Orange is the No Ah No.
At around 1am, as I was ready to doze off to sleep and dream about kissing Beyonce or World Peace or something similarly amazing, I saw a link on twitter to an article. This isn’t unusual, as between the awful jokes (my twitter), raging about issues (my twitter), and complaining about the weather (my twitter), there are a lot of worthwhile things linked to on twitter (not my twitter). In this case, however, I didn’t want to see that link. Part of my brain attempted to pretend we hadn’t seen the link, allowing me to instead gently fall asleep, my golden hair softly falling over my smooth brow as I softly snoozed into my pillow. However, the other part of my brain, the big, stupid, conscientious, cynical part, overrode the systems like Sandra Bullock in The Net, and forced me to click upon that link. At the soft click of the track pad on my MacBook Air, so began the ruination of the rest of my night, along with my ability to sleep like an angel. The link led me to an article published in The Atlantic titled: ‘Orange Is the New Black's Irresponsible Portrayal of Men’.
You may be thinking thoughts such as ‘What?’ and ‘Huh?’ and you would be correct in thinking those thoughts. It is an article written by; now wait for this because it will no doubt shock you to your very core, a white man named Noah Berlatsky. I will wait here for several seconds while you regain consciousness after such a huge hit of astonishment. Noah has several problems with the television show Orange is the New Black, and possibly several other problems in general but I couldn’t possibly say. As a big fan of ‘OITNB’ as the kids call it, YOLO etc, I have decided to attempt to try and address some of Noah’s concerns here. I will put the sections of Noah’s article in italics, to represent that Noah wrote it, and also so you can easily identify the terrible arguments.
Orange Is the New Black has been justly praised for its representation of groups who are often either marginalized or completely invisible in most mainstream media. The show has prominent, complex roles for black women, Latinas, lesbian and bisexual women, and perhaps the first major role for a trans woman played by a trans woman, the wonderful Laverne Cox. There remains, however, one important group that the show barely, and inadequately, represents.
That group is men.
Hahahahahahahahahah oh thank you Noah, I have not had a good laugh like that since I last laughed alone with salad. It seems VERY strange to start out this paragraph by acknowledging that OITNB has been praised for being a mainstream show that is finally representing a whole array of women who haven’t been before, but then flipping that argument on its head by then complaining about the lack of men in the show. Is Noah TRYING to invite ridicule? Because ridicule just received a save the date card in his PO Box. Essentially what he is saying here is ‘sure, this one show finally gives invisible women the chance to be represented, but surely men who are represented everywhere should be visible as well?’ No…ah. No.
He goes on:
This may seem like a silly complaint.
Got it in one buddy.
Men, after all, are amply represented in the media, in major and minor roles, whether on Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Wire. For that matter, there are in fact a number of male characters on OITNB, such as counselor Sam Healey (Michael Harney) who gets a typical guy-plot about struggling against disillusionment and prejudice to be a good man. Why should OITNB, unique in being devoted to women, bother with more men?
Hmm, that is a good question. In that it is not a good question, it is seemingly an unnecessary question. Okay it is not only unnecessary, it is terrible. OITNB should definitely not bother with more men. There are SEVERAL prominent male characters in this show. There is way too MUCH Larry. I would prefer LESS men. If you compare OITNB and how many complex male characters there are to (the enormous amount) of male-focused shows and the complex female characters that exist in them, OITNB is more than fair.
Men, after all, are not just ‘amply represented’ in the media Noah, men are OVER-represented. In every single facet of the media and entertainment. Do you know who are severely under-represented, considering their numbers? Women. Do you know who are under-represented to the point of almost non-existence, Noah? Women of colour. Trans women. You would like this one show, the ONE show, to shift its focus from these stories that we never ever get to see, to focus more on men, whose stories we cannot get away from. Okay, maybe I am getting carried away; let’s examine what good reason Noah has for this request:
The reason: While media is full of men, real-life prisons are even more so. Men are incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate of women. In 2012, there were 109,000 women in prison. That's a high number—but it's dwarfed by a male prison population that in 2012 reached just over 1,462,000. In 2011 men made up about 93 percent of prisoners.
Okay? That seems unrelated to this show set in a women’s prison, but true I guess?
The few male prisoners who are shown on OITNB are presented in almost aggressively stereotypical ways. Early in the second season, when Piper (Taylor Schilling) is being moved to Chicago to testify in a drug trial, we're shown a number of male inmates being transported as well. They are presented as a threatening, uniform mass.
Oh I see, the show should have shown a mass of male prisoners in prison uniforms being transported in a huge group as something other than threatening. Why didn’t Jenji Kohan have them perform a flash mob routine to the song Let It Go from Frozen? Why didn’t Piper get to know some of these prisoners individually as she was handcuffed to her seat on a plane amidst the other women prisoners on her way to a women’s prison? Why wasn’t there a meet-cute when she went to reach for a paper water cup as the same time a sensitive unthreatening male prisoner? Noah then goes onto complain that the one male prisoner we do get to meet (a contract killer) is portrayed as deviant and dangerous. I mean, it is shocking when you think about it, that the creators of this show somehow dreamt up this idea of a dangerous criminal being in prison.
Noah goes on:
Female prisoners on the show are treated very differently. They may be violent and may be queer, but they are, for the most part, presented as sympathetic. This seems like a feminist move, on the surface. But the inability to extend that sympathy to male inmates, raises a disturbing possibility: that the show is condescending to women while reinforcing old and destructive attitudes about men.
Hold up, hold up. Wait, what? ‘They may be violent and may be queer’?? And they are STILL presented as sympathetic? That is crazy. I mean, how can someone who is queer be presented as sympathetic? Wow, they can do anything with television these days. HD, 3D, Netflix, Google Glass, making queer people sympathetic, the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, the show doesn’t have the ‘inability’ to extend that sympathy to male inmates, it doesn’t have the OPPORTUNITY, because it is a television show about…female inmates.
At this point, Noah includes a few paragraphs about the idea that empathy is often reserved for female victims, that male victims of domestic violence are often ignored, that gender-targeted killing of ‘battle-age’ men in Bosnia were ignored, and that male victimization is seen as natural and not worth commenting on. He also makes the point that “part of the reason we see our violent, abusive prison system as acceptable is because we have trouble seeing violence against young, black men as violence.” These are very big ideas, and I especially think discussion around the incarceration of black men is worth examining (although hopefully it would include conversations about racism and not just gender).
However approximately zero of these ideas have any place in a discussion about this one television show. This one television show, based on a TRUE STORY about a WOMAN going to WOMEN’S PRISON
According to Orange Is the New Black, though, men in prison are "super-predators"….
No, according to Orange is the New Black that one character was.
…while women in prison are, often, innocent victims, doomed by circumstances and their own painful but touching character flaws. OITNB underlines this most clearly in its flashbacks, where we see each inmate’s life-story as a tragic melodrama (a significantly gendered genre) leading to prison.
YES BECAUSE IT IS A TELEVISION COMEDY-DRAMA DRAMEDY ABOUT THE LIFE STORIES OF WOMEN IN PRISON AND HOW THEY GOT TO THE WOMEN’S PRISON??
Though there are a couple of exceptions (like cancer-victim Rosa, a former bank-robbing adrenaline junkie, or sociopathic new villain Vee (Lorraine Toussaint)) for the most part the characters land behind bars because of a tragic lack of love.
The backstories don't really focus on systemic injustices. Instead, they show how individual weaknesses lead the women to prison. A woman in OITNB goes to the bad when her impulse for love is thwarted.
IT IS ALMOST AS IF THIS IS A TELEVISION SHOW THAT PEOPLE ARE MEANT TO ENJOY WATCHING AND NOT A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE ATROCITIES OF THE SOCIAL AND JUSTICE SYSTEMS.
As Yasmin Nair points out, heroin in OITNB is presented as some sort of absolute, corrupting, verboten evil—precisely the attitude that has created our decades-old incarceration binge. Minority, marginalized men, often deliberately segregated and barred from most employment, turn to the drug trade. The state typically uses moral panic around drug use as an opportunity to police, harass, and imprison them. Occasionally, women—especially minority women—end up getting caught in the gears too.
OKAY AND THAT IS ALL OBVIOUSLY AWFUL AND NEEDS TO BE DISCUSSED MORE AND I HOPE THERE IS FOCUS ON THIS IN OTHER PLACES BUT IN THIS ONE TELEVISION SHOW ABOUT WOMEN IN PRISON WE ARE FOCUSING ON THE STORIES OF THE WOMEN BECAUSE AFOREMENTIONED WOMEN’S PRISON THING.
This isn't to say that minority women aren't discriminated against in many, many ways
No, ah shit. You don’t say.
The fact that Orange Is The New Black has been able to attract such a range of phenomenally talented women actors of color speaks loudly about the shamefully limited opportunities for black and Latina women in television and film. But despite its path-breaking representation of minority women, the show remains trapped by gender preconceptions that aren't path-breaking at all.
‘this one show is the only show in the history of the world that a lot of these amazing women of color have been able to find opportunity, but men are victimized and you know I just think that perhaps more focus on men?’
OITNB is so eager to sympathize with broken-hearted women and their individual sadnesses that it has no time to consider the institutional machinery of injustice that, in this case, has little directly to do with either individuals or women. It's hard to see how such a distorted view of incarceration helps prisoners of any gender.
Let’s see, how can I put this. Perhaps the show is eager to sympathise with its characters because it is a television show that requires the audience to sympathise with its characters? Perhaps it is not meant to necessarily ‘help’ prisoners of any gender? Perhaps it is entertainment. But who can say.
The reason Noah’s article frustrated me so much is because even as a privileged white cis woman, television and movies are still lacking when it comes to representation of women. It is so rare that a show exists that is focused on women, that a show exists to mainly tell women’s stories. And this one not only does that, it also features the stories of non-white, queer and trans women. The fact that this is so rare is shameful, but it is a fact. There are plenty of things to criticise about OITNB, it is not perfect, and there are valid arguments to be made against it, especially surrounding race and class.
However, what is not and will never be a valid argument is a white male author writing an article attacking it for not featuring enough stories about men.
p.s have you heard of the show Oz
original article link: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/06/why-it-is-a-bad-thing-that-orange-is-the-new-black-leaves-men-out/373682/