Is Piper Still The Main Character Of 'Orange Is the New Black'? A Study Of Season 3 Makes The Answer Very Clear
After marathoning the recently released third season, I'm not surprised there's already chatter about whether Piper is still the main character of Orange Is the New Black or not. Way back when the show first premiered, on NPR's Fresh Air, creator and writer Jenji Kohan claimed that Piper was the "Trojan horse" she used to hold the majority white/middle class audience's hand while she introduced them to a cast of a dozen women who didn't fit so neatly into the box that most television characters fit into.
You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But, if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful."
So, Piper may have started out as the main character, but is she still? The best way to figure it out is to define what a main character is, then see if she falls within the parameters. The ultimate deconstruction of television, TV Tropes, describes a television protagonist as, "Whatever the story's POV may be, you can generally tell who the protagonist is because the story is about them."
That seems to mix with the Miriam-Webster definition of "protagonist," which is, "The principal character in a literary work (as a drama or story)." But, what Kohan has described is making Piper more of a "Decoy Protagonist." This is what TV Tropes describes as when, "Books, films, or games like to mix things up and throw viewers for a loop by revealing that the standardized leader isn't the hero." So is she, or isn't she? Let's examine the evidence, shall we? A character isn't really the protagonist if the story isn't about them, right? And, each story is made up of several parts: themes, plotlines, and good old fashioned screentime. If we see how Piper ranks in each of those arenas, we'll be able to see if she still ranks as a protagonist.
Themes Of OITNB Season 3:
Motherhood: Key players are Daya, Aleida, Gloria, Flaca, Sophia, Mama Pornstache, and Taystee
No Piper to be found here — this theme was all about the sacrifices, mistakes, and pains that come from being a mother, from accidentally infecting your entire prison with bedbugs to the literal pains of childbirth. Piper is still dealing with the ramifications of her mother's WASPy fakeness, but she stayed out of this one.
Religion: Key players are Norma, Leanne, and Black Cindy
Again, Piper didn't really have much to do with this — she wasn't really wrestling with any existential crises about the existence of God. These other women had a deep connection to the idea of organized religion and how it related to their incarceration.
Loneliness/Romance: Key players are Brook, Poussey, Suzanne, Morello, Alex, Piper, and Stella
There was plenty of characters losing themselves in loneliness and looking for solace in romantic relationship. Piper does have one of those, and it's filled with drama, but that's mostly her fault, since she's the one who ratted on Alex, then cheated on her, making Alex isolated, echoing characters like Brook Soso, who was ultimately so alone she tried to kill herself. Piper's the isolator, not isolated.
Corporate Malfeasance: Key players are Caputo, Danny, Fig, Piper, Flaca, and all of the Litchfield guards
Corporations eating the little guy and turning good people into greedy monsters both thematically underpinned Caputo's adventures with MCC, as well as Piper's panty-smuggling business, which turned her into a ruthless union-buster.
Plotlines Of OITNB Season 3
Norma's Cult: Key players are Norma, Leanne, Poussey, and Angie
This cult started as a way to be freed from the oppressive nature of the prison life, and quickly became a way for each involved inmate to look for control.
Daya's Baby: Key players are Daya, Maria, Aleida, Bennett, Pornstache & Mama
Daya finally gave birth to her daughter, Bennett ran off, and I'm sure more fallout is to come in Season 4. No Piper here.
Pennsatucky/Boo Friendship: Key players are Pennsatucky and Boo
Again — no Piper, even though this was one of the standout plotlines of the season.
Panty Ring: Key players are Piper, Alex, Stella, Flaca, Cal, and Gerber Baby the Guard
This was Pipes' big moment, and her setup as a really "bad" criminal, as she became ruthless. And, I wouldn't count out Flaca, because it seems like she might turn out to be a real problem for Piper in Season 4.
Screentime In OITNB Season 3
Piper's Season 3 screentime was a little less than past seasons. She didn't have a single flashback, and there was no one episode devoted to her, unlike the pilot of Season 2's premiere. But, she does appear in every single episode, so she's still a very important character.
Piper Chapman is not the only person this story is about. She is not the sole protagonist. That's one hypothesis down.
Hypothesis number two: She's just a part of the prison, which is functioning as place for a huge group of inmates to become a group protagonist.
But, interestingly, she's actually a negative force on many of those around her. She got Alex placed back in prison out of anger and romantic desire, started a criminal enterprise just because she wanted to hoard some extra cash, and ratted out the woman she was cheating on her ostensibly exclusive girlfriend with. And, with foes like Flaca and Alex set to take Piper down, and that bad karma she got for placing so much contraband in Stella's cubicle, I think Piper is quickly turning into an antagonist, not a protagonist. Piper Chapman may no longer be the hero of Orange Is the New Black: And that's because she's the show's latest villain.