A Critical Analysis of Orange Is The New Black: The Appropriation Of Women Of Color

August 28, 2013
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By Mohadesa Najumi

Since finishing NetFlix’s hit new series “Orange Is the New Black” about a 32-year old white woman named Piper Chapman, who serves 15 months in an upstate New York women’s prison, I have had mixed feelings about the show’s underlying themes. I greatly support its address of queer and trans issues. However, I find myself wincing at its portrayal and ultimate appropriation of women of color, who make up a large portion of the show’s characters.Orange Is the New Black

Aura Bogado is right to point out that the narratives of WoC “remain deeply powerful, yet each one is framed by a white introduction” and thus white begins to authenticate the black experience.

The WoC in the show each possess their own deeply moving stories. Yet, what is needed to bring them to the forefront is a WASP protagonist who appropriates WoC stories for television audiences. Were the stories of WoC not interesting enough alone? Why are WoC not protagonists in a show where they drive the humor and the most gripping emotional storylines?

More importantly, why do we need an archetypal white woman to make the stories of WoC appealing and worthy of television?

Although women are the largest growing prison population in the United States, the majority being women of color– especially black women– black women in “Orange Is the New Black” are given a limited and hollow voice. They are presented as boisterous, aggressive characters who serve– in a rather dehumanizing manner– as comic relief. They fantasize about fried chicken, teach the naive, white protagonist Piper how to fight, and utilize intimidation and scare tactics on other inmates.

In one episode, as Piper tries to figure out how to deal diplomatically with a fellow white inmate who continues to aggravate her, black Cindy wades in telling her to “kill that motherfucker.” In another episode, Taystee declares “Lets get some motherfucking fried chicken up in here.“ The Feminist Griote notes that the demonization of black women acts as a “a long racist tradition of white media centering the stories of whites and using people of color as colorful minstrels.”

Admittedly, the show does give a resonating portrayal of a WoC Taystee, who finishes her prison term and proceeds to land herself back in prison– voluntarily. Taystee astutely raises issues of surveillance by the state, the impossibility of finding jobs, and her lack of a support system outside as reasons why she re-offended. These reasons ultimately drove her back into prison where she declares that at least she has a bed, a prison job, and friends. This is a heartbreaking reality for those WoC inhabiting low socio-economic communities who find themselves re-offending.

Socio-economic and race issues are either ignored or not sufficiently addressed in the show. Although “Orange Is the New Black” does well to depict trans and queer women, wider issues of race and class are lost on the producers of the show. The Feminist Griote aptly reminds us:

“Piper gets involved in criminal activity because she was a privileged white woman who got bored with life. Meanwhile, the point of entry for many women of color into the criminal justice system stems from being severely abused by a boyfriend or another trusted figure, being forced into the sex trade, coerced into becoming drug mules, or these women are forced to commit crimes out of necessity to feed their Black and Brown babies.”

The show does well to make prison seem like a nightmare inflicted only upon those who make “bad choices.” However, we know that the structural inequalities disproportionately affecting impoverished WoC play an arguably larger and more substantive role in seeing these women incarcerated– perhaps even more so than their own choices.

Reality is less about WoC choices than it is about WoC socio-economic destinies.

And avoiding prison has less to do with making “bad choices,” as Piper so erroneously claims,  than it is avoiding the Prison Industrial Complex that sees people of color face harsher sentences than whites for comparable crimes. Studies, for example, show that PoC are four times more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana than whites.

Additionally, when a Woman’s Advisory Board is erected within the prison, Piper seems to be the only inmate competent enough to raise the issue of prison reform. Although  sexual assault of inmates by a disproportionately male CO population does not come up, the WAC meeting raises issues like the discontinuation of the GED program, issues brought to the attention of the prison counsellor by the white protagonist. The WoC are shown to care more about the free doughnuts and coffee. Yasmin Nair points out:

“This goes against what we know about prison movements, which have often been and continue to be led by women and people of color, many of them queer and trans people. Angela Davis, who spent time in prison, is one of the world’s foremost abolitionists, as is Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a formerly incarcerated trans prison activist with roots in Stonewall. Yet, from the perspective of the show, only white women have the wherewithal to understand and contest prison conditions”.

However, it is argued that Piper’s concerns for prison reform are poised to present her as the naive, white saviour woman who is oblivious to the grandness of the Prison Industrial Complex, while the WoC are more aware of the impossibility of real changes. The WoC in the show have been there longer to know better than to expect anything resembling actual change and so they ask for trivial things, hoping small comforts might be gotten as a palliative from the Powers That Be.

Nevertheless, the portrayal of Piper as the only woman able or willing to rise up against the unjust prison system is largely ahistorical. Although the WoC are depicted as passive and apathetic to prison reform, history has shown their integral role in prison movements.

Moreover, the hyper-sexualization of WoC in “Orange” feeds into an already existent fetishization and pathologization of African American and Latina sexualities. We see this constantly in modern American culture. In “Orange,” a Latina mother and daughter pair compete sexually for the attention of a white male prison guard, and one even takes graphic pictures of her vagina and sends them to her boyfriend on a contraband phone. Jessica Valenti, writing in The Purity Myth on the co-optation of WoC sexualities, shows that young WoC– African Americans and Latinas especially– are depicted as having some degree of pathologized sexuality from the get-go.

“Orange Is the New Black” certainly engages in a classic form of feel-good diversity. It provides a relative voice for trans and queer issues and acts as a minimal outlet for WoC issues. However, the Black and Latina experiences are diluted through myopic stereotypes and racist tropes. As a show depicting largely WoC stories, it centers disproportionately around an archetypical white character, and this does no favors for women of color. Although we learn much from the stories of each women–whether WoC or not–the white female protagonist remains the appropriating factor of the show.

It is time for us to finally do away with white authentication of the PoC experience.

__________________________________________

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 17.53.23Mohadesa Najumi is a Politics and History Undergraduate at the University of Westminster. Originally from Kabul, Afghanistan Mohadesa lives and studies in London, England. Her interests include  democratic theory, populism, participation, political authority, intersectional feminism, gender, development, political economy, African American history, Latin America, U.S., MENA, and all things Venezuela. You can follow her here @mohadesareverie

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17 Responses to A Critical Analysis of Orange Is The New Black: The Appropriation Of Women Of Color

  1. Amy on August 28, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I agree with most of this, except your comments about the WAC. It seems that Sophia was the person most invested in making changes, especially healthcare reform, but she was not allowed to be part of WAC. Piper didn’t even run, which shows the corruption and racism of the system. A trans woman of color has good ideas, but cannot get the votes; a white woman spends the election in the bathroom playing on a phone, and gets the position.

    • Danyelle on August 28, 2013 at 9:44 pm

      I think that further proves her point is she didn’t even have to run and she was still chosen for the position. I will say that I think the issue that she highlights are articulated but Heely when he tries to team up with Piper. He says Piper these women are not like you and me. So I don’t think the producers totally missed it.

  2. B on August 28, 2013 at 10:41 am

    I actually think the show is pretty good about showing how peoples’ choices are structured by class and it’s not just the matter that bad choices that landed the women in prison, but in many cases the women were backed into a corner. That’s partly why the scene between Taystee & Poussey when she comes back is so good and why Tricia’s back story is so heartbreaking. And who can blame Miss Claudette?? All the other characters make Piper seem ridiculous.

  3. dagny on August 28, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    While the issues you bring up about WoC are important, the reason the white woman is the appropriating factor of the show is because it’s her memoir. This is how she viewed her actual time in prison. While some changes have been made from the memoir to the TV show, the author is a consultant on the show and the resulting stories are what she saw through her perspective while in jail.

    • BWood on September 10, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      Exactly!

  4. e on August 28, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    “The WoC in the show each possess their own deeply moving stories. Yet, what is needed to bring them to the forefront is a WASP protagonist who appropriates WoC stories for television audiences. Were the stories of WoC not interesting enough alone?”

    You do realize the tv show is based on the memoirs of a white woman, right? I would assume that is why a white woman is the protagonist. I’m not trying to start an argument, but it seems like you’re looking for trouble where there is none. Also, is it racist of you to think African-Americans should not talk about fried chicken? Probably. I have a few African-American friends, and they will openly admit to loving fried chicken. They even joke about it to get a reaction out of the squares in the room. Why not? Should they avoid talking about their love of fried chicken in all conversation because it’s “racist”? Again, i believe you’re looking for trouble where there is none to be had.

    • Danyelle on August 28, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      your argument urges me to ask you why aren’t there more memoirs written of other women in prison? And if there are others why was this one chosen. I was so she so important. was it because she “didn’t really belong there?” I’m sure plenty of women had a similar story to pipers

      • Caroline on September 6, 2013 at 10:22 am

        The reason there aren’t memoirs about the prison experiences of WOC is because of institutional racism. Piper Kerman (the RL Piper and author of the memoir) happened to be engaged to a writer with the right contacts to get her memoir seen and published.

        The fact that she’s a white woman absolutely makes her more ‘publishable’, but the fact that her story was adapted for a show that focuses so prominently on the characters of color/queer characters she encountered is really important. I think we need to acknowledge that in discussions of the show.

        Kenji Kohan, the show’s creator, has said on record that she used the pretty blonde white protagonist as a selling point to tell the stories of WOC in a way that would never get past the networks without a white protagonist. Should that change? Absolutely. Projects like this will make it easier in the future. That’s important.

  5. Patrick Coker on August 28, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    The setup of Orange is the New Black is not new. Black stories have always been told thru the eyes of White people. The Last king of Scotland,Cry Freedom and many others. That is the only way they can be made because most White people don’t want to see anything that is not told thru their view. For example, The Wire is considered by many one of the best shows ever to be shown on TV. Most White people didn’t watch it till it came out on DVD and wondered why they missed it. It never won an Emmy or any other first tier award.It was nominated for two Emmys for writing and both the writers are White. My point is for people to get all upset over Orange is the New Black like it is a new thing, it isn’t. It is the same old thing.

  6. Patrick Coker on August 28, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    a

  7. Kelly on September 3, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    I agree that the show could do more with the WoC characters and the issues of class that contribute to crime and imprisonment. My larger concern is the constant holding up of the WoC characters on the show as if they are only stereotypes in a narrative outside of their control, with no agency. Before Taystee declares she loves fried chicken, she acknowledges the stereotype. Characters like Tiffany (Pennsatucky), Aleida, Daya, Janae, and several of the prison guards all have back stories that highlight poverty and its connections to prison. Alex grows up poor and turns to drug smuggling. Aleida absolutely has a boyfriend who forces her to bag and cut drugs in her house, and she ends up going to jail in his place. Frequently, Piper doesn’t learn these stories at all; only we know the stories. They exist not through her perspective, but alongside it and against it. As Piper plays on the phone in the bathroom, Heely fixes the election and elects her against popular will, even as we see Sophia, Taystee, and others presenting arguments that work towards the greater good of the inmates. The show’s plot arcs are complex, and the character development extends beyond Piper’s narrative.

    There is no doubt the show uses stereotypes of all races–the issue lies in HOW it uses these stereotypes. Taystee and Pousey might provide comic relief, but it comes through racial mimcry and whitevoice as they pretend to be uptight middle class white people.

    I’ll also just end on this note: this is a TV show, not an historically accurate representation of women in prison in America. It tells stories. A lot of critics of this show ignore the stories and only look at the show as failing to address the prison industrial complex, or that the show has WoC on it but a main white character and therefore fails as a show. I understand the need for non-stereotypical representations of WoC and a valuing of their experience in a way that doesn’t get filtered through white eyes and voices. But simply replacing negative images of WoC with positive images of WoC isn’t the answer, and blasting the only mainstream TV show that offers complex trans, queer, white, WoC, poor, middle class, and male characters is missing the forest for the trees. Engaging with this show on a close, careful level is absolutely important, because this show is more than white appropriation, and it asks us to not identify with Piper and her white privilege, but instead with the complex and diverse women who have to live with her.

  8. Desiree on September 4, 2013 at 11:25 am

    I have far fewer mixed feelings about the show. As a WoC, my frustration is more generally systemic as it relates to the enterntainment industry: why can’t we get perspectives from women of color without them being a side story to the plot that revolves around a white woman? Yes, that’s annoying.

    But taking OITNB for what it is, a TV series based upon a memoir, I’m overall pretty pleased. I feel like many of the characters have been well-developed as complex individuals. The “ratchet” sort of behavior from the women of color is not their only trait, it is typically one of many, which is far more than can be said for most depictions of WoC in the media.

    A lot of bloggers really seem to have a problem with Piper’s savior complex, which is understandable. But we can’t assume that she’s had exposure or education in any way that would cause her to see how ridiculous and offensive her behavior is. Like a lot of white people, she just really doesn’t seem to get it completely. She knows to some degree that she has privilege, but in her own personal life, I doubt she’s really unpacked that bag to see what all is inside. People like that, to me, aren’t to be hated and judged; they are to be educated and informed, preferably with some degree of patience.

    I think in Season 2, it will be interesting to see how the cast continues to develop. But I’ve yet to find it to be truly problematic. And frankly, the trans* and queer representations are just so superbly done, both objectively and comparably to any other major series, that I haven’t chosen to make a huge deal out of the racial aspects. But that’s just me.

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  10. Kara on September 5, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    I actually disagree with this article. I love most of the WoC’s characters and don’t see them as being portrayed as the author stated “aggressive characters who serve– in a rather dehumanizing manner– as comic relief”. The character that scares the shit out of me the most is…can’t remember her name, but the white, religious girl. I sometimes think in this world we can over think things. I don’t mind putting a critical eye on the show and thinking about it intellectually. Yes, I understand the main character is white, but she sure isn’t the solely interesting character. In fact the show would be nothing without all the other ladies and their stories. I agree with the last comment, from Desiree, that Piper’s character is really getting informed while in prison. The main idea of this show is to show that she is not different than the rest in the prison. We all have issues! And she is coming to grips with her white privilege attitude.

  11. Theresa Anderson on September 10, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    While it is of note that it is a white woman’s memoir- it shouldn’t take an educated privileged white woman going to prison for us to be interested in these complex concepts surrounding class issues, racism, and trans/queer identity. A memoir, or book is a starting point. At any time the producers could have changed story lines, asked writer’s to flesh it out differently. To just lay it out that they are following her memoirs is a bit too forgiving for my taste.

    It bothers me that Piper’s character is being used as candy for the white male heterosexual viewer who may not fully understand quite a few of the nuances many feminists may grasp and may forgive because the series has some other good points. Because of this I agree fully with Mohadesa Najumi’s assessment. Men 18-34 would seem to be the dominant viewer they want to capture by making Piper the protagonist, using stereotypes to fill out and make funny.

    Will the producers do a better job next season? Or will they just try again to capture the white male 18-34. I’m sure he just loves it.

    • Destiny on September 10, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Yeah it is really upsetting that it took a white protagonist for people to want to know about the lives of WOC in prisons. I think that says a lot about our society.

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