LINK COLLECTION for ressources accompanying our article in our fourth print zine
It starts with the credits. You get the idea, this show is raw. It is more authentic and real, and the women portrayed are too. This is no Gossip Girl or the horrible rape-cultural 2 Broke Girls. In this women’s prison, we meet trans and lesbian people as well as older, younger, white, latina, black women. Race is an issue in this micrososm. Sexuality is. And gender is, too, when looking onwards from the inmates to the excecutive Fig or the female SOs. I find this show entertaining, yet I know it could be (should be?) much better to portray the non-WASP women on the sidelines instead of making them into clichés. That goes for the hard Russian cook as well as for the oversexualized Latinas.
I have collected a list of great articles dealing with the show in English to give a deeper look into a great show that is still lacking many factors to make it a perfect platform for all kinds of women:
“Although women are the largest growing prison population in the United States, the majority being women of color– especially black women– black women in “Orange Is the New Black” are given a limited and hollow voice. They are presented as boisterous, aggressive characters who serve– in a rather dehumanizing manner– as comic relief. They fantasize about fried chicken, teach the naive, white protagonist Piper how to fight, and utilize intimidation and scare tactics on other inmates.”
“Moreover, the hyper-sexualization of WoC in “Orange” feeds into an already existent fetishization and pathologization of African American and Latina sexualities. We see this constantly in modern American culture. In “Orange,” a Latina mother and daughter pair compete sexually for the attention of a white male prison guard, and one even takes graphic pictures of her vagina and sends them to her boyfriend on a contraband phone. Jessica Valenti, writing in The Purity Myth on the co-optation of WoC sexualities, shows that young WoC– African Americans and Latinas especially– are depicted as having some degree of pathologized sexuality from the get-go.
“Orange Is the New Black” certainly engages in a classic form of feel-good diversity. It provides a relative voice for trans and queer issues and acts as a minimal outlet for WoC issues. However, the Black and Latina experiences are diluted through myopic stereotypes and racist tropes. As a show depicting largely WoC stories, it centers disproportionately around an archetypical white character, and this does no favors for women of color. Although we learn much from the stories of each women–whether WoC or not–the white female protagonist remains the appropriating factor of the show.”
“The two major things that stymied by ability to enjoy the show was Piper’s white privilege and the stereotypical portrayal’s of the women of color. Jenji Kohan the writer who brought OITNB to life had this to say about the show:
“In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. 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.”
And therein lies the crux of my issue about the show. The show follows in a long racist tradition of white media centering the stories of whites and using people of color as colorful minstrels, when the narratives of the people of color should be the central focal point.”
“I am happy to see the beautiful Laverne Cox on the show. Laverne Cox is transwoman playing Sophia an imprisoned transwoman. The character of Sophia highlights the trials and tribulations of transwomen within the prison industrial complex. I absolutely loved seeing Laverne’s beautiful naked Black woman awesomeness on screen. Seeing Laverne Cox’s naked body on screen was by far one of the most powerful and political acts displayed in the entire series. Sophia is the only character who isn’t trapped by stereotypes. I hate the stock stereotypes of the women of color.
- The Black women are loud, overly aggressive, and used for comic relief
- The Latina women are portrayed as being over sexed, having a million children, and use their sexuality as a weapon
- There is an East Asian woman who never speaks, even when she is addressed directly
- Claudette the Haitian woman is portrayed as a cold bitter immigrant mammy archetype (whose Haitian accents sucks!)”
So, why do I keep watching and enjoy myself?
“The women are three-dimensional human beings who talk to each other about subjects other than men, bloody bastard men, or why I am I so bloody attracted to men who are bloody bastards? The Bechdel Test people go home satisfied after every episode. Yes, some of these girls are wives, mothers, girlfriends – but there are few whose purpose begins and ends with those qualifiers. Not only is this rare in film and TV, but it’s incredibly healthy for people (male or female) to be exposed to it.”
“Also, the prison system set up in OITNB also allows for all of the characters to experience an equality of sorts. None of the POC are in service to Main Character White Girl; they’re not her maids, sassy co-workers/underlings, nannies, or someone that makes her coffee at Starbucks (oh hi, Lena Dunham). They’re in prison just like her and bam Main Character White Girl, welcome to the first time you’ve probably ever had lunch at a table with a group of black women. Just like take that in… even if it doesn’t mean anything to you, just sit with that shit for a minute.”
“First of all, the whole Latin@ clique seems to either be related to each other or just happy as hell to be up in that bitch, so no cares about getting out. Poussey and Taystee are in love or something so no need to be freed. Obviously, the situation Taystee faced outside of the legal system is super real: no home, no family, no job prospects etc. Kohan is seriously a master at weaving real life throughout this show BUT it still all fits into this strange narrative that only Main Character White Girl has a real life. She is the one that needs to be saved. Listen, I get that it’s based on the adventures of the real Main Character White Girl that went to jail but the only reason a memoir like that blows up is because innocent white girls are not supposed to go to prison.”
“And by action, I mean sex. This is kind of like “Queer-Baiting: The QPOC edition.” So Cornrows and her boo get to smooch, Wild-Eyed Junkie Lyonne gets to smash her hands down That 70’s Show’s pants and Main Character White Girl gets her church freak on but but… no ladies of color get down with the get down? Sue’s sexuality is dismissed by Main Character White Girl because Sue is scary and not gentle and not a pretty soft unicorn lesbian. None of the Latin@ folks are dykes (just yet). Sophia’s relationship with her wife makes me weep every time they’re on screen together. And we also have the tender unspoken thing between Poussey and Taystee, as far as love representation goes. But why aren’t the black and brown queermos having sex on this show? I’d like to see some bodies like mine tangled up sweaty naked awesome. Main Character White Girl and That 70s Show do nothing for me.”
“3. Stereotypes are delicious and uncomfortably real.
I wanted to be mad about Daya getting pregnant, like damn of course the Latin@ folks are the only characters with pregnancy as part of their storylines because all we do is pop out babies, ya’ll. Opp! I just popped out another one while writing this. But then it’s like — why does that upset me so much? It’s not like it isn’t part of real life. Lots of cousins, lots of pregnancies and babies and baby showers and oohh they’re having another baby and oohh she’s pregnant again, lots of tears in delivery rooms and it’s a beautiful thing. Am I playing into some unchecked shame shit? Like the media has framed stories about pregnant women of color in such a way that I’m embarrassed to see it on television? Is that a thing? Or am I justified in wishing that the pregnancy storylines weren’t just for the Latin@ folks? I don’t know. What are we supposed to do when we see stereotypes that aren’t completely ridiculous and speak to elements of our everyday lives? I don’t know all the things.”
“Still, “Orange” doesn’t get it all right. As Salamishah Tillet aptly points out in The Nation, the show does little to address the issue of sexual assaults in prisons, at times getting dangerously close to suggesting that the women willingly use their sexuality to get things like special food and medication, or better jobs in the prison.
The show certainly reflects the disproportionate rates at which black and brown women are incarcerated in the U.S., but it doesn’t go far enough in exploring this reality, especially in proportion to the entirely white staff of the facility.
And “Orange” often relies on cartoonish representations of people of color, most strongly personified by Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. Played by Uzo Abuda, Crazy Eyes is an erratic, loud black lesbian with a giant smile and bulging eyes who aggressively pursues white lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)—whom she calls “dandelion.” This comes as no surprise: Creator Jenji Kohan has been criticized for her stereotypical depictions of black and Mexican people on her first series, Showtime’s “Weeds.” ”
“So those are all of the major serious feels for Orange is the New Black. Look, yo, like I said, the show is pretty awesome. I love the diversity of characters and the sex and all the shit that lots of people dig about this show. But does that mean I have to watch it without critique? Whenever something awesome or momentous is given a critical eye, people freak out! Like “CAN’T WE JUST HAVE SOMETHING? WITHOUT YOU HATING ON IT” kind of freak out…”
“The only featured characters asked to disrobe on Orange Is the New Black are those who adhere to our society’s rigid and unrealistic definition of female beauty. Regardless of its good intentions, the show sends a tired message to its viewers that only a thin, taut, young female body is worth viewing.
Orange Is the New Black toes a very fine line. It indulges in the lesbian/prison fantasy by depicting beautiful women in various states of undress, while also displaying a winking self-awareness about this titillation, which allows viewers to feel in on the joke about the degrading nature of the sexual material while also still indulging in it.
This dynamic was evident from the very opening scenes of the series, in which we see Piper, our blonde, bourgeois protagonist, in the shower with her lover/ex-lover, Alex. Both of them are topless and kissing. Just before the action gets too steamy, however, we cut to the present day at Litchfield prison, where Piper is struggling with her first prison shower. It is a neat way to show the differences between civilian and prison life, but it also gives the audience thin, young, conventionally beautiful, naked women to drool over — with an implicit promise of more of this type of nudity in future episodes.”
“But the real problem — and the one that keeps OITNB from being the most feminist show on television — lies in those “TV titties” and the fact that, over its two full seasons, every featured character who bares her breasts looks like she could have come out of an issue of Playboy.
The breasts and naked bodies featured on OITNB are always perky, never saggy. They are not always big, but they are always flawless, unblemished by scars, moles or odd proportions. Besides Piper and Alex, there is Morello, the Brooklyn-accented stalker who has a same-sex fling with the lecherous lesbian Nicky in season one.”
“Show creator Jenji Kohan is up front about the impact of choosing white, middle-class Piper as a lead. She told After Ellen:
There’s this whole story about how America is a melting pot, blah, blah, but it’s bullshit — it’s a mosaic. We all live in our little pieces up against each other, and I’m always looking for those places where you can lead into other groups and get a glimpse into these things. That’s what excites me, when you get out of your comfort zone and can experience other people that you ordinarily wouldn’t, and share these experiences and reactions in your own way. Also, you know, Piper’s a gateway drug. I don’t think I could have sold a show about black and Latina and old women in prison, you know? But if I had the girl-next-door coming in as my fish out of water, I can draw a certain audience in through her that can identify with her, and then I can tell all of these stories once she’s in, once we’ve signed onto this journey. She’s just a great entry point for a lot of people.”
A lot of stereotypes are introduced in the pilot, but the show avoids the danger of these characters remaining offensively two-dimensional by introducing plot points that sidestep assumptions. For example, the usual stereotype of age is completely subverted—there is no hint in Orange that youth equals any sort of increased power or value. In fact, it’s the opposite: the elders seem to run the joint. Orange also give illness a twist, with one inmate who sees her massive heart attack as no big deal, and another with cancer who is thankful for the disease because of the preferential treatment it earns her (“No one f-cks with cancer.”). As characters get fleshed out and their backstories unfurl, our perspectives change and we see that, like Piper, they too are greater than the sum of their crimes. History exposes motivations, desires, and pain, revealing that each woman is so much more than her first impression. For example, when the vulnerable former life of “Red” (Kate Mulgrew), the vengeful kitchen boss, is exposed, we see how her quest for respect catapulted her from outcast to iron fist. All in all, Orange is a valuable reminder that identity is complicated, subjective, fleeting, and always a matter of perspective.
The same message is true for sexuality in Orange. Misguided real-life assumptions about queerness in prison are reflected in the show through some of the male characters, such as Piper’s well-meaning but oblivious counselor, Mr. Healy (Michael Harney), who assures her that, “You do not have to have lesbian sex.” Dynamic sexuality is an accepted concept from the very beginning of the series when Piper reveals to her family that she was a lesbian “at the time” of her crime. In a somewhat contrived plot twist, she is forced to confront her latent queerness when she realizes her ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon), is confined to the same prison. Alex tries to reconnect with Piper at the same time as Piper’s fiance begins to pull away emotionally (or am I overreacting to the fact that he watched Mad Men without her?), which opens the door for some relationship drama down the road. Add to that “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), the inmate who wants to be Piper’s prison wife, and Piper’s romantic situation is rather overwhelming.
“The show is exceptional in its varied repertoire of gay and straight, black and white, and rich and poor characters. But Orange’s main break out star is easily the trans actress Laverne Cox. Although her presence in the show is not without it’s problems (much of the discourse around her is centered on her identity as a trans woman, and there is a limited amount of time spent on addressing other aspects of her character and personality), her presence alone is a huge positive step for the trans community, especially because she is not in any way presented as a victim. She is one of the strongest, most inspiring women in the series, and will hopefully be given more dialogue and screen time in the second season. Although she is mainly referred to in terms of her gender by other inmates, her own discourse and involvement in the plot is not limited to her struggle to find her identity.”
“The male characters are not left to be two-dimensional parodies either. One of the most interesting comments upon female sexuality and heteronormative ideas on relationships rises through a conversation between Chapman’s fiancé Larry and Chapman’s brother. After (spoiler alert) Larry discovers Chapman has started sleeping with her ex-girlfriend in prison, he whines to her brother “The bigger problem is that she fucked a woman. So what does that mean, that she’s gay now?” The continued exchange is excellent: her brother responds, “I don’t know about now, I just think that she is what she is.” “And what is that exactly?” “I’m gonna go ahead and guess that one of the issues here is your need to say that a person is exactly anything.””
“And the fact that Orange is, in my opinion, the only show that deliberately addresses these issues on mainstream television is endlessly infuriating. Is this the best we can hope for? We still have shows like Breaking Bad being hailed as the greatest show on television – along with Mad Men and The Sopranos. These shows may address some issues – they all have (a couple of) strong female characters. But they certainly do not address sexuality, race and gender all at once. The best we have had is The Wire. So, as desperately as I want to see American, British, or other television that portrays WoC without the framework of a white middle-class discourse, Orange is the best we’ve got right now. And hell, it’s pretty damn good. Lena Dunham take note!”
My kind of music, my kind of life. 2009 fand mich der Veganismus. Beste Wahl. Straight Edge bin ich, seit ich 16 bin. Against the grain. Poesie produziert mein Hirn auch ab und zu. Für Feminismus und gegen Nazis. An Alle, die überlegen, auch etwas DIY aufziehen: einfach machen. All das mache ich, weil ich dachte: Ich kann das auch.