Web Only / Culture » September 3, 2013
Orange Is the New Black Roundtable, Part 1: Why, Despite Ourselves, We’re Watching
Our panel of experts on how they got sucked into OITNB, and whether the show gets race right.
One of the funniest aspects of my life as a black feminist is noticing how quick white liberal media (and white liberals in general) are to classify women of color as singular entities. You can be a paralegal, but you can't use African-American vernacular English. Taystee confounds that.
To celebrate the fact that In These Times's recapping of Netflix sensation Orange is the New Black has reached its midway point, we convened a group of women to talk about the evolution of the series over the first half of its much-lauded first season. The conversation that took place included a group of feminist and activist all-stars, and it spanned an entire day and many thousands of words. We covered everything from the prison-industrial complex, trans representation, race, age, sexual assault and the place of faith in activist communities to the eternal question of whether anyone cares about Larry. (SPOILER: No one cares about Larry. No one, ever, at all.)
Assembled for this roundtable was yours truly, Sady Doyle, In These Times' Orange is the New Black correspondent; Lindsay Beyerstein, author of ITT's blog Duly Noted and more feminist-friendly Breaking Bad coverage than you thought possible; Jamia Wilson, a feminist activist and writer who's authored, amongst many other great pieces, “The Upside of 'The Help' Controversy” for GOOD; Danielle Henderson, Rookie editor, Feminist Ryan Gosling creator, Ph.D. student in critical race theory and media and New York magazine's OITNB recapper; Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV and founder of Women in Media and News, who recently wrote about OITNB for Salon; and Yasmin Nair, the volunteer policy director of Gender JUST, co-founder of Against Equality, and author of the article that kicked off OITNB criticism on In These Times and quite possibly the Internet at large, “White Chick Behind Bars.”
What follows is an abridged and edited transcript of one of the most fun, interesting and challenging conversations your humble OITNB correspondent has ever had about TV. In part I, below, we talk about racial representation and white guilt, whether Laverne Cox is in danger of being smothered by the Internet's love of Sophia Burset, and just how “real” we can expect a wacky women-in-prison dramedy to be. Read part part II here and part III here.
(SPOILER alert: The following contains general plot points from the first six episodes of Orange is the New Black).
Introductions: How we got here
Sady Doyle: Before I watched Orange is the New Black, I honestly thought I was going to hate it. For one: I first heard of the show when a huge story about the forced sterilization of incarcerated women was making the rounds, so a “wacky women's prison comedy” seemed particularly tasteless. Second, that title seemed like a weird attempt at Sex and the City-ism. (Poor women in prison, without their Manolos!) Third, it starred the woman who'd played Dagny Taggart in the movie adaptation of Atlas Shrugged. I was won over, obviously. But one of the pleasures of watching it is that it draws so many strong, and differing, reactions from really smart women. So I'd love to know: What was your history with OITNB? When did you start watching it, and why, and what was your initial take?
Jamia Wilson: I started watching it because I know a few people who work with the real Piper Kerman. I heard about her story a few years ago and enjoyed excerpts from her book I read in a few publications. I was concerned about the focus of the show being on this white affluent woman and how sad it was for her to be in prison. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the show is leveraging its platform to tell stories that are often left out of the public discourse.
Yasmin Nair: I was commissioned to do a review, and I would have watched it anyway because of my interest in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the way it's represented in media, especially in relation to gender. In terms of my initial take on it: I thought and still think that it's an interesting text—not in itself, but in terms of how it's circulating in culture. It's really quite bizarre, in my opinion, how much of this show is being discussed in terms of reality and representation, and how much white liberal guilt it has served to induce in people—in terms of race, yes, but also sexuality, particularly in terms of trans representation.
Jenn Pozner: Like many others, I watched the first two episodes and found the writing and the characters tedious and frustrating. I stopped watching for a couple of weeks because I didn't like the idea of the show using women of color and low income women as props to tell the stories of financially comfortable white women. In the interim, so much good writing was done about the show—in particular, Yasmin's piece and Salamishah Tillet's piece in The Nation, saying that there was more to it than that. So I looked at episode three and decided instantly that I had to watch and write about the series, because the Sophia Burset character's flashback episode is unlike virtually anything we've seen on television before.
Lindsay Beyerstein: Amanda Marcotte talked me into watching it.
Danielle Henderson: I did not want to watch it. I didn't read the book, which sounded like more of the same in terms of media presenting a skewed version of reality through the same white, middle class narrative, and I didn't trust that a TV show would be able to address the issues of class and race issues that explicitly fuel our prison industrial complex. But what REALLY got me were the ads on Netflix, where the Suzy (“Crazy Eyes”) character was painted to look like a doting pickaninny—wide-eyed and fawning over the white girl at the center—not unlike some legitimate advertisements from the '20s and '30s. I didn't know what her character would be on the show, but it confirmed my fear that race would be handled poorly.
Reality and representation
Sady Doyle: I agree with you, Yasmin, that “reality and representation” are central to how everyone's processing this show. Do you think putting the weight of “reality and representation” on OITNB always serves us?
Yasmin Nair: To an extent, I think it's important that any show which purports to be about a reality that surrounds us needs to be realistic (and arguably, the PIC is a deeply entrenched part of our lives, even when we don't realize it). In the case of OITNB, though, I find the critical weight to be very particularly and peculiarly skewed toward an insistence on upon reality and positive representation. I find much of this quite ironic, by the way, because some of the anger at critiques of OITNB comes from people who huffily want to insist that it's “just” a representation. To me, it's all about the prevalence of liberal (mostly white) guilt, even when it comes from so-called queer radicals.
Lindsay Beyerstein: Yasmin, I agree, the preoccupation with representation and reality is quite odd—considering that this isn't a realist or naturalist piece of television. It's a comedy; sometimes quite a broad comedy. That doesn't mean it's beyond serious critique, or that it is devoid of social commentary, it just means that narrow factual accuracy has little to do with whether the work succeeds or fails on its own terms.
Jenn Pozner: While I don't think OITNB necessarily has a responsibility to be especially realistic, from a media literacy standpoint it will likely be evaluated by viewers—consciously or unconsciously—as “how it is for women in prison,” simply because there is so little else to compare it to that doesn't fall within the exploitative Lockup reality TV aesthetic, or the old 1970s babes-behind-bars B-movies.
Laverne Cox, Sophia Burset and Trans Ladies on TV
Yasmin: I think one of the more fascinating aspects of OITNB has less to do with the show itself, and more to do with how weighted it has become, to the point that we seem incapable of letting actors be actors. The case of Laverne Cox—who will never, ever be allowed to play a realistically drawn person, if some so-called queer radicals and places like GLAAD that call for “positive representation” have their way—is the best example.
In parts of the queer radical circles I inhabit—and I emphasize that these are only parts—there's been a lot of uncritical evaluation of Cox's character, because she is unique in being one of the first (perhaps the first) trans women playing a trans woman in a mainstream production. To that extent, I find there has been a lot troubling refusal to think about the show as representation, and Cox's appearance in the show now stands in for and takes on a massive burden for trans women and actors everywhere.
But Laverne Cox is not just a trans actor—she's also a Black woman, and a Black woman in a world that affords few opportunities beyond slightly glorified Mammy roles and “sassy Black friend” roles. The time may well come when she even wants to take on a role that is challenging to her and to many of her current fans. What if, for instance, she chose to play a serial killer or criminal who has no redeeming characteristics and happens to also be trans? What if the character is not trans at all? What if, what if, what if … my point here is that Laverne Cox is being put in the position of having to answer for being trans and Black for the rest of her life. Will she ever be allowed to simply act?
Jenn: Yasmin, your discussion of reality and representation is key. I'll throw my hat into the ring here: The more marginalized a group is, and the fewer representations of that group in the media, the more sociological and cultural weight those few representations take on. So, for example, when white men play serial killers, those individual characters and characters stand within a broad terrain of representations. Their serial killer roles do not immediately go to reinforce cultural ideas of white men only as dangerous, immoral, pathological, etc. So when we're talking about OITNB, it is focusing on populations (prisoners; women of color; low-income women; queer women) very rarely represented at all, and when they ARE represented, those portrayals are primarily negative. Portrayals of the marginalized carry far more weight because of the lack of counterbalancing images.
So, yeah, it may be many years before Laverne Cox could play a serial killer and not have that bleed over negatively into the public imagination's idea of who trans people “are” in the world.
But that's also why OITNB is so unique and intriguing: because it tells the stories (sometimes effectively, sometimes far less so) of marginalized and scorned populations in a way that intentionally attempts to grant these characters humanity. And the realism aspects come in to play where certain prison policy issues are addressed: for example, Sophia Burset's battle for fair healthcare.
Yasmin: I agree, and that episode went a long way towards showing some of what trans people in particular endure in prison. It’s an interesting mix in the show There are such moments which ring so “true,” as it were, but they appear within a larger narrative that also frames people within stock stereotypes, particularly those of race and ethnicity.
Jamia: Sophia and her wife's relationship is one of the most beautiful partnerships on the show. I love the complexity of their bond and the strong sense of transcendental family that ties them together in spite of separation and adversity.
Jenn: Jamia, you’re so right. Whether we are looking at news media coverage or scripted TV/film, narratives about trans women tend to be predominantly focused on tragic tales of sorrow and misery, “selfishness,” and various other pathetic depictions. It is extremely rare for a trans woman’s family life to be depicted as loving and supportive even while going through a difficult shift in family dynamics.
Sady: Right. One of the things I love most about Sophia's plot line, actually, is that issues of family are so key to it. The scene where Sophia and Crystal try to nail down her emerging fashion sense is really tender and lovely, sure. But I also love that Sophia's key relationship is with her son, Michael. His anger at her transition, the way he acts out and makes life hell for his mom (some people have pointed out that it's implied that Michael is the one who turned Sophia in), and her struggle to balance her needs as a woman with her need to hold together and repair her relationship with her son speaks to so many issues of LGBT parenthood, and parenthood generally. It also gives Sophia a strong motivation that's not grounded solely in her gender identity, which gives her character a more developed place in that “range of humanity” Jenn spoke of.
Her name is Suzanne: Stereotyping, comedy and 'Crazy Eyes'
Sady: On Lindsay's point about comedy, and Danielle's point about the ugly way Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren was used in the ads: The actual character of Crazy Eyes made me horrifically uncomfortable in the first few episodes, especially in light of how cruel prison is to people with mental health issues.
Also, and this may just mean something is wrong with me, because I haven't seen anyone else say it: The early characterization of Taystee skeeved me. She didn't seem to do much but crack wise, love candy and make Dogberry-esque malapropisms—“Don't you triviatize this! I won't support the sexuation of baby girls!”—which particularly didn't make sense in light of the fact that she worked the library and could deliver an offhanded takedown of Ulysses. I thought we were supposed to be laughing at her, not with her.
I think the “broad comedy” aspect of the show and the “humanizing prisoners” aspect of the show work together in an odd way: First, the show leans hard into stereotypes and stuff that is going to make a straight middle-class white lady like me pretty damn uncomfortable. Then, it curves around and shows you the complexity in all these characters. It's an interesting structure. The question, of course, is whether it always works.
Yasmin: Right, and the bit about Suzanne peeing in the cell completely dehumanizes her. It's not that something like that can't happen but how it plays out, again, in terms of representation and the storyline, in terms of Atavistic Black Girl Who Can't Control Her Rage and Horrified White Girl. I agree with you about the curving around—my own very troubled sense is that it's rather manipulative and perhaps meant to assuage all kinds of viewers. It's got a little something for anyone who might complain! While I don't think we need to get too extra-textual here, I can't help but think of OITNB in light of Jenji Kohan's work, and what I saw as the naked racism of Weeds. OITNB feels like a weird backtracking, an attempt to respond to the backlash. In that sense, I think the “diversity” of the show serves as an unsuccessful attempt to deflect any criticism. In effect, the show seems to be saying: Look, we can't possibly be racist, because we have SO many different kinds of POCs!
Jenn: Sady, I think the answer is: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I had the same feelings about Taystee at first—and then was glad to see that they gave her more depth. I feel a little bit better about “Crazy Eyes” by the end of the first season than I did at first, but still, I don’t feel that much better about the character because despite how stellar Uzo Aduba’s acting is, the character was played for laughs in not only cheap but historically wildly offensive ways for the majority of her screen time. I also find it frustrating that neither Crazy Eyes, Taystee nor Poussey get dedicated back story flashback eps in the first season, yet Red gets TWO flashback eps, and of course Jenji Kohan's use of Chapman as a “Trojan horse” means we get tons of her flashbacks throughout. There is a structural privileging of the white women's characters via the flashback structure that I think hobbles their ability to really go as far as they could in veering away from the stereotypes they build up to ostensibly knock down.
Danielle: See, I loved Taystee right away. One of the funniest aspects of my life as a black feminist is noticing how quick white liberal media (and white liberals in general) are to classify women of color as singular entities. You can be a paralegal, but you can't use African-American vernacular English. You can use African-American vernacular English, but that means you work retail or in a fast-food restaurant. In my life, people do both, and are way more fluid in terms of how they adapt to different situations (which is a whole different commentary). So I loved that for most viewers, the assumption would be that Taystee was the “typical black girl” as they were accustomed to seeing her, but when you listen to what she is actually saying, her intelligence, humor and personality confound the traditional notions of what white folks think they know about black folks.
I've watched the whole thing, and I'm still bothered by the treatment of Suzy, especially when juxtaposed with the treatment of Pennsatucky. There's a dangerous thread up to episode 6 where Suzy is just constantly denigrated in an attempt to build up Piper's character or point out Piper's savior complex, and I really don't think we ever get a release from that. Pennsatucky exhibits far more instability, but still has more freedoms than Suzy. Pennsatucky's mental instability is a production of her religious fanaticism, which seems to be excused, or excusable, in a way that Suzy's mental illness is not. I say dangerous, because of the real history of women of color suffering with mental illness getting FAR less access to medical care than white women. There are cultural implications implicit in that battle, of course, and it's interesting that they're replicated on this show, through these characters. Pennsatucky has MUCH more agency.
Jamia: Suzy (Crazy Eyes) troubles me for the same reasons Danielle mentioned. I was also extremely concerned about her portrayal as an infantilized pickaninny with a paternalized relationship with adoptive white parents until I read an interview with Uzo Aduba about her intentional efforts towards playing this role without making her “stereotypical.” While I still find her character problematic, the dignity and layers of dimension Uzo Aduba brings to life are fascinating. While I have a lot of mixed feelings about Suzy's dramatic function being “playing the [Shakespearian] fool” on this show, she's far from the minstrel she's written to be, and one of the wisest teachers on the show.
Lindsay: The WAC election episode has been criticized for trafficking in racial stereotypes, like black people and fried chicken. What those critics have overlooked is the way that the situation created the stereotypical behavior. Prison is supposed to provide a structure that changes behavior: In theory, you go in, you reflect on your crimes, you come out reformed. In practice, the structure of prison tends to change people for the worse. The WAC election was a rigged contest where inmates were forced to campaign within their own racial group. So, of course they started pandering to their narrow electorate, like in every election comedy ever. One black candidate is promising fried chicken because the contest has been set up to reward that kind of pandering. Another black candidate, Sofia, is running an issues-based campaign for the common good, and gets trounced. There's an added layer, which is that everyone but Piper knows the election is rigged, so the candidates and the electorate are laughing along at the racially charged process and playing up the stereotypes for laughs.
Did anyone else notice that Red is pining for Chicken Kiev, which is fried chicken? Everybody loves fried chicken. A black candidate mentioned fried chicken in her speech, but it was a white lady who turned the entire prison upside down for fried chicken.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle.