Netflix’s breakout success, Orange is the New Black, released its third season on June 11. Since then think pieces and cultural criticisms have been published all over the web, critiquing the show for everything from its storyline to the racial realities it attempts to portray. The general reception of the show is predominantly positive, with critics and fans alike applauding the show for creating three-dimensional, strong female characters, and bringing together a hugely diverse cast of actresses. I agree with the positivity and consider myself a dedicated OITNB lover—however, that doesn’t stop me from seeing that women deserve more than the show is offering.
In the New York Times bestseller Bad Feminist, author Roxane Gay discusses the ever-popular series with refreshing honesty in her essay entitled, “When Less Is More.” Gay starts by poking at the obsession people have for the show’s diversity, “You can’t blink without someone celebrating the show’s diversity. Orange is the New Black is very, very diverse. Did you know?”
Gay’s sentiment stems from a place where people of color are expected to appreciate media simply because it’s diverse or shows people that look like them. Gay adds, “Time and again, people of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table. There’s this strange implication that we should enjoy certain movies or television shows simply because they exist.” The point stands that the show is diverse, but does it really do as good of a job with race as the general population would like to think, aside from bringing women of different colors together? My opinion is, no.
Aura Bogado noted in The Nation, “With very little exception, I saw wildly racist tropes: black women who, aside from fanaticizing about fried chicken, are called monkeys and Crazy Eyes; a Boricua mother who connives with her daughter for the sexual attentions of a white prison guard; an Asian woman who never speaks; and a crazy Latina who tucks away in a bathroom stall to photograph her vagina…”
Let’s focus on the black inmates as an example, for a moment. In three seasons, Taystee, Poussey, Cindy, Janae, and Crazy Eyes have been involved in any number of violent and over the top scenarios. For one, the group (minus Poussey) threatened and attacked anyone who stood against them when Taystee’s former maternal figure, Vee, joined them in Litchfield. They played the role of the bullies throughout the majority of season 2, and only have their epiphany when one of their own, Crazy Eyes, is nearly sold up the river by Vee for an assault she didn’t commit—an assault, I might add, that Vee commits after making peace with Red. Their second season is a stew of lying and threats, all in the name of some extra cash.
In season 3, the group robs Red of her corn, and lie about their religion to get kosher meals (minus Cindy, who truly finds her Jewish faith). Minor offenses compared to last season, but it nevertheless leaves the black women in the role of the scavengers and opportunists.
Another problem with race is that the show ultimately revolves around Piper Chapman, a rich, white woman. This is not Taystee’s story, or Sophia’s story, or Daya’s story. They exist around Chapman. To be fair, she’s a compelling character you either love or love to hate, and Taylor Schilling plays her brilliantly. But the narrative nevertheless places Chapman, a white woman, in the role of the newcomer who is completely unfamiliar with prison, street cred, and how to survive, while the women of color are all, for the most part, hardened women of the system.
There are powerful points to be made about the way the relationship between women of color and the system is portrayed. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, some never had a chance in the world to end up anywhere else, and others, like Taystee, come back because at least in prison they have a relatively safe place to eat and sleep. The representations aren’t wholly negative, but they leave more to be desired.
Why can’t the women of color exist on their own? Fans consistently complain about Chapman, which causes me to wonder: could the show survive without her? I think it could. Jenji Kohan, the creator of OITNB, stated that Chapman was essentially her way to sell the show, because the stories of women of color might have been harder to sell to major studios. While that may be a sad truth, now that the show is largely successful, couldn’t they continue without Chapman? They won’t though, because writing without Chapman would require the team behind the show to write from the lenses of women of color, which too few in the media are willing to do.
I could cover more problematic moments throughout the series—like the Boricua mom with lots of kids and an unfaithful, sexist, drug-dealing boyfriend, or how intimacy and even plain ol’ sex on the show most often feature, exclusively, white women (ex. Chapman, Alex, Big Boo, Stella, Nicky, and Lorna)—but I’ll move on to a problem behind the scenes that sheds light onto why the show misses the mark.
You probably won’t be surprised, but men direct this show about the lives and experiences of women. I repeat: men are directing a show that is almost completely about women. What does a man know about what it’s like to be a woman in prison, or what it’s like to experience sexual violence, or what it’s like to exist in a racist and sexist world as a woman of color? The answer: they don’t. It’s not their reality, so at the end of the day the stories OITNB tells are the way men interpret them. To be specific, 29 of the 39 episodes have been directed by men. If women aren’t allowed to tell their own stories, what stories can they tell?
These issues aren’t fun to discuss, because we want to love OITNB. There are so few options out there for women in the media landscape, and even fewer for women of color. This is a problem outside of OITNB’s hands, but a problem that Gay acknowledges nevertheless: “I’m tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experiences of people who are not white, middle class or wealthy, and heterosexual.” We should love OITNB because it’s a powerful story, and not just because it’s diverse. We need to consciously consume media and try to change the landscape instead of ravaging the rare, diverse gems that Hollywood decides to churn out every once in a while.
It’s important to remember through this criticism that I am still a huge fan of the show. Nothing is perfect, and it’s healthy to think critically about media. While there are parts of OITNB that I don’t like, both in the storyline and behind the scenes, there are still things that I applaud, like how the show handled Soso’s depression, Cindy’s religious revolution, Taystee’s ascendance in her group, Big Boo and Pennsatucky’s friendship, and Gloria trying to mother her son from prison. But I still believe women deserve more.
They deserve to have the stories of women be told by women. They deserve a show that doesn’t fall back on stereotypes and caricatures. They deserve a show that I believe OITNB can be, if they listen to the audience they try so hard to reach and represent.