Tag Archives: Orange is the New Black

If it wasn’t for bad, she’d be good

“I’m not as perfectly comfortable with manslaughter as you.”

–Donnie to Alison in Orphan Black

I would say that Serena Pemberton of Ron Rash‘s eponymous novel is cut from the same cloth as Lady MacBeth. But that would be inaccurate, since Lady MacBeth eventually has a change of heart. No, I’d argue that Serena’s closest literary doppelganger is a hybrid of Heinsenberg and his famous blue crystal meth. She is a near-mythological character whose reputation in the book makes a far greater impression than her dialogue or actions ever could.  She is at a such a remove from the events and perspective of Rash’s narrative, that one can almost forget that she is the center of all the chaos. Although Serena appears to be in the background of her own story, her presence–noticeable or not–is what causes the downfall of everyone in her wake.

On the other hand, George Pemberton–Serena’s husband and unaware lackey–is Walter White. He’s a seemingly regular guy whose high tolerance for evil acts remains dormant until he meets his wife. Then he takes to her horrendous agenda in such an enthusiastic way that you know he always had the ability to do terrible things. He just needed the motivation.

This is all a really roundabout way of saying that Outside Girls do not necessarily have to be good people. The women I’ve covered so far are decent for all intents and purposes, even if there is an ethical hiccup now and again. But Serena Pemberton is independent, strong and occasionally sardonic. And, yet, she is the catalyst of this Greek tragedy (complete with a chorus of crewmen and multiple deaths) posing as a Southern Gothic. And she gives Vee of Orange is the New Black fame and Rachel “Pro-Clone” Duncan of Orphan Black considerable competition for Sociopath of the Year Award.


Like Vee and Rachel, Serena initially tricks the reader into thinking that her rejection of rules and norms is just plain bad-ass, not scary or amoral. When I started reading Serena, I was planning on siding with the flawed titular character, just as I rooted for Anna Karenina and Edna Pontellier of The Awakening. In fact, Rash had me at his first description of Serena: “At five-nine, Serena stood taller than either man, but Pemberton knew other aspects of Serena’s appearance helped foster Buchanan and Wilkie’s obvious surprise–pants and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat, sun-bronzed skin that belied Serena’s social class, lips and cheeks untinted by rouge, hair blonde and thick but cut short in a bob, distinctly feminine yet also austere.”

I mean, who wouldn’t love that?

Throw in Serena’s sexual agency in an era where it was unheard of, her ability to grow Pemberton Lumber Company into an empire during the Great Depression, her success in training an eagle to hunt rattlesnakes and the fact that she saves her husband from being killed by a bear, and you’ve got a character that sounds objectively awesome. However, everything that makes Serena seem cool on the surface conceals something darker at her core.

Serena Pemberton’s attributes:

  1. Declaration that her marriage is a partnership; intolerance for cheating or lying
  2. Survival and reinvention after her entire family dies in a flu epidemic
  3. Rescue of a Galloway, a crew member, when he loses a hand
  4. Keen business mind
  5. Lack of concern for what anyone thinks of her
  6. Willingness to stand up for herself

And their troubling counterparts:

  1. Determination to kill her husband’s former lover and his illegitimate child
  2. Inability to feel; comfortable with eliminating anyone she sees as an enemy or traitor
  3. Use of said crew member to do her bidding (violent and otherwise)
  4. Willingness to destroy any available forest; lack of sympathy for anyone she fires or puts out of business
  5. Refusal to listen to reason
  6. Thirst for revenge under the flimsiest of circumstances

I am tempted to say that Serena’s inability to use her strengths for good is a negative thing. Of course, I could just be feeling guilty for rooting for her throughout the first half of the novel.  But I don’t necessarily think that Serena Pemberton’s obvious evil means she is a disappointing literary representation of a woman. After all, there are dozens of beloved male anti-heroes from Alex of A Clockwork Orange to Tony Soprano to Severus Snape to Don Draper to, you guessed it, Walter White. What’s disturbing is the fact that most anti-heroes (male or female) experience some sort of about-face, even if it is only temporary, while Serena never doubts herself or feels a morsel of regret. But, then again, maybe that is what gives Serena her outsider status. It’s not the fact that she is morally bankrupt or selfish or makes Lorne Malvo look downright cuddly. It’s that she is fully committed to being really, really bad and hasn’t the slightest interest in being good.

Who are your go-to anti-heroes? Do you find evil female characters more or less disturbing than their male counterparts? Do you think Serena is morally ambiguous, or just plain villainous? Let me know in the comments!

(Image #1 courtesy of rusoffagency.com; #2 courtesy of zap2it.com; #3 courtesy of eonline.com; #4 courtesy of goodreads.com)

Orange you glad you resisted?

“Something has changed within me/Something is not the same/I’m through with playing by the rules/Of someone else’s game”

“Defying Gravity” from Wicked

In sixth or seventh grade, I woke up.  I wasn’t in a coma or anything; I just had the mini-epiphany that hits the more sullen of tween girls. I suddenly stopped buying into the notion that I should be like anyone else in my class, that I should believe everything my teachers told me, that I should pretend to listen to anything I thought was stupid. I started wearing what I thought was cute (as opposed to what was popular), stopped applying lip gloss and refused to style my hair. As you can imagine, black nail polish and Dr. Martens were involved. How did I make good on this quasi-nihilistic vow? I received straight A’s throughout middle school/high school, graduated salutatorian of my class and left for college. I don’t really sound like an Outside Girl, do I?

But I do have a point here. In a chapter of Girlhood: Redefining the Limits, researcher Rebecca Raby concludes that “resistance among girls and young women is likely to be hidden or c/overt–subtle and located in private spaces of interaction.” As you might have noticed, the Outside Girls practice active resistance to societal dictates, gender norms and peer pressure. But they also are undeniably intelligent and often use the system (i.e. school and family) to their advantage. Admittedly, some of these girls wear their disdain on their sleeves. But the majority of them use education and other culturally-approved institutions in order to flout how little they care about fitting in. In other words, they rebel in sensible and discreet ways.

Alex Vause, a.k.a. the coolest character on Orange is the New Black*, is a drug dealer. A really, really good one, despite the whole getting caught thing. Some of you might think, How is a goth-chic dealer working the system in a legitimized, secret way? I will tell you: Alex finds white, privileged, bored young adults and recruits them to be her street dealers/smugglers. Her genius of using rich white kids to move heroin (because our “justice” system is still hopelessly racist and elitist) is her exploiting others to manipulate the system. Yeah, I know that sounds underhanded and Bluth-esque, but if you watch the show, there is no way you would root against her.

Jenji Kohan, the creator of Orange is the New Black and the dearly-departed Weeds, is famous for “putting well-behaved middle-class white women in the middle of stories that typically feature rough nonwhite men,” as Mike Hale‘s succinct review puts it. And it’s true. Nancy Botwin sells marijuana to preserve her McMansion lifestyle and Piper Chapman goes to prison because she was restless after college. (What’s more exciting than smuggling drug money at the request of your kingpin girlfriend?) Kohan creates these characters and is famous for giving them recognizable motivations that land them in seemingly-foreign locations. I can’t help but wonder if Alex herself is a microcosm of Kohan’s creative agenda. Alex uses entitled white girls to do her bidding in OITNB‘s universe; Kohan uses entitled white women to entertain,educate and subvert her audience’s preconceptions. It’s not so different when you think about it. Another similarity between them: totally bitchin’ glasses.

Alex was not always working the system, but the viewer understands exactly why she wants to. After being rejected from the tiny monsters that are fifth grade girls, being denied the fate that Piper takes for granted (“no moolah, no school-ah”), and meeting a father that brings new meaning to the term “disappointing,” Alex wakes up. She is not normal, and pretending she is is a waste of time.  Why should she follow societal norms when conventional people are such dull sheep? Other girls enacting resistance to accepted ideologies might pretend to respect their parents while simultaneously breaking every curfew. A few girls could go all Breakfast Club, be the leaders of mean-girl cliques while hiding their consciences. Others, like me, might do well in school to ensure they will one day escape their hometowns and nightmarish high school experiences. Admittedly, few will look as cool as Alex when they are working the system over. Even with the presence of shiny black nails and combat boots.

And, yes, I know that distributing heroin in bulk will not win you any morality prizes. It hurts too many people. Yet, I admire Alex for using spoiled brats to get what she wants. I also love that she is so matter-of-fact about her crimes, her jail time and her passion for her profession. Her work allowed her to travel all over the world, gave her first-class mind something to do and was thrilling for her. She knows what she did is wrong, but she did it by finessing a flawed-as-fuck system. I know it is weird for me to champion a drug dealer (well, maybe not that weird), but I can’t help it.  I love Alex Vause because she woke up the moment she met her deadbeat dad. Instead of trying to play a rigged game, she created one with rules of her own.

*If you prefer Crazy-Eyes, Red, Sophia, Nicki, Pornstache, etc., come at me in the comments.

(Image #1 courtesy of weheartit.com; #2 courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com; #3 courtesy of reddit.com)