at best.
But Taystee is in a difficult position too. She’s being emotionally manipulated by a woman she views as a mother figure. She wants to feel included, and believes that Vee is looking out for her. Does that excuse what she does to Nicky, or change the fact that she, like Poussey, could refuse to do what Vee says? No. Just as Taystee’s move away from Vee and her apology to Poussey at the end of the season doesn’t change what she’s done in the intervening episodes. “Liking” her as a character now comes with many caveats and complications. But then, likeability isn’t the point. She’s not a potential friend for us to rate out of ten on the “goodness” scale. She’s a human being, with all of the struggles and mistakes and darkness inherent in that. It doesn’t matter if we like her. We just have to try and understand her.
Similarly, one of the most painful moments of the season is when Suzanne realizes that Vee manipulated her, and that she’s lost the acceptance she thought she had finally found. It physically hurts to watch her here. But it doesn’t change the fact that she acted as an attack dog for Vee — or does it, if Vee was manipulating her and playing on her weaknesses all along? Is it OK for Watson to frame Suzanne to protect herself after going through the trauma of being in seg? Can we feel sorry for Morello and her heartbreak, when we know that she was actually a violent stalker? The show challenges us morally and emotionally, and it does so with an almost entirely female cast. And in doing so, it crushes the idea that a female character has to be “likeable” to be acceptable or interesting.
These are flawed, dynamic, challenging people. And that’s far more interesting than a cast of female characters who are always likeable, always completely acceptable, always nice.