Someone Needs to Get This Guy a DVD Box Set of Oz
by Dan Savage
on Mon, Jun 30, 2014 at 3:09 PM
Noah Berlatsky offers up a unique critique—and a very deeply derpy critique—of Orange Is the New Black at The Atlantic:
Orange Is the New Black has been justly praised for its representation of groups who are often either marginalized or completely invisible in most mainstream media. The show has prominent, complex roles for black women, Latinas, lesbian and bisexual women, and perhaps the first major role for a trans woman played by a trans woman, the wonderful Laverne Cox. There remains, however, one important group that the show barely, and inadequately, represents.
That group is men.
This may seem like a silly complaint. Men, after all, are amply represented in the media, in major and minor roles, whether on Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Wire. For that matter, there are in fact a number of male characters on OITNB, such as counselor Sam Healey (Michael Harney) who gets a typical guy-plot about struggling against disillusionment and prejudice to be a good man. Why should OITNB, unique in being devoted to women, bother with more men? The reason: While media is full of men, real-life prisons are even more so. Men are incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate of women. In 2012, there were 109,000 women in prison. That's a high number—but it's dwarfed by a male prison population that in 2012 reached just over 1,462,000. In 2011, men made up about 93 percent of prisoners.
So this show set in a women's prison, a show based on a woman's memoir about the time she spent in a woman's prison, the only show on television featuring a large ensemble of female actors tearing it up (but with a half a dozen equally compelling male actors playing complex roles)—one of the best shows on television (okay, it's on Netflix, but I watch it on my television)—this show is to be faulted for not being about... men. Men in men's prisons.
Your complaint doesn't seem silly, Noah. It is silly. Back to the derp:
The few male prisoners who are shown on OITNB are presented in almost aggressively stereotypical ways. Early in the second season, when Piper (Taylor Schilling) is being moved to Chicago to testify in a drug trial, we're shown a number of male inmates being transported as well. They are presented as a threatening, uniform mass. The one prisoner who is given a more substantial role is a black man who makes frightening sexual verbal advances towards Piper; he's a contract killer and refers to himself, apparently without irony, as a "super-predator." He eventually delivers a message for Piper in exchange for her dirty panties. The one male prisoner we meet, then, is violent and abusive, with a sexual kink that is presented as laughable and repulsive. He deviant, dangerous, and the show seems to think that he is exactly where he belong—behind bars.
Female prisoners on the show are treated very differently.
The female prisoners on OITNB were "presented" the same way that kinky male contract killer was. Miss Claudette, Red, Crazy Eyes, Pennsatucky, Gloria—almost all of the women Piper encountered at Litchfield seemed dangerous and threatening, most in "aggressively stereotypical" ways. Their complicated, messy, three-dimensional humanity didn't emerge until we got to know them better. The more time we spent with Miss Claudette, Red, Crazy Eyes, Pennsatucky, Gloria, et al, and the more time Piper spent with them (and, to the show's credit, we don't just see the other characters through Piper's eyes and experiences), the more we learned about their motivations, needs, and grievances. And all of this new info—including their backstories—served to complicate viewers' (and Piper's) initial misconceptions, preconceptions, prejudices and fears.
We couldn't spend as much time with the men with whom Piper was briefly incarcerated in Chicago... because Piper was incarcerated with them briefly. So we didn't have a chance to learn about their backstories, motivations, needs, grievances, etc. But the takeaway for most viewers of OITNB—even (especially!) viewers who've never given a thought to prisoners—it this: Prisoners are human beings who are worthy of respect, compassion, and understanding. And if that's true for the female prisoners we've gotten to know at Litchfield, most viewers will conclude it's likewise true for the male prisoners we only glimpsed in Chicago.