Aug 19, 2013 @ 2:28 pm | By TheFeministGriote | 25 Comments
Full disclosure: At the time I wrote this post I was only 7 episodes in.
After weeks of seeing the hashtag #OITNB invade my #BlackTwitter feed and after some of the cast members were featured on the Melissa Harris-Perry show , I had to succumb to the adult peer pressure and watch the show. The show “Orange is the New Black” is loosely based on a memoir about Piper Kerman, who is the inspiration behind the character Piper Chapman. Both the fictionalized and real life Piper are white-middle-class ivy league women whose boredom with their posh cushy life led them into a life of crime. Piper Kerman post-graduation from Smith College smuggled drug money, but was was never caught. Years later Piper is implicated and indicted and does 15 months in a federal prison.
I really wanted to
like love the show, unfortunately I only found the show semi-tolerable. It is not epic or revolutionary as a series. 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. If this were the 1950’s, I would have no argument with Kohan’s explanations, but being that this is the 21st century, this type of rationale has no place. In 2012 Nielsen published a report on African-Americans that highlighted the media consumption of AA’s and how companies should better market to AA’s. The report shows that African-Americans will have a buying power of 1.1. trillion by 2015 and that we consume lots of television, especially when the cast is diverse. An important take away from that report is that Black women ages 18-49 are heavy social media users. Meaning when we like a show or product we tweet about it. Translation, if we look at a wildly popular show such as “Scandal” where the main character is a Black woman and there is a diverse cast Shonda Rimes and the ABC network, have been able to harness the power of Black women via Twitter to catapult that show into another realm. The success of shows like “Scandal”, “The Game” on BET, and the original shows that Tyler Perry has penned for the OWN network proves that the old model is not needed anymore. The above quote by Jengi Kohan fails to recognize the power of the Black tv viewers especially, Black women.
Moreover, according to a report published by the Women’s Prison Association women are the largest growing prison population in the United States. The majority of these women are disportionaly women of color and more specifically, Black women. In regards to my earlier point about centering whiteness which mainly means making whiteness the center of the universe, which reifies the belief that to be white is to be human. In essence a problem really isn’t a problem until white people are impacted by it, e.g. “The Occupy Movement.” Until white middle-income people started to become victims of chronic joblessness, that is when unemployment became a national talking point. Fact is Piper Kerman’s narrative is one that is steeped in privilege. Piper gets involved in criminal activity because she was a privileged white woman who got bored with life. Meanwhile, the point of entry for many women of color into the criminal justice system stems from being severely abused by a boyfriend or another trusted figure, being forced into the sex trade, coerced into becoming drug mules, or these women are forced to commit crimes out of neccesity to feed their Black and Brown babies.
By positing the narrative of Piper and making her the ‘Helen of Troy’ and by making her story the center it erases the collective narrative and truth about who is imprisoned in this country. Orange is not the new Black within the prison industrial complex, Black is still Black!
I yearn to see myself reflected back to me in the media, even when I have nothing in common on the surface with the characters being reflected to me. The ensemble cast of the show OITNB are phenomenal. 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!)
I for one am tired of the fish out of water narrative that is always being repackaged and sold to us by the media, as if it is ground breaking television. The character Piper Chapman is boring, her fiance is boring, and the selfishness of her best-friend isn’t entertaining. I do understand that the show is loosely based on a real person and therefore that is why she is the star, but since it is being fictionalized lots of risks could’ve been taken. I do plan on finishing the series, but after watching 7 episodes, it is clear that the tone has been set.
The show does a horrible job of unpacking race, but does an excellent of job highlighting class based issues, which is the perpetual conundrum that plagues American society. The show does little to subvert stereotypes, and that is what I find dangerous about the show. There is nothing revolutionary about relying on stereotypes to tell complex stories.
Categories: Pop-Culture Fodder