Orange Is the New Black: should we laugh at women prisoners?

“I find it amusing as well as serious” – Thanyathon, a friend of mine gave out her opinion on Netflix’s TV series Orange is The New Black.

“The series actually reflects how our society is. Everyone searches a stance in social hierarchy and those in a more advantageous stance always find a chance to exploit the weaker. This social habit is only magnified when put into an enclosed environment such as prison”.

Surprisingly, with this kind of serious theme, Orange was nominated as a ‘comedy’ in Emmy Awards 2014. The series, portraying life of a middle-class white woman who got caught with drugs money, explores many serious issues in woman’s prison such as racism, harassment, and violence with humors – or to put it more accurately – dark humors.

“The fact that life in prison can be funny makes the tragedies of these women’s lives painful, more haunting.” said Esther Zuckerman from The Wire.

Maybe it’s the arrangement of music, settings and camera angles that sets mood and tone of humor for many serious scenes.In season 1, episode 2 (Tit Punch), we witness how Piper (the main female character) struggled to survive starvationafter she had accidentally offended Red, an inmate who serves as Head Chef in the prison. The way Red took revenge by stopping feeding her was, of course, violent and inhumane, but the conclusion of the situationis sarcastic and a bit funny: Piper was given a chilli by one of her inmates, and she had her first meal of a long week as tears rolled down her eyes.

“I laugh when Piper’s life turn upside-down as she firstly walked into the prison, but find myself, after a while, empathize deeply and feel sad for her”, added Thanyathon.

Can humor occur with empathy? To think about this, we must firstly ask “what is the source of humor?” Some theorists convey that humor occurs when we see incongruity in a situation: it is the ‘unexpected’ or ‘element of surprise’ that causes humor. This is apparent when we laugh at a plot-twist ending of story, for instance, the fact that Piper end up eating a chilli, which is an extreme choice of food.

Anyway, the idea of laughing at someone’s misfortune invites thinking about the Theory of Superiority: humor is caused by seeing other people ininferior position or situation.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is probably the originator of this theory. “Laughter,” he says, “is a kind of sudden glory”; and he is using “glory” in the sense of “vainglory,” or “self-esteem.”           

This is an aggressive type of humor on which I focus here. It can be associated with ‘laughing at’ as opposed to ‘laughing with’ someone. If we accept this theoretical background, and that the former type of humor in mind, then we can say that humor is not quite compatible with empathy. Humor of this kind implies that we want to see other people suffer only to make ourselves feel better, or somehow, relieved. The process which is going on here is the construction of power relation: we compare ourselves to others and have value judgment that we are ‘of higher privilege’ than them. By doing this, others are reduced only to instrument that we use to confirm out privilege and must always remain to the ‘inferior’ category to maintain our imagined ‘superior’status.

Anyway, the fact that many people can laugh at, and, at the same time, sympathize with the main character proves that the construction of power relation might have many more layers than we expected. If we judge a person, the only thing we cannot do is to ignore that person. And here we arrive at a very significant point: the instrument necessary for judging people is our connection to them. Probably, we can assume that their experience is miserable and worse than us because, in the deepest corner of our heart, we know how much pain they have. In judging people, we alienate ourselves from them but, as well, allow their suffering to become more vivid in our impression.

If anyone asks whether we should laugh at Orange, my answer is ‘yes’. But we must not forget the tragedy that lays behind the story either. So perhaps, after all we should try and laugh with Orange.

Naphat Malikul (Prim)
Naphat Malikul (Prim)
Naphat Malikul (Prim) is a film and book critic for online press in Thailand. She graduated from the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University in philosophy major. Her writing pieces mainly focus on socio-cultural issues, philosophy, and humanities. She is also a co-founder of, a blog for cinephiles.