Orange is the New Black has been a frequent topic of conversation in my circles since its new season hit Netflix last month. There have been some great pieces written about the show’s problems and how much worse they have gotten lately, in particular the racism and use of black trauma for white entertainment, and I decided not to wade into those particular waters. Both because so many others have already covered them better than I, and because I don’t want to wander quite so far from this blog’s superhero theme. But the show raises an issue that is dear to my heart, and that I think is very much in keeping with this blog’s mission- the importance of backstory.
Backstory is a key narrative device for Orange. Every episode involves flashbacks for one of the characters, giving us some insight into what they were like before they came to the prison, and helping us to better understand their actions and motivations in the present day. It starts with the main characters, but overtime we get similar flashbacks from a broad array of characters, including prisoners, guards, people who feature prominently in the show and others who are deep in the background.
It deepens the story and gives us a chance to learn more about the characters- particularly important as the original main character has become such a bore. But what I enjoy most about it, and what I think is most relevant for this blog’s ponderings, is the broad range of who gets a backstory. Protaganists and antagonists. Charecters who play major roles in the story and those who are bit players or only seen in the sidelines. But each time, we see that character take some action or make some decision at the same time that we learn a bit more about their history that relates to what they’re doing today. It gives us a small window into how that character sees the world, and lets us understand their perspective.
It reminds us that every character is the protagonist in their own story.
I love a good hero, but in the end it is often the villain that will make or break a TV show or movie for me. I continue to think Daredevil is the greatest superhero story ever told on screen, in large part because the character of the villain, Wilson Fisk is just as well developed as that of the hero, Matt Murdoch. Over the course of the show we learn both of their backstories, and come to understand why each of them does the things they do, and why each of them believes themselves to be in the right. Most may end the show agreeing more with Daredevil, but there is no doubt that even Matt can see where Fisk is coming from.
Its powerful because it makes it harder to hate Fisk. The best way to hate something is to label them ‘other’ in the minds of yourself and those who you want to have hate them. This has been a strategy of war since the first man picked up a rock to use against another. From the call of Pope Urban II to crusade against the “accursed race utterly alienated by God” to the WWII propaganda that attempted to show the Japenense as hulking, inhuman barbarians to the modern day language used on all sides to demonize “the enemy,” its easy to mobilize people to fight or to support your fight if they see the people you’re righting against as nameless, faceless, inhuman evil. What’s far harder is to fight against someone you can understand, sympathize with even, all while knowing they have to be stopped.
It’s easy to see this as a slip into moral relativism, and its important to be wary against that. Saying everyone has a story doesn’t mean that everyone is right or morally equal. Nor is an explanation the same as an excuse—we can sympathize with the heartbreak of Victor Fries or the environmental anger of Poison Ivy and still think Batman needs to foil their plans. But sympathizing with them reminds us of the moral weight of Batman’s punches- that he’s hitting real people, with stories of their own. Not just nameless, faceless henchmen, whose suffering we can cheer for.
I hope we keep getting stories with rich and details backstories, for as many characters as possible. Not just because it makes for richer and more interesting stories, though it surely does. But because it reminds us of the danger of making an ‘other’ out of those we see as our enemy.