After seeing the ads for Orange is the New Black on the subway I was immediately horrified—how could people make a show about prison staring a bourgie white woman—I was all set to boycott the show as I know many others were. But then I saw Janet Mock’s tweets about Laverne Cox’s performance and I thought well maybe I will give the show a chance; to see an honest portrayal of a transwoman of color seemed important, and to me, meant there must be some merit in the show.
Rather than providing an analysis of the full show, I’m going to point out some of the really positive aspects and other aspects that need working on. Up until watching Orange is the New Black, I was not one to go for a politics of representation. I didn’t realize how much a positive representation would matter to me because not much has come close in terms of TV shows. I don’t think Orange is the New Black is free of problems; I think any show that makes it as far as Orange has is going to be pretty problematic on a lot of levels. But I do think that Orange has a potential that I have not seen in other TV shows. My hope is that a continued discussion and critique of the show will help guide its direction so that some of the problems can be corrected in later seasons. Being on Netflix, the show may not be confined in the same ways as other TV shows.
If you haven’t seen the show yet, go watch it. Or at the least read the summaries elsewhere (here’s one mixed with commentary from Colorlines) and then come back here. I’m going to start from the positive aspects of the show and work my way to the places where the show needs to shift. (so, spoilers ahead!). This sort of wish list reflects what there is to celebrate about the show, but also is a serious critique.
First, I was glad to have a show with so many diverse women on it. Of course, how these women are represented leads to other issues but starting with women and their relationships with each other is a good starting point, especially as it gives opportunities to explore non-traditional kinships. And then of course that there are lesbian characters that are not marginal to the plot, as well as other people whose sexuality is portrayed in ways not limited by a heterosexual frame. These things are still a big deal, and for more discussion on this see this article from Bitch Magazine that especially focuses on sexuality.
Another thing I was glad for (and the reason I started watching the show) is that Laverne Cox has a major role. And not only does she, as a trans woman of color actor, have a role, her character, Sophia, is also a trans woman of color whose personal back story is revealed very early on in the show. She is portrayed as a complete character who has complex relationships with a wife and a child, as well as coworkers. Through following Laverne Cox on twitter, I can see for how many people her character has made a difference.
In terms of character development, I was happy with the way the show confronted some of the stereotypes in the earlier episodes. This was done by developing characters, like Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), who initially was an offensively unexamined character used to tell Piper’s story. In a moment of confrontation with itself, Orange highlights, through Piper’s fiancé, some of the stereotyped portrayals of the women in Litchfield Prison. The treatment of these women as two-dimensional characters is called out and undone in a profoundly sad scene that finally fully adds a third dimension to the depiction of Suzanne.
There are a number of things that I did not see enough of in the first season and things I hope will change in the next seasons. One of these being a potential in the way the show deals with issues of addiction. Addiction presents itself through various characters (though so far we only really hear about it with the white characters). We’ve heard a lot about people using in the past, yet the only person we see actually use, Tricia, dies of an overdose without much time to see her develop as a person. Even her reasons for using are unclear, unless you find an off the cuff comment about sexual abuse justification enough. I’d like to see the show balance the structural and political problems of drugs, with prison and personal context.
This brings me to a connected issue. The development of women of color, particularly black women, is limited in ways that are not done for white women. Yasmin Nair discusses some aspects of this in her post, especially in terms of the way naked bodies are positioned. But I’d like to talk about two different points. Connecting back to the issue of addiction, what would it be like to show a black woman drug addict in a serious and fully developed way? In some respects I thought that Orange protected itself from accusations of stereotypes by not going into some issues at all.
The main way I saw this happen was through the avoidance of expressions of black female sexuality. The black characters do not have lovers. Suzanne presents as queer but the presentation of her concomitant mental illness forces her desire to be always already unrequited. Sophia’s character is presented in an almost desexualized familial, rather than explicitly sexual, narrative. All we know is that her wife is interested in men sexually and was upset about Sophia’s reassignment surgery. Her reassignment surgery functions as a symbolic desexualization rather than a resexualization that might lead us to see how Sophia wants to express her sexuality. This reflects the shows apparent anxiety about showing two black women fucking, or a black woman fucking or being fucked by someone else. Did they not know how to do this without being fucked up, cliché, sexist or racist? What are Taystee or Poussey’s sexual desires like? Taystee and Poussey are certainly important characters who are definitely developed in important ways, but the absence of information about their desire seems to reflect a void that writers didn’t know how to fill. I’m left glad that I was not overtly offended by a limited and stereotyped portrayal of black sexuality, but sad that they did not take on the issue at all.
Shifting from filling an absence, this next point is something that I’d like changed. No character should ever serve as a simple props for Piper’s story line. There are two characters where this happened very explicitly. The woman who pretended to be talking to herself in the bathroom stall in order to use a secret cell phone is given no development at all and once she has served her purpose in functioning as a site for Piper’s new prison morality, she disappears from the show only to be shown in the background of a scene when someone else is in the psych ward. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this woman was Latina and potentially a non-English speaker, as well as a portrayed with a non-sympathetic (over)sexuality demonstrated through texting gental close ups. This character, and to a degree almost all of the Latina characters on the show (besides Daya) have not yet been developed as full characters.
The second time this happens is when “at-risk” teens are brought into the prison to be scared on to a different path. A young black girl in a wheel chair brings up issues of ability and confronts other characters’ misconceptions. What could be a site to talk about able-bodiedness, disability, prison, race and gender never actualizes as she quickly turns to a symbolic prop for identity crisis of Piper, who then leads this girl to be assaulted by another character as if she were an actual object being passed around for narrative development. It is these moments where Orange becomes that dangerous and offensive show I thought it would be when I saw those ads on the subway. I hope to see no more of these moments in season 2.
If Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett makes it to season 2, I’d like to see some changes in the way her character is portrayed as well. Yasmin Nair has written that “There is no sympathy towards Doggett in the show, who’s portrayed as the worst of the worst: Homophobic, racist, and filled with a zealotry and belief in an angry and vengeful god.” I agree that she needs to be more fully developed with a more legitimate back story. So many other stories went back to childhood in the flashbacks but we don’t hear anything close to an actual context on Doggett’s personality. Again, this could be about contrived writing where someone needs to be villainized as a prop to centralize Piper’s character. From all the smart people I know watching the show, I can say that we don’t need such a one dimensional narrative arc.
Following these last three items on my wishlist, I’d like to see the show continue to shift focus away from Piper. Not only has Orange given us characters to prop up Piper, they’ve ignored others when they didn’t serve that purpose. One of the most disturbing examples of this was when Janae Watson was sent to the SHU (Security Housing Unit/solitary confinement). The show was saving its exploration of solitary confinement for when Piper was sent there. Having Janae taken away and effectively disappeared from the show was a disrespect to the characters of color, as well as the real life prisoners in solitary confinement. The SHU is not a prop for Piper to redeploy her queer sexuality. The SHU is torture and we should have been able to see Janae’s experience of it (which was much longer than Piper’s). Making the experience of a black woman invisible is part of the larger problems with American racism, especially within the prison system. The show should be actively working against this, not using it for plot development. (Read about the California prisoners currently on hunger strike against solitary confinement).
This leads me to a pretty big item on my wish list. Please discuss the structural problems of prison more explicitly. In Yasmin Nair’s review of the show she claims the underlying problem of the show is that
“Orange ultimately sees prison as the logical, if slightly flawed, corrective to society’s problems. Rather than recognizing the prison as the Prison Industrial Complex and questioning a system that keeps recirculating people (mostly of color) through its doors in order to survive, the show sees prisons as housing units, almost like sorority houses. The rationale here is that prison can be a fun place, if only some of the worst elements, like solitary confinement or bad food, were taken away. Moreover, the show can’t conceive of the fact that the biggest hurdle for most of the women in prison with [Piper] Chapman is not that they made “bad choices,” but that their future choices are foreclosed by prison. Chapman and white women like her can eventually get beyond their arrest records. The very existence of the show and the success of the book on which it’s based testify to the fact that for a white woman, a “bad choice” can become a second chance. It’s unlikely that a Black woman in the same situation as Kerman [the author of the memoir the show is based on] could simply walk out after her sentence and turn her experience into a best-selling book and television series.”
Nair’s review of the show is accurate, but doesn’t have to be. Rather than the problematic and racist portrayal of the “Women’s Advisory Council”, the show could be portraying more realistically the internal and external struggles with the prison system; this is pointed out by Nair too. The show also has latently shown us that most prisoners are not in there for bad choices. For Nikki and Yoga Jones, for example, addiction could be presented as more than a bad choice. Taystee seems to be in prison for almost entirely structural reasons. The writers of Orange could make this more overt, rather than letting it lie latent until it serves the larger white narrative arc.
I’ve heard season 2 has already started filming, but I hope it is not too late to make these interventions. The positive and progressive aspects of the show have garnered a lot of attention and there has and remains much rich discussion of the show. I hope the writers of Orange is the New Black see the same potential in the show that I do.