The Race to Address Race in Orange is the New Black


Today I wrapped six weeks of writing about Orange Is The New Black, two episodes at a time, at The A.V. Club. It means I’ve written a lot of words about the show, and lived in its development more than most people, and it’s created some frustration as I’ve read a series of trend pieces that function as an interrogation of its progressive statements regarding diversity in television.

To be clear, this is rarely frustration with the overarching arguments being deployed. The core of pieces at The Nation, the Daily Beast, and Roxane Gay’s piece at Salon—the best of the three—in recent days have been seeking to complicate readings of the series’ diversity as a dramatic step forward. In many reviews, the diversity of the series’ cast has been considered praise-worthy, and Gay nicely captures the sentiment that has similarly driven other authors to resist this critical consensus:

“I’m tired of settling for better instead of truly great. I’m tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experiences of people who are not white, middle class or wealthy, and heterosexual.”

It’s an important argument, but it’s one that I’m seeing deployed with Orange Is The New Black not because the series is wholly representative of this problem but rather because it is a text with a degree of cultural relevance in our current pop culture moment that undoubtedly connects with this problem. The Daily Beast’s Allison Samuels didn’t even watch Orange Is The New Black before lumping it in with other pop culture examples. The Nation’s Aura Bogado only watched six episodes before quitting on the show’s first season. My reaction to these articles is not a rejection of the basic principles on which the authors stand, but rather a rejection of their relevance to this particular series as it evolved over the course of its first season.

By all accounts, Gay is the first author to have seen the entire season before writing about its politics of race (which is advisable to anyone writing about a television series with such definitiveness), but there were still moments where I would read sentences like those below and fervently disagree despite agreeing that we need to avoid over-celebrating incremental changes in representation when there’s so much more to be fighting for.

[I’m going to discuss some vague details about the whole season of Orange Is The New Black now, so spoiler warning.]

“Another inmate, Crazy Eyes, is more caricature than character. She is fixated on Piper. Her infatuation is supposed to be funny because crazy people are, I guess, hilarious.”

This just reads wrong to me, given how I found myself unwilling to use the name “Crazy Eyes” in writing about the character in later episodes. The character’s development was so effective in part because it makes us complicit in Piper’s initial first impression, and rewrites our understanding of the character beyond those early scenes. If she was more caricature than character, I wouldn’t have responded in the way I did when Larry describes Suzanne as he does during his public radio interview; it was a violent misrepresentation of the person, one that I would argue Gay recreates in this piece by focusing solely on those early character actions with none of the character-context that comes in later episodes.

“…we cannot ignore how the show’s diverse characters are planets orbiting Piper’s sun. The women of color don’t have the privilege of inhabiting their own solar systems.”

This is more of an objectively true statement, but again I feel like it obscures the degree to which this changes over the course of the season. In the pilot, it is absolutely true that the other characters exist to orbit Piper. And yet when you move later into the season, character relationships emerge that have nothing to do with Piper, and you get storylines like Taystee’s hearing which allow the African American characters a space to navigate their identities independent of Piper or any other white characters. By the end of the season, the series has successfully not only established an irregular orbit in which Piper is often—if not always—positioned at the margins of key scenes or storylines, but also the groundwork to deviate further in the future—I can easily imagine this show continuing beyond the point when Piper leaves Litchfield, and that wasn’t the case when the season began and none of the supporting players had been fleshed out.

We absolutely need to be critical of shows that are broadly accepted as being racially diverse, but at the same time those critical analyses need to acknowledge the way the series has treated its racial dynamics as something to be uncovered rather than something that arrives fully formed. Gay writes that “Orange Is the New Black is diverse in the shallowest, most tokenistic ways,” and I would agree with that statement if applied to the series’ pilot, but it feels too broad a brush to paint a season that has made a conscious effort to start with stereotypes and break them down.

I would love to read a detailed critique of that strategy, but all I’ve read so far are pieces which in their efforts to make important points about race and television fail to make direct points regarding Orange Is The New Black as a television show with a distinct—if fallible—approach to these questions. I would agree the bar for TV diversity is way too low, but I also believe with respect that the bar needs to be higher for pieces that seek to consider its racial politics based on cherry-picked examples that flatten its racial dynamics rather than embrace but ultimately problematize their dynamism.



Filed under Orange is the New Black

7 responses to “The Race to Address Race in Orange is the New Black

  1. I’ve enjoyed your OITNB commentary on AV Club, and appreciate this piece on the criticism about the show. I read Aura Bogado’s and Roxane Gay’s pieces and thought that they may have not seen the whole show. So based on the info you supplied above, it makes sense to me that Bogado missed the arc of the characters of color since she saw only half a season. However, that makes Gay’s response all the more baffling to me. Granted, all of us have individual reactions to TV shows. But Gay’s piece made me wonder if we even watched the same show, or if she just had it on as background noise. Ironically, her reaction reminds me of Larry’s stories on “Urban Tales”, where Suzanne and Miss Claudette are defined by their otherness, which is of course based on Piper’s initial impression of the, before she (and we) get to know them as individuals.

  2. I really appreciate your critical analysis of the show and your willingness to look at it and ask, “is it doing what it sets out?” rather than, “is it doing what I want?” I have not finished the first season yet (still in the early episodes) but I am intrigued by the show’s content choice. I will come back and re-read your articles when I finish the season.

  3. Charlie24

    I spent a night in prison when I was hardly 21. My night was a day in the park compared to non-white inmates who were there on the same charges(basically) Here’s the whole point of Piper Kermans story: YOU HAVE NO IDENTITY AND NO ONE CARES. If you’re white and privileged at least you have agency and people will listen to you because you are white and privileged. NO ONES STORY IN PRISON MATTERS, until you’re out. The women I met were complex, smart, and misunderstood, and no one cared. Suzanne’s story is the most important because she represents a major population of the prison population. I had a night and people feel sorry for me because I am a privileged, white, smart female. People think that people like “Suzanne” deserve it. Why?

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  5. I LOVED this show- can’t wait for the next season! “House of Cards” was GREAT, but this show focuses on women (which is rare). I’m going to check out your reviews SOON!

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