Why Piper From 'Orange Is the New Black' Is the Most Groundbreaking Character on Television


"I think I'm beyond stressed and have moved into something more disturbing."

Piper Chapman speaks this line in the season two premiere of Orange Is the New Black, and with one simple sentence reveals the essence of her character's journey. Piper has transitioned from her season one self — a woman who considers herself above the fray of her prison surroundings — to be someone who in season two is broken, compromised and even monstrous. It's a change that finally solidifies Piper Chapman as an antihero, and perhaps the very first of her kind.

On television and in television criticism, the term "antihero" is thrown around so routinely (and has been since Tony Soprano) that as Laura Bennett at the New Republic points out, it has practically lost all meaning. The obligatory dictionary definition classifies an antihero as, "a central character in a novel, play, etc, who lacks the traditional heroic virtues." Even if overly simplistic, that pretty much sums up Piper — she is the series' anchor, and in many ways she is also entirely unlikable. In television of recent years the "antihero" has come to take on many definitions, most often referring to the Don Drapers and Walter Whites of the world — the characters Brett Martin refers to in his book on the subject as "unhappy, morally compromised, complicated [and] deeply human." The question that comes up again and again: is where are the women?

For years, "antihero" meant the male star of a drama who remained likable despite moral ambiguity. The narrow definition led to many questions of the whereabouts of TV's female antiheroes — do they exist, and if not, why? The truth is, they're there, they just take on a less obvious form, at least until Piper. Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker has pointed to Carrie Bradshaw as a female antihero, and PolicyMic’s Michelle Juergen has pointed to Hannah Horvath, while others argue that Fiona Gallagher, Carrie Mathison, Elizabeth Jennings and Nancy Botwin also fit the bill. But as Akash Nikolas wisely argues in The Atlantic, many of these complicated television women fall into subcategories that set them apart from their male counterparts. Piper Chapman, while conventionally good-looking, is closing this gender disparity more than ever. She may be the first female antihero who can give her male character counterparts a run for their money.

Image Credit: Netflix

From the start of the series, Piper is set up with an intentional dichotomy that moves her into the antihero conversation. As the fish out of water, she's crafted as the relatable point of entry, but, much like how it's hard to feel sympathy for Hannah Horvath and her white girl problems, Piper is easily detestable. She's the milquetoast center of a show with a wealth of deep, colorful characters, and her holier-than-thou attitude is often hard to take. Like the many complicated men of TV's best dramas, the show is at once asking you to root for her and to also find her flawed and unlikable.

When Piper first enters prison she believes she can overcome the system and rise above the fray. Obviously, this doesn't prove to be true. The nail in her coffin comes in the final scene of the season one finale when Pennsatucky threatens Piper with a shiv — the complicating factor here is that what incites Piper to attack is not the physical threat but rather being called unworthy of anyone's love. Her act of violence comes not from an ethical or morally defensible place, but rather from a place of self interest, pride and preservation. Like many of the grey area choices we've seen TV's male antiheros make, Piper's attack walks a fine line, eliciting both contempt and love from the show's audience. 

Piper’s problems as a character are not limited by her identity as a woman — and these too set her apart from the Hannah Horvaths and Carrie Bradshaws otherwise occupying the female antihero space. They are conflicts of class struggle, corrupt municipal systems and betrayal. They're not defined by the traditional gender roles of some of the other female antiheroes mentioned, many of whom act in relation to family and male love interests. Though this may not be the brave new path Alyssa Rosenberg was looking for in Slate, it is closer to the type of antihero that's come to define modern television — the men that fight larger-than-life foes and do so in various shades of ethical ambiguity.

This all comes into sharp focus in the season two premiere. [Spoilers ahead] Through a blend of present-day story and childhood flashbacks, we learn that personal safety has always been a priority for Piper and that she grew up in a house where lying was common practice. Season two puts Piper's psyche on display like never before, and we find that when faced with a truly massive decision she will always choose what's best for her — or what she perceives to be best for her. It's an insight that makes the audience understand where she's coming from but not necessarily approve of her actions. A perfect antihero line to walk.

At the end of season two's first episode, this idea of understood background and murky actions comes into sharp focus. Piper takes advice from Alex (out of devotion) and chooses to save her own life, even though it means spending time in prison. It's a complicated and selfish choice — one that has Piper acting out of love for Alex but perhaps more importantly out of selfish desire to receive love, stay alive and not be forced into a scarier unknown. Her decision making process is murky, with echoes of Walter White justification. White cooked meth for his family so they could have a better life, Piper makes decisions out of true love for Alex — but make no mistake their actions are never as wholesome as they seem. And that's what makes a good antihero.

Already supremely groundbreaking, Orange Is the New Black is the most exciting TV show to be returning this summer. With the added element of a commitment to Piper as an antihero, it's forging ahead into unchartered waters. Perhaps the prison surroundings make the stakes higher, or perhaps television is evolving to allowing female and male antiheros to occupy the same plane. Either way, season two is poised to make Piper an even more compelling and memorable female character. Then again, almost all of the women at Litchfield are as complex, but that's an entirely different article.