Why I watch “Orange is the New Black” with my 13 year old… Because she’s going to watch it anyway.

Like many “Orange is the New Black” (OTNB) fans, my thirteen year old daughter and I are eagerly awaiting June 12th. I know many of you may be appalled that I would watch a show with my daughter that has so much sex and adult-themed content; however, I see watching OTNB with her as an opportunity to explain much of real life through humor. The result is that she is aware of misogyny, rape, homosexuality, masturbation and transgendered people in addition to now harboring compassion for incarcerated individuals and others who come from diverse walks of life. These are things she needs to be cognizant of so why not let her learn about masturbation from a lesbian creatively making use of a padded screwdriver. Right?

Let’s back up though- when the first season of OTNB came out, I was only vaguely aware that it might be something I’d enjoy. Then, one day, S asked, “Mom, have you watched “Orange is the New Black”?”

And, I thought to myself- oh crap!! I messed up. I was too lax, and she is watching this show I was only sort of aware of that had, from what I’d heard, a lot of sex and violence. She then went on to babble about how funny it was, how her friends were watching it too (sans parents) and that we should watch it together. On the inside I was cringing, thinking I am not ready for this and the ensuing conversations.

And, oh the conversations we had…we talked about how rape isn’t always obvious; how men sometimes see women as objects and property, even in seemingly healthy relationships; we talked about sexual needs and desires; lesbianism and homosexuality- love knows no bounds; masturbation, mental illness, and so on. What watching OTNB together did for us was opened doors to what are typically awkward conversations that most kids and their parents don’t have but should.

Take masturbation for example. I learned about it from a list of things I wasn’t supposed to do from the catechism and other Catholic teachings. My mom told me nothing, despite our close and open relationship. It wasn’t until college, when I took an interest in Women’s Studies and discovered Sex for One by Betty Dodson that I realized masturbation is natural, healthy and not the scourge the church implies.

My daughter became aware of masturbation in the scene where Boo, with the cursed missing screwdriver, fashions a dildo and pleasures herself. The scene is presented with little fuss and is more ironic than anything- like whoop there’s that pesky screwdriver. Through the use of humor and matter of fact-ness, S was not exposed to the misogynistic views of the female body that religion and society so often promote but instead was exposed to something that was a little off-the wall and humorous, demonstrating that even in prison (or especially in prison) something like pleasuring one’s self is a basic and healthy need just like eating. Everybody does it.

Or homosexuality- some of my earliest memories are of this family member or that one saying, “Oh, I think he’s queer,” always in hushed tones. No one really explained to me what “queer” meant. It wasn’t good or bad, just not really explained either.

S knows all about homosexuality and that it is merely a difference from one person to another. Some of us are heterosexual, some homosexual and some are bisexual, and it is all okay. But, what she also got from OTNB is that not everyone feels the same way as her dad and I. Think about Healy’s feeling threatened by strong women and projecting that idea onto lesbians, conjoining the two. If a woman is strong, she is also a man-hating lesbian. This element of his characterization embodies so many elements that represent what is wrong with truncated views of women, their bodies and sexuality. Women- people- are so much more complicated than Healy’s interpretation allows.

Ultimately, S’s watching the first season of OTNB was why I decided I had the time to add in another TV show. At that moment I was thankful for the way my mom raised me and was happy to take the same approach with S. I didn’t freak out and take away her Netflix privileges or put a monitor on her internet use.

She and I have this relationship where she does actually tell me most things, and I want to keep it that way as long as possible. This will continue as long as I don’t go crazy and make her regret her honesty when she tells me something most parents would shrivel up at. Instead, I may cringe on the inside, then I prepare myself for what’s next. Isn’t this what most parents of teenagers do?  Take a deep breath and embrace the crazy.

I remember my mom and I had this kind of relationship (and we still do now) but when I asked in late high school to go to the gynecologist because I was ready to have sex- she died a little inside that day. My mom, having become a mother herself at 16, was terrified of anything that had anything to do with my sexuality. The result was that I finally had something to rebel against with my relatively middle of the road parents. I don’t want to give my daughter that option- there is nothing for her to rebel against. Unless of course, she becomes a conservative.

When she was five, we- her step-dad and I- let her curse. The result: she walked around the house for a week or two, slinging shit and bitch like a fouled mouthed, vertically challenged sailor, then she was over it. Success! And, her experimentation with words stayed that way until my ex-husband heard her say shit one day over the summer; and he and his wife punished her for cursing. S came home from a summer at his house cursing more than she ever had. He gave her something to rebel against, and she ran with it.

Kids- teens especially- look for boundaries to push, so as parents we are involved in a persistent tango with them where we have to achieve just the right amount of rhythm in order to avoid falling on our faces in a pit of teenage angst. I am, in many ways, terrified of my daughter’s teenage years. But, I think if I can continue to embrace the crazy and not be scared of her becoming her own person and if I respect her as an individual, we will make it through her teenaged years and instead of losing our bond it will only intensify.

So, I say embrace the crazy- on June 12th get a bowl of popcorn and watch “Orange is the New Black” with your pubescent daughter. You might just find it is incredibly funny and opens doors to conversations you had with your parents that you all wished had gone better.

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