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 feminist and activist all-stars to talk about the show’s evolution over the first half of its much-lauded first season.
Assembled for this roundtable were yours truly, Sady Doyle, In These Times’ Orange is the New Black correspondent; Lindsay Beyerstein, author of the blog Duly Noted; 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, Ph.D. student in critical race theory and media and New York magazine’s OITNB recapper; Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back and founder of Women in Media and News, who recently wrote about OITNB for Salon; and Yasmin Nair, the co-founder of Against Equality and author of the article that kicked off OITNB criticism on In These Times and perhaps the entire Internet, ”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 the final round of our discussion, below, we talk about why Orange Is The New Black matters and whether TV has the power to change the world. Read part I here and part II here.
(SPOILER alert: The following contains general plot points from the first six episodes of Orange is the New Black).
Yasmin: I think there’s a larger kind of meta-critical discussion to be had perhaps about the extent to which such shows can and/or should be seen as in any way tools with which to think about or through or against the Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC).
My own sense is that it’s dangerous to think that a mainstream show, which exists to boost ratings, can in any way point us in the direction of ending the PIC or even to think critically about it. But, also, that we tend to consequently erase a lot of the very critical work that has been done about and around the PIC, work that comes out of grassroots communities like, for instance, Project NIA in Chicago or Chicago Freedom School, work that actively resists and notes the growth of the PIC.
We also risk erasing the existence of non-mainstream representations of the PIC and its harmful effects, in favor of glossy and more palatable renditions like OITNB. I’m thinking here especially of films like Criminal Queers, made by my friends Chris Vargas and Eric Stanley, which stars Angela Davis, and which render a very thorough representation and critique of the PIC (and with trans actors and characters in abundance) but which circulate with much less support.
Mostly, my point is: It’s okay that OITNB is a deeply flawed representation of women and the PIC, it’s okay to think it’s great or even perfect, and it’s okay to take great pleasure in watching it — we can hold all hold all those facts in the air at once. But let’s not pretend that it’s anything but a multimillion-dollar production by an industry that has no real interest in any social issues, and let’s just treat it, critically, in a nuanced way, and without overly fetishizing it, as a piece of cultural production.
Sady: Yasmin, I keep going back to the way show-runner Jenji Kohan described Piper: as a “Trojan Horse.” I think you could say that about OITNB as a show, too. Although people have obviously been doing great work on prison, human rights abuses, and women in prison, for a long time, and although it’s easier than ever for people to find those discussions and news stories through the Internet, I think the fact is that a lot of people won’t look beyond the prevalent stereotypes about these experiences — prison as “punishment” for a lot of monsters who don’t “deserve” any better — until something fun, engaging, and widely accessible lands on their laps. This is what I like so much about OITNB: It goes down really easy, for me anyway, and you don’t necessarily realize how much it’s done to challenge you, as a viewer, until you’ve already watched a few hours of it. I don’t think something with that “accessible and easy” focus can necessarily do the work of a radical political representation. But I definitely think it can draw people into the conversation, where the other work will be more available to them. I’ve learned more about incarceration and incarcerated women since OITNB aired than I think I have in several years —which speaks to me being a dope, but I think it also speaks to the fact that this show draws people in and gets them looking for more information about some crucial topics.
Jamia: I do believe that in spite of the problematic and reductive nature of the show, there will be people who will be compelled to learn more about PIC and prisoner’s rights because they feel connected to the humanity of characters they care about. Lauryn Hill is now serving time at the same prison the show is based on and Jesse Jackson’s son and daughter-in-law are also doing time. I’m hopeful that the discourse the show inspires, coupled with the media attention sparked by the incarceration of these celebrities will focus more mainstream attention on the importance of transforming law enforcement and the PIC in general. I’m not naive enough to believe that this is the end-all-be all solution, but I’m hopeful that leveraging the moment can spark important conversations and campaigns. I’m thinking specifically about how Ai-Jen Poo and Domestic Workers United leveraged the buzz and controversy around The Help to raise awareness about their issues and movement build.
Danielle: From what I’ve seen, and what I know to be true, Hollywood is never going to accurately portray prison life. Like most of our cultural history, the people recording it are on the “winning” side, , and while OITNB is a rare instance of hearing about prison from someone who has actually experienced it, the show is also laced with the bias and privilege of that person’s life. There will never be a solitary, united prison experience for that reason, but we keep pushing this prison genre as something that can be encapsulated by the singular experience. It’s one of the reasons I’m really glad this show is so intent on telling the stories of the non-Piper inmates; their subjective experiences showcase the fact that even within a shitty system, every prison experience is solitary, every life differently affected by being in that system.
I (probably unfairly) think that if it takes a TV show to open your eyes to the atrocities of prison industrial complex, that’s sort of sad. On the flipside, I realize that our main cultural capital is media, so any show that CAN do that work in the dramatic but non-masculine way is probably a good thing. Like, if OITNB gets more people to send books to prisons, or support bridge programs, or just remember the humanity of people in jail as something generally not related to their crimes, how can that be bad?
Yasmin: As a closing thought, I’d just like to reiterate that OITNB might well induce conversations about the PIC, but it’s dangerous to burden media representations with so much responsibility and power. I think we’ve reached a point where we cede too much autonomy to media, and buy into the idea that we need it to further our understanding of the world around us. I’m by no means media-phobic — I live in it and write about it and use it constantly. But I’d like us, on a larger cultural scale, to stop imbuing it with so much power, and take all our righteous anger and indignation to meetings, discussions, and to the streets demanding change. Ultimately, media can be a tool for change, and we should also be fine with it as a tool for unthinking consumption, no shame in that — but I think too many people, swayed by the promise and ease of online petitions and celebrity power, and platforms, think of it AS change.
Jenn: Yasmin, I agree that it is extremely important not to expect media to do the work of cultural change for us without activists working at all sorts of levels in pursuit of that change: via communications strategies, art, public policy advocacy, community organizing, and more. That said, I almost entirely disagree with your comment that “it’s dangerous to burden media representations with so much responsibility and power. I think we’ve reached a point where we cede too much autonomy to media” and “I’d like us, on a larger cultural scale, to stop imbuing it with so much power.”
I’ve been a full-time feminist media critic, activist and educator since the 1990s specifically because in today’s mega-merged media landscape, media have enormous power to shape what the public believes to be “the truth” — about public policy, about legislation, about gender roles, about people of color, about economics, about sexuality, about the way we should and shouldn’t be treated, and so much more. More than 90 percent of what we watch, see, read, hear, play, drive by and consume is owned by approximately six conglomerates, which have very specific financial and (usually undeclared) political agendas in terms of the content they produce and distribute. We live in a country that is incredibly fragmented on a regional level. Our schools, places of worship, city councils and state houses all attempt to uphold vastly different values. So when we think about it, media is the only medium that is available to nearly everyone across the country (except for low-income folks without access to television or internet). This means that media are the one remaining didactic tool through which cultural messages reach Americans equally from Brooklyn to Boise to Birmingham. Representations matter, in a major way. We can’t afford to (and it would be stupid to) expect media to do all the work of social change for us, because that will never happen — but we ignore the immense power of media’s political, cultural and social impact at our peril.
Yasmin: I agree with you on those points — but I’d also clarify that we need to contextualize the power of media differently. I was responding very specifically to some of the ways that OITNB’s most fervent supporters have hyped the show’s ability to bring about solid, deep conversations about the PIC or the treatment of women in prison. And in my mind, that simply can’t happen as long as they/we are so hung up on valorizing the show’s “diversity,” at the expense of asking what the costs of representation might be.
Which is to say: Representations absolutely matter, but much of the discourse around OITNB has become enmeshed in a complicated narrative that is part soggy 1990s identity politics and part liberal/progressive guilt, which causes people to simply freak out at any suggestion that this breadth of characters is not necessarily part of a larger, more radical portrayal. Or that, indeed, it’s the very diversity of representation that’s part of the problem.
It’s the conditions of possibility I’m most concerned about, the conditions set upon representation but yes, certainly, we ignore media’s power at our peril.
Oh, and Larry
Sady: Well! We are coming in to the home stretch now. I just want to thank everyone who’s participated for their time and their thoughts, which have been amazing to read. Any more closing thoughts? We never did discuss Larry. Because no one ever wants to discuss Larry, that’s why.
Jamia: Amen. He’s such a dudebro stereotype. I have NO love for him.
Lindsay: Larry is the WORST.
Yasmin: Women become queer because men are so boring? But seriously, yes, I actually completely forgot about him.
Sady: If we have learned nothing from discussing “Orange is the New Black” over one day and 8,000 words, it is that all OITNB opinions can be united on one point: Nobody, anywhere, ever, will ever care about Larry. I think that’s a valuable lesson for us all.T
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are 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 them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.