There aren’t that many shows that would take on the conventional beauty standards in Hollywood and the media and be able to do it as justly as this one.
This whole episode was built around the women constructing lacy panties so that bourgeois women can spend $90 on thongs and boy shorts to try to impress their men or feel more powerful about themselves. This was quite the subversive way into the debate about which women are considered beautiful. Black Cindy jokes about which page of the catalogue will be the first to feature a woman of color and just how dark will she be. It’s page 12, and she is the color of a caramel left out in the sun a little bit too long, or a perfectly crisped piece of toast. She then extols the virtues of being a strong black woman who is held to a different standard than anyone else.
Gloria and Sophia get into a debate about how to present themselves when Gloria goes in for a trim. Gloria says Sophia’s gorgeous hair and M.A.C-counter makeup skills make the other women look bad, but Sophia says that she fought too hard to be who she is to start slipping now. Gloria replies that if she wants to look like a real woman, she would let her roots grow in and have bags under her eyes. Sophia wants to embody the ideal femininity that she has been packaged and sold all her life, not what is real. As she tells Gloria, reality hasn’t always been her friend.
Piper, perhaps the most conventionally attractive person on the show, likes her panties because they make her feel powerful, and she even steals a pair so that she can have a little bit of that power in her cell. She gets into a debate with a new Aussie inmate (when they introduce new characters on this show, it always feels as absurd as when they do it on Under the Dome or Last Man on Earth) and says that she hates being pretty because everyone assumes that she’s stupid, so she just ends up bragging about her academic achievements.
But the most scathing indictment of women’s idea of beauty comes from Chang’s backstory. She was a pimply faced but otherwise gorgeous peasant from the Chinese countryside who came to America to enter into an arranged marriage. When the man meets her, he says that she isn’t good enough for him, leaving her to turn to a life of crime in order to support herself and stay in the country. Though she has a crush on a fellow gangster, he is only interested in his American girlfriend, who scares the hell out of him with her height and blonde hair.
Once she proves herself, she has a gangster beat up and eventually maim the man who rejected her. She traded beauty for skill, respect, and power, but in the end, she chose to utilize those things in a hunt to become the one thing she couldn’t acquire: a pretty face. Even though she chose to live by a different code, she was still undone by what society (and especially the patriarchy) told her that she should prize. When she finally orders the man’s gall bladder cut out after he tells her she will always be ugly, it was a chilling demonstration of just how far some people will go to feel better about themselves in a world where Photoshopped underwear models are what we all aspire to.
Maybe this is why Chang spends so much time alone, eating her Frito-and-pea pies and watching Chinese movies on her contraband smartphone. (Where does she charge that thing?) Maybe this is the way she atones: by being invisible, not caring about her appearance, and not creating any bonds with the other inmates. When we first saw which movie she chooses to watch, I thought it was about longing for connection, about women hugging each other and being welcomed into a sisterhood. But by the end of her story, it seems like she is into this show because the women are so traditionally attractive. She doesn’t long to be embraced, she longs to be pretty enough to deserve love.
Other than Chang, this episode was just a collection of scattered stories, which seems to be more of the structure for these episodes this year than leading toward some sort of cohesive development. I enjoy spending time with all of these characters, listening to their jokes and stray observations, so I don’t mind it so much, but it isn’t making for the most well-constructed television.
In honor of that, I decided to do something a little bit different and rank the remaining story lines in order of how interesting they are.
9. Alex and Piper: I haven’t really cared if these two stay together or get ripped apart since halfway through season one, and I continue not to care. Can Piper get it on with the hot new Aussie already so that we can be done with this albatross for good?
8. MCC Takes Over the Prison: We all knew this was going to end poorly, and guess what: We were all right. Yawn. Also, this gives us too many stories about the (mostly male) staff at the prison rather than the women we really care about.
7. Healy Loves Red: See above. I’m beginning to question romance as a driving force for narrative in this show in general. There are only so many combinations of characters that would seem natural, and all the lesbians are already paired up, and we’ve seen the prisoner-guard dynamic already. Can’t we rely on some other psychological motivation to create tension other than the age-old love story?
6. Gloria’s Son: Gloria is a real boss, and I’ve loved how she has taken control and also taken care of all the women under her purview in the kitchen, but this thing with her son feels forced and hasn’t been given enough attention or nuance for me to really care about it yet.
5. Red Is Back in the Kitchen: I already have a ringside seat for Red vs. Gloria in the heavyweight championship battle of the world.
4. Lori Petty’s Kosher Meal: Welcome back from Chicago, Lori Petty. I am interested in every single thing you do no matter what it is. She even makes being a Lutheran seem like fun (it is not).
3. Poussey’s Alcoholism: Yes, it is a little bit sad, but her realization that she needs a real girlfriend and not a substitute like Taystee seemed deep, painful, and unexpected, all colors that Orange wears well. But they better show us Taystee making up stories in AA, because that is the payoff I really want.
2. Lorna’s Suitors: I have always been a big fan of Lorna’s, and watching her audition a parade of suitors from the outside and lying to them in her patented pathological way sure was fun. But it was the one guy she couldn’t lie to that really broke through. When she finally had to be honest, that’s when someone is really going to be attracted to her. This new guy’s name should be Christopher, though, because that would just be so delicious.
1. Red Velvet Is Shit: I’m glad someone finally said it, because red velvet anything is fucking disgusting, and I blame the Carrie Bradshaw Industrial Complex for shoving it down our throats, along with nameplate necklaces, fruity cocktails, and happily-ever-afters with emotionally manipulative narcissists with huge bank accounts.