Web Only / Features » June 11, 2014
The Reign of Whitey Is Never Over
Orange Is the New Black’s second season still falls flat on class and race.
If Season 1 made prison seem like Camp PrisonCanBeFun for girls, Season 2 is bleaker and filled with reminders that the only certainty about prison life, besides the roaches and the shit bubbling up through bad plumbing, is the absolute uncertainty.
This review contains spoilers about the first and second seasons of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
Netflix’s summer 2013 hit series, Orange Is the New Black, became that rare show that enters the cultural lexicon and propels little-known actors to stardom—notably Uzo Aduba (“Crazy Eyes”/Suzanne), Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman) and Laverne Cox (Sophia Burset).
At the start of the second season, released on Friday, we meet someone with the potential to become the first non-human breakout star of the series: a roach named Yoda. But alas, before Yoda can take his place as the Archy of the twenty-first century, he is accidentally squelched to death by Piper as she steps into a new cell in Chicago’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) (based on the Metrapolitan Correctional Center in Chicago).
After having beaten “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning) to a pulp at the end of the first season, Piper is awoken by guards in the dead of night, forced onto a bus and then a plane, and plopped into the Chicago prison, away from the fragile bonds she has managed to forge with the women in Litchfield. We—and she—assume this is in retaliation for having severely injured and possibly killed Pennsatucky. The sight of MDC, which looms like Saruman’s Tower smack in the middle of Chicago’s downtown, convinces us and her that she is in for a long, painful stretch in a much rougher prison than the single-sex, minimum security Litchfield—not to mention possible trial for Pennsatucky’s murder. Yoda, whose presence contributes to the general sense of filth and decrepitude, is one of the myriad trained roaches at MDC, each at least as long as an intemperate middle finger, who smuggle stamps and cigarettes back and forth between inmates, with varying degrees of reliability.
But this is about as exciting as the season gets; after the first episode, Orange settles into a pace that is much slower the second time around. Watching episodes is like watching honey flow through a plastic bear-shaped bottle on a cold Chicago night. Where Season 1 at least kept people on the edge of their seats at the end of every episode, this season left this reviewer gnawing at an arm to stay awake. The slowness persists despite the many back stories, presented in flashback. Even potentially interesting ones, like Suzanne’s adoption by white parents, or Rosa’s (Barbara Rosenblat) past as a lush-lipped and longhaired bank robber who got off on the excitement of heists fail to spice things up.
Providing such details of characters’ lives is a classic humanizing technique, as well as a tactic to keep people interested. But it simply doesn’t work very well this season, because the question of why, for instance, Morello (Yael Stone) is so obsessed with Christopher, is disconnected from the narrative thrust of the show. As a result, the show in effect is drawing out the action—not a lot happens, and it happens in a relatively short time, but it all gets stretched like a long rubber band. Moreover, the focus on the inmates’ back stories folds into a central problem with the show: that it has to constantly make prison be about the people in it, as opposed to discussing the systemic problems with the prison industrial complex itself.
Largely missing from Season 2 is the presence of Laverne Cox, who has, in the intervening period between the seasons, become a well-known spokesperson on trans issues and a producer of a forthcoming documentary on CeCe McDonald. (Read my interview with Cox for In These Times here.) But Cox wasn’t just a success in gaining visibility for trans actors everywhere—she was also very good in her role as Sophia Burset. In Season 2, she rarely appears, and when she does, it’s as a mouthpiece for what the show clearly identifies as the correct and progressive political line on sexually and gender politics. Discovering that most of the women have no idea about the different parts that comprise their genitals, she gives an impromptu lecture. In other words, Cox is no longer playing a character but has become, in effect, the native informant on All Matters Trans. An Orange without her in a bigger role as an actor and not simply a spokesperson is greatly diminished in breadth and depth.
Breasts, breasts and more breasts
What else is different? Pennsatucky takes her beating as an opportunity to gain new teeth, but they are of no use: She loses her social standing, and she can only stand by bewildered as her celebrity fades and her former minions turn on her.
The matter of the unevenly and racialized representation of breasts, which we had previously pointed out, is amply resolved by a proliferation of breasts, of every hue and color, mostly as an accompaniment to copious amounts of sex.
Indeed, there are so many breasts present in this season that they will no doubt inspire a drinking game (one shot or two, depending on how many a woman exposes at the same time), and the result can only be extraordinarily inebriated viewing parties.
Sex is an even bigger component of this season, and it’s here that the show again reveals both its blindnesses and biases. At one point Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) decide to have what we can only call a Fuck-Off: a race to see who can bed the most number of women. It becomes a running joke over a few episodes, but it’s unclear as to why this should be any less demeaning and just plain sexist just because the players are women. At one point, Piper, tries to negotiate the return of a blanket Big Boo has appropriated by offering her a new prisoner as a sexual partner. It becomes a joke about Piper “pimping” the girl, turning the harsh reality of the sexual economy of prisons into an occasion for comedy.
Indeed, the show relentlessly portrays prison sex as a fun, happy thing, and while sex in prison doesn’t have to always be non-consensual or coerced, the reality of prison in the US is that 200,000 incarcerated adults and children are sexual abused every year. Orange seems blithely committed to a rosy view—with one notable exception, in which sex is used to uncritically support stereotypes of black men as sexually predatory, particularly towards white women. When Piper is taken to MDC, she’s immediately leered at by one of the male prisoners who are being flown there as well, a Black man whose sexual come-on to her is grossly overplayed, complete with a visible tongue. In contrast, the white marshal who escorts her to the bathroom is gruff and sarcastic, but doesn’t touch or sexualize her, even though she’s vulnerable to him as he stands at the open door. Later, when she needs to ask the same prisoner to run an errand for her, she negotiates a sexual reward. She offers him a handjob, but he wants her four-days-unwashed panties instead. When she finds out from another inmate that he’s a hit man, she explodes in relief: “Oh, I’m so relieved, I thought he was a rapist!”
In reality, Piper might well have had to submit to either the prisoner or to multiple guards. But, of course, the show could never show its central white female prisoner actually blowing or being fucked by a Black man, whose sexual proclivity is then mocked when Piper says, “They hire hit men with underwear fetishes.” So first he’s caricatured, bringing to life the fear that undergirds this country’s history of lynching Black men: that one might sexually assault a white woman. And then, he’s mocked for his predilection.
Bleaker, but still black and white
If Season 1 made prison seem like Camp PrisonCanBeFun for girls, Season 2 is bleaker and filled with reminders that the only certainty about prison life, besides the roaches and the shit bubbling up through bad plumbing, is the absolute uncertainty. An older woman in the last stages of dementia is thrown out into the real world as part of a program of “compassionate release,” left to fend for herself on the streets. Rosa is denied a life-saving operation because the state has a rigid cap on procedure costs. One of the young Latinas, a new mother, is told of a transfer far away from her infant daughter, deprived of even the brief visits she might have.
That Orange makes a conscious attempt to highlight such problems in its second season is presumably a response to numerous critiques of the first (including ours). The show’s depiction of the elderly in prison is one of the stronger elements, and we continue to see people’s contradictions. Administrator Caputo (Nick Sandow) reveals himself as someone who actually wants to improve matters for the women, but it’s all circumscribed by his desire to be seen as a do-gooder.
Try as they might, however, Orange’s attempts to be more nuanced skate over its core problems: racism and classism.
Often criticized for implying that bourgeois white women like Piper simply don’t deserve to be in prison (and, by implication, that others do), Orange now attempts to directly address the matter of race, but falls flat. At one point, Piper, fed up with everyone assuming she personally had anything to do with getting a coveted furlough, stands up and makes a short speech about “white privilege.” It’s one of the most forced and inorganic moments in the season, aimed squarely at critiques like, well, ours, and not really at the characters around her.
The racial aspects of prison and the show’s politics around them come to the fore with the entrance of Vee, played by Lorraine Touissant, who comes to Orange with an impressive record of appearances in television shows like Law and Order and Scandal. Watching her effortless and astonishingly flawless performance, where every flicker of her eyelids conveys a taut, slow, deep energy that lies coiled ready to strike, one wonders at the senselessness of a Hollywood system that has not given her more major roles before this.
By Season 2, the Latinas have taken over the kitchen and by extension, the top slot in the prison hierarchy. As Nicky says sardonically, “The reign of Whitey is over.”
This observation can only be a joke—both in real life, where whiteness still dominates every arena, and in the world of the show, which ultimately cannot allow the powerful Vee to actually gain ascendancy. As much as Vee struggles mightily to establish power, and as much as she seems to gain it, her plans are eventually foiled.
Vee, as it happens, is Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks’) mother, not the biological sort, but the Godmother, ruling over a small but effective brood that runs drugs at her bidding, and holding even the cops in her manicured hands.
How bad is Vee? When Red (Kate Mulgrew), the formidable Red, sees her, her instinct is to rush to Sophia to get a new haircut—red, but with hints of flaming orange, spiked to look as if her head were a ball of fire flying upwards—along with red nails. She tells Sophia she needs to look her best and strongest to confront the newcomer, and we realize that Vee is an old-timer, and that she and Red have a history.
As played by Touissant, Vee is a searing presence. In prison, she is bereft of the perfect makeup and finely styled clothes, hair and accessories that she sports in flashbacks. And yet she becomes even more incandescent without all that, as if her accouterments had formed a kind of hazy screen obscuring her enormous power. Her suave, genteel walk outside prison is now transformed to a tightly knotted one, her shoulder blades tensed in constant anticipation of an attack from any side. It is difficult to take one’s eyes off her, even as she leaves the room.
Once at Litchfield, she begins to assemble a posse, gradually prying people and groupings apart just as surely as she draws the most vulnerable to her, starting with Suzanne. Her tactics are subtle: Even the reluctant Taystee, who knows all too well Vee’s ability to wreak havoc, is brought closer with cake—an entire sheet cake magically hand-delivered to Vee by one of the Latina kitchen staff, compliments of Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and complete with funfetti sprinkles.
As the episodes progress, the focus becomes the turf battle between Vee and Red, who each buy loyalty with favors. Red, left without her usual resources but able to marshal new ones, resorts to lip gloss and an elegant dinner. But it’s Vee who seems to have the upper hand because she can make much more happen: first, tobacco for a cigarette-selling scheme. And then, the big one: heroin.
It’s here that the show descends into absurdity in its relentless effort to paint the White Red as infinitely better than the Black Vee.
Red, we are reminded, would never deal drugs. There is, in this prison filled with people who have committed any number and range of crimes, somehow a sense that drug-dealing is the worst ever. We are reminded again that Red is a mother figure to Nicky who helped her cope with her drug addiction. Red’s concern for her former minions is portrayed as genuine, while Vee’s is seen as pure power play. There are no real reasons why that should be—Red is after power, just as much as Vee is—but in one woman, the power is connected to real caretaking, and in the other, to pure evil.
It doesn’t help that Vee is given no redeeming qualities. Even her concern for her “children” is always laced with connivance, and her brief flashback episode only shows her violating the elemental social taboo of incest by sleeping with her adopted son. The heroin turns the fight into something else altogether, becoming the final ingredient in an absurd morality play: Red might feed someone a bloody tampon sandwich and devise a plot to regain her kitchen that was so dangerous it almost burnt her friend Gina (Abigail Savage) to death. But drugs? Never! The code of honor, such as it is, is made clear: White people don’t do heroin unless Black people bring it to them.
Crime shows and media coverage frequently depict the drug trade as dominated by Blacks, ignoring the fact that a significant number of users of drugs like heroin are white. All too often, we see the demonic Black drug lord selling his wares to hapless young whites, enslaving them into addiction. In Chicago, the press produces regular reports on the blight of the West and South Sides (largely Black and Latino), ignoring the reality of who the clients of dealers might be, and how the demand drives the trade, not vice versa,
So, to that end, it’s the white Nicky, who has accumulated an enormous reservoir of sympathy as one of the few truly compassionate people, who’s portrayed as vulnerable and a potential victim of Vee’s incipient heroin cartel. But she returns from the edge in the brink of time, as the show would have it, and Vee meets a brutal end.
Vee’s comeuppance is swift, violent, and comic, thus even more devastating than what happened to Pennsatucky. Vee gets no sympathy; we are to laugh as the arch-villain is meted justice. It's not that she should have been drawn sympathetically; the show has plenty of sympathetic Black women. The problem is that Orange cannot sustain a powerful, Black woman without softening her with a sad story or cutting her down.
In the end, what happens to Vee also affirms the reformist message of prison: not just that administrators like Caputo can make prison better, but that prison can supposedly bring about positive changes in people and social structures. Vee’s departure from Litchfield enables her former minions to forget their mutual mistrust and band together to resist the supposed Worst Possible Sin of drug dealing. The fragile ecosystem is restored, but there’s little attention paid to the fact that, in the end, racial and ethnic inequalities will allow some women, like Piper, to leave, while the others come in and out of the revolving door or stay in for good.
In the end, prison is seen as a curative, a spa for the soul, if you will. Piper is the poster child for this: On more than one occasion, after realizing what an asshole she has been, Piper notes ruefully that she will never be the same and that that might be a good thing. The message is clear—if not for prison, Piper would never have found herself.
Vee’s departure assures us that, eventually, dominant Black women will be exposed for all their unrelenting faults or tucked out of sight, as Claudette Pelage (Michelle Hurst) was in Season 1. It’s not that the show doesn’t have strong Black women, like Taystee and Poussey (Samira Wiley), but none of them are in the position (or have the desire) to wrest power away from white women like Red. What makes Vee a more palpable threat is that she’s not content to stay in the background and make great moonshine, like Poussey, or working to gain employment on the outside by being the best job candidate, like Taystee. Vee is determined, from day one, to rule. The only way to dispose of Vee is to portray her as pure evil and cut her down to size, while nearly everyone else is given a second chance.
In the end, the reign of Whitey continues unabated.
Yasmin Nair is a writer and activist based in Uptown, Chicago. She's a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST. Her writing can be found at www.yasminnair.net.