From Screen to Page: Orange is the New Black and The Wire

from screen to page logoFor this installment, I’ll be talking about two shows, and how they use language, specifically to make the dialog of their characters feel realistic. More specifically, this comes in two forms: swearing and lingo.

First a little about the shows. The Wire ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, with five seasons totaling 60 episodes. The Wire is, at its core, a show about Baltimore, West Baltimore to be specific. While there are a number of police officers at the center of the show, it isn’t a cop show per se, and it’s certainly not a procedural (shows like Bones, or Dragnet). The cast is huge and sprawling, and includes the aforementioned cops, as well as drug dealers, addicts, lawyers, politicians, longshoremen, reporters, judges, teachers, parents, clergy, and children.

Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original series, the first season of which debuted in July 2013. The show follows Piper Chapman, an upper-middle class white woman who is sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security women’s prison. The show explores the kinds of relationships and problems that arise in such places, and while the bulk of the characters are prisoners, the prison staff and Chapman’s family play an important role, as do people connected to the other prisoners, often presented in flashbacks.

Both shows make liberal use of vulgarity, emboldened by their relative safety from the FCC. Part of the reason I haven’t shared clips of the shows is that it would be next to impossible to find any that were “safe for work,” so I didn’t bother. The kind of characters the shows deal with tend to use “colorful” language in their day-to-day life, the kind of language that can’t be heard on regular television, gets censored on the radio, and earns your move an “R” rating. The use of this language is important though, because when gangsters and prisoners and cops use watered down vulgarities, the characters sound unrealistic. This kind language, whether people like it or not, is a part of daily life everywhere in the world, and shows like The Wire and Orange is the New Black purport to present the real world as closely as possible (albeit as fiction).

I’ve had students in the past ask whether or not they should include vulgarities within quotations in their term papers, and I always tell them yes, if it’s relevant. Quoting historical figures swearing because you want to be “edgy” or try and freak out your professor or teaching assistant is ridiculous (and I swear constantly in real life, so it wouldn’t have bothered me anyway). But if a quote from a historical figure is particularly relevant to your argument, and it contains some vulgarity? Include it.

And if you’re going to include vulgarities, put them in, don’t water them down by writing things like “@$$,” or “f-ck” or any other nonsense. These are tricks to get past language filters on websites, they should not be used in fiction (unless, of course, a character has a reason to say or type something like this), and there is absolutely no place for this in academic writing. It’s frankly insulting, because everyone knows what you’re trying to say, just own it.

The other language issue I wanted to talk about was lingo, or jargon, technical language, dialect; whatever you call it, this is the language used by people within a sub-culture, such as a specific prison, or a specific occupation, or a specific neighborhood, which marks these sub-cultures apart from others, and from the larger culture. Such language arrises primarily for two reasons: to create a short hand for referring to common things relevant to the sub-culture, and to create a barrier in order to mark people as members of that sub-culture, and to keep others out.

A few examples might be needed. In Orange is the New Black, solitary confinement is referred to as the SHU (an acronym for Security Housing Unit, pronounced “shoe”), and the nearby maximum security prison is simply called Max. The Litchfield correctional facility, where Orange is the New Black takes place, has it’s own language, which Piper Chapman is forced to learn in order to make sense of her world. These terms are pretty easy to explain, and because the audience gets to watch Piper learn these terms, she effectively acts as a translator for the audience. The show has extra veracity for using this kind of language, but it takes it easy on the audience.

The Wire does not take it easy on the audience. I won’t include examples from The Wire because, well, with very few exceptions over the 60 episodes, characters do not explain the specialized language of the street, or the police force, or anyone else in Baltimore. The writers of The Wire assumed that their audiences either new this lingo or, more likely, decided to just make people figure it out for themselves. The characters in the show all know these terms, they speak the language, and it makes no sense for them to dumb things down or explain them to an audience that the characters don’t realize exists.

Using technical language or appropriate slang in your writing is important. It shows that you know your subject; or, conversely, that you don’t, if you use it wrong. Such language  can be difficult to use, because if you use it wrong, people who are familiar with your subject matter can, and should, call you out over it. It’s worth it to get to know your subjects, and use the language that exists within the world you’re describing. While I love the way The Wire handles this, I know it’s confused some viewers, and while I think it’s great for making fiction more immersive, for academic writing, or if you’re not entirely sure of yourself, I would follow the model of Orange is the New Black, and define exactly what you mean.

However you go about things, remember that language is important: learn the language that your subjects use, or that are relevant to whatever you’re writing about, and don’t shy away from using that language. Your readers will thank you.

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