Orange is NOT the New Black

Aug 19, 2013 @ 2:28 pm | By TheFeministGriote | 13 Comments

Full disclosure: At the time I wrote this post I was only 7 episodes in. 

Orange-is-the-New-Black-posterAfter 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

13 Responses to “ Orange is NOT the New Black ”

  1. Fantastic analysis. Very timely and accurate. Even though the director uses- and willingly accepts that she does- the pretty, skinny, white woman as an instrument to tell the stories of WoC this leads to appropriation of WoC issues.

    Moral of the story: when WoC go to prison it is something to be ashamed of, but a white woman can get a best seller and hit tv show out of it.

    Thank you for writing this!

  2. You missed it.

    This was a great analysis of OINTB on the surface. What you fail to do is dig a little deeper. Your criticism throughout is valid. We, women of color, SHOULDN’T need a trojan horse to be in the media. But the reality is we still do! Please never use Tyler Perry to support images of black women in media. PLEASE, just don’t do it. Though shows like scandal are awesome, a few good depictions of black women do not touch the surface of all the work that needs to be done. I would LOVE to have wonderful depictions of Black women in the media, but that’s not how America works. Progress is slow and not drastic. It is unfortunate that we have to condition America (black and white) to accept portrayals of smart, strong, complex women of color but it is a truth. I commend Kohen for recognizing the need for a trojan horse.

    The series is absolutely stereotypical and hilarious! It captivates the viewers. It entertains us. It makes fun of every stereotypical woman. From WASPs to Eastern European to Black and Latina. The show does not hold back.

    What you have completely missed are the moments when the sassy black girl says something so profound your jaw drops. You’ve missed the complicated interplay of characters that reveals that all of these women at their core are just that- women! Yes she plays up the hilarious stereotypes, but she slips in some pretty dope attributes to all of these women. The educated crazy woman who recites Shakespeare. Whaaaat, a multi-dimensional character? Look at God. There’s your stereotype subversion right there.

    And if you think women in jail aren’t caricatures of themselves, maybe you need to visit a jail just to see how dramatic, funny, and sad the situation really is. Extreme conditions create hilarious moments like those highlighted in the show. No one was shucking and jiving. Loosen up.

    Give it another chance. Finish the series. Take a deeper look and do not be scared off by the stereotypes. I think you might actually like the show if you gave it a fair shot.

  3. [...] episode, Taystee declares “Lets get some motherfucking fried chicken up in here“. The Feminist Griote notes that the demonization of black women acts as a “a long racist tradition of white media [...]

  4. [...] and expediently pragmatic so far as it goes, and if it were the whole story writers like Gay and The Feminist Griote would be entirely justified in their disappointment at this half-measure, and its deforming effect [...]

  5. [...] [7] Critique d’une féministe noire sur les stéréotypes évidents des femmes de couleur et de l’utilisation de Piper pour pouvoir parler des autres : http://thefeministgriote.com/orange-is-not-the-new-black/ [...]

  6. […] story and that narrative that appropriates the experiences of women of colour. Here are a few good articles to read and consider. My friends seem to be split down the middle on this one. They either adore […]

  7. […] embodying vicious stereotypes. On a critique of the show,The Feminist Griote wrote “The black women women are loud, overly aggressive, and used for comic relief“. The characters Crazy Eyes, Janae, Taystee and Poussey and their display of Blackness are a […]

  8. I wanted to start watching the show, and started with the trailer…then never began. I found the trailer to be a condensed, racist episode, and the writing to be the kind of an amateurish, ranting, English major wannabe. For instance, why does Piper have to have been formerly a lesbian? (And in the book if that’s where its originally derived from). Is that fact supposed to make being harassed in a women’s prison more tolerable? Funny even? (As is depicted in the show’s trailer). Blegh. It wasn’t. Hope it gets cancelled.

  9. […] in a storyline that is “genuinely unlike anything else on television.” And while The Feminist Griote calls out the stereotypical portrayals of people of color in the show’s first season, she […]

  10. […] I refuse to see the television series Orange is the New Black for the same reasons. One, you don’t see women of color holding the title of main character unless it’s in a prison series. I find it ridiculous that lesbian relationships are being called “edgy” just to bring in ratings and ad money. The main character refuses to call herself bisexual, while critics call her a “hasbian” because she is in a stable relationship with a man rather than a woman (which I disagree with). I find it even further absurd that, to explore the relationships between women (however they identify, whatever their orientation), has to be in a prison setting, rather than in an everyday lawful setting.There are no pre-op trans men who are still legally considered women in that jail. While some people hail the show with “originality” (guessing mostly WASP men), some critics say it’s really just rehashed stereotypes. […]

  11. […] question to apply across the board—or state that the portrayals of women of colour are actually racist, and question whether we really need another show set behind bars that makes black people a sudden […]

  12. ChaoticWin | July 9, 2014 3:35 pm

    Some misconceptions seem to pervade what is otherwise a decent analysis:

    1. Piper did not commit the crime she did because she was bored. She fell in love with a woman (Alex) who was involved in a criminal activity. Alex used her as an unknowing mule. This is revealed in the backstory of a particular episode in which Piper exits the airport without going through customs, and naively asks whether she should go back. Alex reveals that her luggage contains several thousand dollars, and praises Piper for being so smooth. This event shows that Piper was unaware that Alex had set her up to engage in criminal activity.

    2. The title of the show has nothing to do with race. Black is not being used as a reference to skin color, but to fashion. Orange is the New Black is an example of a “snowclone,” a term typically used in the fashion world. In the sense of the program, Piper is a woman who comes from a socialite background, a woman who cares about what is fashionable. The title reflects that in her new life in prison, fashion is no longer socially important — everyone comes into prison in orange, and also wears orange when being transported for trial (as is shown in the first episode of Season 2). In prison, social classes are either nonexistent, or based on factors other than access to textiles.

    3. Piper is an upper-class woman, not a middle-class woman. Those in the upper-class have typically never performed an hour of hard labor in their life. There is an episode where Piper finds herself cleaning urine off the floor and she remarks that she has never had to do this. This is emblematic of her privileged upper-class upbringing.

    Beyond these errors, there is only one line I take great issue with:

    “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.”

    If this is true, it could be a prison show containing ONLY upper-class white women, and if their personalities are distinct enough, you could find one who is a reflection of you. In other words, your criticism that the Trojan Horse method of introducing WoC is a terrible method in this era becomes moot in light of this hope. If you truly wish to see a reflection of yourself which isn’t based on superficial characteristics, you have to actually see past those characteristics. Only looking to black women would be hypocrisy, only looking to women would be hypocrisy. I’m a man and I see myself reflected in some of these female characters. Our differences in genitalia are of no value in “seeing myself reflected back.”

    Beyond this, there is only one minor point I take issue with, and that is your analysis of the stereotypes of the WoC, but not the stereotypes of the white women. Are white women always either “rich bitches,” “drug-addicted street trash,” or “pious women who break the law out of protest”? Apparently, they are not allowed to have their own personality on account of not being a WoC — else why is it offensive that a black woman pines for fried chicken but not offensive that a white woman pines for Chicken Kiev?

    So please, do yourself a favor and watch the rest of the show. At least to the end of season one. Do try to keep an open mind, and as always, keep in mind the words of the Honorable Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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