When Chelsea Handler premiered episode número uno of her Netflix show, “Chelsea,” she promised viewers to cover not only entertainment, but also significant subjects around the world.
Throughout the first season, she tackled immigration, international cultures, global warming, genetics, space, terminal diseases, the legalization of marijuana, this year’s election, and most recently, women’s prisons.
To expand her knowledge on this subject, she invited the “Orange is the New Black” cast to a dinner party in New York City, where they discussed the positive impact the show has had in the last four years, and how it has changed viewers’ perceptions about life in prison, and even sexuality.
“I think it starts with awareness, right?” Taylor Schilling posed before Lea DeLaria chimed in, “We are having a conversation in this country about the prison system. We are. And that is directly because of our show.” She added, “But as a person who’s been politically active my entire life, to be on a show like this that has…It’s not even that it’s trying to change the world. It has changed the world. It’s exciting beyond fucking belief.”
But that’s not the only thing that can be attributed to the show, as DeLaria, who plays “Boo” in the Netflix original, attested.
“Just from a complete and utter personal basis,” Lea told Chelsea, “Before ‘Orange is the New Black,’ if I saw a group of teenage boys walking down the street, and I was walking on that same street with them, I would cross the street. Even me. Even me. Because a group of teenage boys was frightening to me, because of my experience of being taunted, picked on, hit…you know, what I’ve had to deal with.”
She continued, “Now I stay right on the street, because that group of teenage boys is gonna turn around and go, ‘Oh, my God! Are you on ‘Orange is the New Black’? Can I have my picture taken with you?’ They are embracing this butch dyke. I mean, as butch as it gets. And if that hasn’t changed society’s perception, and I can see this happening with women…I mean, we’re not just talking about queer stuff.”
This is not the first time DeLaria has opened up about the treatment self-identified butch lesbians receive in our society – and even within the LGBT community – and how the show’s popularity has managed to turn people’s minds in a different direction.
Back in 2015, during a speech addressed to the Television Critics Association about OITNB’s success, the 58-year-old actress declared: “Butches have a shared life experience, and you saw all of it in Boo’s backstory. My own community ostracizes me and thinks of ‘nelly fags’ and ‘butch lesbians’ as sort of the pariahs of the community.”
However, she later explained that in recent years, “the politics of the LGBT community has been about gaining our rights, fighting for our rights, achieving our rights. And recently it’s been turned a little bit more towards winning the hearts and minds of people.”
She concluded, “I feel very strongly that ‘Orange is the New Black has been very important in that part of what’s happened to us in that community…that’s an amazing turn of events.”
Handler also headed to The Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), an organization located in Los Angeles that provides support network for formerly incarcerated young men and women, and advocates for fairer criminal justice policies.
There, she joined a group of former inmates who agreed to share their personal experiences on camera, and confirmed that the prison life OITNB portrays is not far from what really happens inside an all-female penitentiary.
“A lot of drugs in prison, huh? Who brings it in? The cops?” Chelsea asked the group.
“So long as there is one person that leaves any facility every single day and comes back the next day, there will always be some form of contraband,” one of them replied. “Truthfully, it either comes in somebody’s lunch pail or butt cheeks.”
When Chelsea inquired about the truthfulness in the show’s depiction of real life in prison, one woman responded, “When I came home and I watched it, I cried. I cried because that family-oriented in there…I have my pen mom still that’s a lifer and I’m a waiting for her to come home. I cried because those women, they raised me in there.”
Another topic Chelsea chose to bring during her interview with the ladies at the ARC was sex life in prison. Throughout the years, TV and film productions have exploited, or sexualized/glamorized inmate relationships behind prison walls, BUT…Is everyone having sex in jail?
“Not everybody,” one of the girls at ACR told Chelsea.
“Because I’m not a lesbian. I don’t think I’d be going down on a girl just because I’m in prison,” Handler said, interrupting the girl’s thought process.
After the other ladies added their input on “being gay for the stay,” the woman continued, “It’s not like how people make it seem out here, ‘Oh if you hit prison they make you a lesbian.’ No! If you end up connecting with someone…There have been girls that have never been with women for, like, eight years when they’re in there. And on their eighth year, they connected with a human being. They connected with another person. But’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m going to attack you until you become gay because you’re so beautiful.’ That doesn’t happen.”
Both groups of women, OITNB’s cast and the ladies at ARC, agreed that the show has created awareness towards the issues the United States prison system currently faces, and explained that the narratives in some of these episodes have encouraged citizens across the country, including the media, to open dialogue regarding such issues.
Before “Orange is the New Black,” there was “Capadocia.” An HBO Latino original series which premiered in Mexico in 2008. The show told the stories of several women imprisoned for different reasons in an experimental correctional facility in Mexico City. Unfortunately – and possibly because of its too-close-to-home depiction of the Mexican government and their relationship with drug cartels, the ever-growing corruption in the system, and its lesbian content – it was cancelled after season 3.
If you are interested in finding out the similarities and discrepancies between these two great TV productions, you can find all 3 seasons of “Capadocia” on HBO Go. “Dinner Party: Going to Prison” is available to stream on Netflix. Go check it out if you haven’t yet!