(Just a note: the following post contains spoilers pertaining to the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black)
This morning, my friend showed me an interesting article titled Orange is the New Black‘s Irresponsible Portrayal of Men. I quickly realized that the reason this article seemed familiar was because I had seen it online before-but in a very different context. I had seen excerpts from the first part of the article, arguing that there needs to be more male representation in the show, and the comments that followed were incredulous and indignant. After seeing just that much, I agreed with them. Once I read the entire article though, I see that the argument is a bit more nuanced than it was portrayed to be.
The author (Noah Berlatsky) opens by recognizing how his complaint could be construed; in a media world where women are portrayed less/worse than men, attacking an amazingly female inclusive show for not portraying men sounds laughably petty. He makes a good point of pointing out that his problem is not with the amount of men portrayed on the show, but how the few men on the show are portrayed. The example the author focuses on is the male prisoner from the beginning of season 2, and it is implied that because he is the only male prisoner focused on, he represents all male prisoner portrayal as “violent”, “abusive”, and “repulsive”. This is clear when the author writes,
“According to Orange Is the New Black, though, men in prison are “super-predators” while women in prison are, often, innocent victims, doomed by circumstances and their own painful but touching character flaws.”
However, I have to disagree with this point and the rather sweeping generalizations that follow. The male prisoner previously mentioned is first shown in a scene where a group of male prisoners board a plane; the first interaction between the female and male prisoners (after the women whistle and cat-call) is an amicable and sincere greeting between two friends who recognize each other. The only “deviant” and “dangerous” seeming man is the one who the main character, Piper, later speaks to. As the men sit on the plane, they overall seem rather tame, besides a few teases that could be interpreted as taunts thrown amongst each other (but there is a silent prisoner with a Nazi symbol tattooed on his forehead). These male prisoners are the only male prisoners ever seen/portrayed on the show. As the show does take place in a female prison, that is pretty reasonable. While I definitely agree that stereotypical portrayals of men are harmful, the author continuously uses the same male prisoner as an example of how all men on the show are treated. It feels a bit like grasping at straws.
The majority of the other men on the show are men in positions of authority; correctional officers and their supervisors (as well as various inmates significant others, like Larry, Piper’s ex-fiance). Agreed, these men are overall portrayed in a negative way, from slimy to power-abusing to homophobic. While I do think that these characters are included to show corruption in the legal system (including the female assistant warden, who swindles money from the prison), I can see how them mostly being male and portrayed in a harmful light can be problematic. The problem is moderately alleviated in the second season, where they become more nuanced and complex, but it can still be a general consensus that they are overall bad people. Piper’s counselor, Mr. Healey, was first shown as a generally well-meaning guy, even though he did favor Piper because of her education and up-bringing in contrast to his usual prisoners. However he is revealed to be extremely homophobic, rather controlling, and looks the other way when an inmate tries to murder Piper. The slimiest male guard, nick-named Pornstache, shows a bit of a softer side when he allegedly falls in love with a female inmate (when it’s actually closer to idealization) and willingly goes to jail for her, despite how in the first season he was smuggling drugs in exchange for sex. A response I’ve seen to this is when people say ‘now men knows what it feels like to have limited, often grossly exaggerated representations of themselves in television’. While this is true, I can only really see this as a temporary solution. In the case of men catcalling to women, it does not create equality when women start catcalling to men; it is merely prolonging the problem. There could be more varied portrayals of men in the show; however with the limited room to put more male characters in, I don’t really see how that can happen after you count the few good male characters like the guard Bennett and Piper’s brother.
The next main point Berlatsky brings up is how the women on the show, with the aid of their ‘melodramatic’ back-stories, are portrayed as victims of the system who deserve sympathy and recognition of their ‘innocence’. I can agree that with the way the show frames the stories of the main characters, the goal is certainly to get them in the viewer’s good graces. But I don’t think the intention of fleshing out the prisoners is to show that they are innocent, or that heart driven weaknesses led them to prison. I think it’s to show that while bad people can do bad things, good people can also do bad things. A point I continuously try to advocate is that no one is as bad or as good as they are made out to be; we generalize and polarize to neatly organize people into ‘good’ and ‘evil’. People are too multi-faceted to be divided in such a way, and there are really only varying degrees of good and bad, and everything in between. The show portrays prisoners who got locked away for a one-time mistake, it portrays prisoners who knowingly did bad things because of their circumstances, and it portrays rather awful, manipulative prisoners who are selfish and controlling. It is actually surprising to me how with a show full of diverse women, the article still manages to generalize ‘female’ portrayal into one category.
There are female inmates on the show who are capable of doing awful things, and who are not in prison because of ‘bad luck’ and “individual sadnesses”. The author even mentions Vee, the “sociopathic new villain”, but quickly dismisses her as an exception. However, the male prisoner he focused on before had a small sliver of screen-time compared to Vee, and there are actually quite a few similarities between the two characters, which the author didn’t recognize. The male prisoner was described as repulsive and deviant, whereas Vee adopted children to put into her drug business. When one of her adopted ‘sons’ betrays her, she sleeps with him and then has him murdered. I would describe that as repulsive and deviant. She is not the only example of how the female prisoners aren’t innocent, though. Morello is an inmate who constantly gushes about her wonderful fiance and the marriage she is planning for. In season 2, it is revealed that they went on only one date, and along with credit card fraud she also stalked him/fictionalized their entire relationship. By revealing the troubling backstory to an initial sweetheart, the message didn’t seem to say ‘you should excuse all her actions because we showed you what a sweetheart she is’. Even her friend in the show comforted her by acknowledging her problems and saying that she can still be loved despite them. It seems more like a message that all human beings have flaws, and do bad/wrong things, but that doesn’t mean that we are permanently undeserving of love. This is a show that focuses on the hearts and souls of human beings, and less on systematic injustices, like Berlatsky says. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.
The article, while it seems to be primarily about the television show, sandwiches a lot of commentary about violence against men and how it is ignored because women aren’t taken seriously as violent aggressors. This, I am behind 1000%. Abuse and violence are very serious things, and it is true that when women attack/hurt men, it is usually not taken as seriously as when it is the other way around.
However, the article originally posted by the author apparently received a lot of criticism, enough so that it warranted a follow-up article where the author brings in a second opinion, from author Adam Jones. This article barely comments on Orange is the New Black, and focuses on problems within the structure of female activists and male activists. It expands on the bigger issues touched on in the first article and brings them to the focus. But after reading this second article, it kind of felt to me that these were the main issues the author wanted to discuss in the first place. He stuck it in the middle of commentary about OITNB, and in doing so it felt to me that he used the show as a catalyst to point out important issues that aren’t exactly related to the show at all. It is absolutely true that in society, women aren’t seen as being capable of violence to the same degree as men. I’m glad that the author addresses stereotypes like that. But I’m not really sure how these important issues tie completely in with the show, since we often see women physically fighting each other and plotting violent deeds.
I’m not afraid to admit that I am a big fan of OITNB. But I have a feeling that someone could read this post and immediately dismiss it as ‘a feminist fangirl who blindly defends OITNB because of gender-related favoritism’. I would never claim that OITNB is a perfect show, because it’s not; like any piece of media, it has flaws and will never satisfy every viewer for every issue. But in this particular circumstance, I feel that it was receiving unjust criticism based on issues beyond it, because it had the gall to focus on women first and foremost. This post isn’t an in-depth commentary on the stereotypes and discriminations faced by both genders on an international and historical basis. I’ve been meaning to write about the show lately, and this is just a summation of my thoughts on a flawed show that is doing a pretty good job of portraying the human condition, while adding in commentary on the legal system. I applaud Berlatsky for addressing issues that others tend to shy away from, but I urge him to recognize more concise ways to address the issues instead of wrapping them in trendy packages that attract viewers.