‘Orange is the New Black’ is Not as Good as You Think It is

Problematic representations of sexuality and race make watching this show feel like homework than fun

In most controversial statement that may be more controversial than disliking Game of Thrones and having no interest in watching any episode from it, I don’t particularly care for Orange is the New Black.

I watch the series, but I didn’t rush this year to get to the fourth season when it released.  I didn’t care about knowing a big spoiler that was published in the news without watching it.  I just find the series tedious to watch.  Four episodes in, and I thought there might have been a turnaround.  By episode five, I was having the same epiphany every season.  It’s a pop culture example of the injustice that plagues us, but it feels preachy by the time I get to the middle, making the finish line feel like an assignment than an enjoyment.

Let’s start with the show’s central protagonist, Piper Chapman.  A fictionalized incarnation of Piper Kerman (who’s memoir is the basis for the show), Chapman is selfish, whiny, and downright annoying.  She cloys on people’s feelings with or without (depending how deep you are into the series’s run) knowledge, and doesn’t understand that her status as a blonde, white, and wealthy inmate makes her to perfect poster child to white privilege.  In my eyes, she is the poster child for JAPs (Jewish American Princesses), and the stereotype for JAPs are extremely white girls who are so deep in narcissism that their favorite thing to do is Snapchat their Venti Frappuccinos.  This generalization makes me uncomfortable considering that I am white and Jewish.  I am pissed off at when people and pop culture get extremely narcissistic.  There was a time when people cared, but Chapman makes a generalized case that white people are oblivious and only care about themselves.  It doesn’t help that the majority of the other white characters on OITNB tend to go towards extreme stereotypes of troublemakers (drug addicts, butch lesbian, wedding obsessed, etc.) and juxtaposed against its women of color, Latinas, and other racial representations, it just makes white people look unlikeable.  But then again, there was that whole “white lives matter” thing during the last season, so I guess it is well deserved.

With that in mind, it makes everyone else look likable.  It’s a good thing, though.  Without the negative portrayal of the white women, women of color, Latinas, and all the other races represented would look like they are whining.  However, there have been cases where the show does like to dip their toes in showing those racial stereotypes in order to dispel them.  Season 2’s major storyline dealt with the return of a former inmate (played by Lorraine Toussaint) running a secret cigarette business inside the prison, and puts the blame on poor Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren to avoid attachment to the situation.  The way she runs the group is nearly equivalent to running a stereotypical drug gang as she infiltrates the close knit and extremely likable unit of women of color.  In addition, the season also sees the continuation and end of Red’s quest to go back into the kitchen, which is run now by Mendoza and her closest people, who all happen to be Latina.  It is clear that there are strong differences of opinion between to two cultures as one cooks more “traditional” prison food while Mendoza makes a Latin American influenced menu.  There is still tension between the two kitchen heads, but that has subsided a bit over the seasons.  OITNB does a good job of making a case for racial equality, but the lopsided view is the wrong way to go around.  It should be more balanced, but everything rests on a stereotype.

The other big issue I have with it is that it is a continuation on a damning pop cultural trait in dealing with homosexuality, particularly lesbians.  OITNB is not afraid to shy away from women and their needs for carnal desire.  It’s refreshing to see on such a premium service like Netflix that is not focused on showcasing boobs for the sake of showcasing boobs.  It’s not meant to arouse male viewers which is a constant pratfall I find in most premium cable shows. (Looking at you, HBO.)  Even The L Word on Showtime failed to differentiate itself as its sex scenes were way too hyper-sexualized, and left me feeling uncomfortable.  But back to OITNB, the show prides itself on being a positive image of homosexuality and lesbian sex.  However, it seems that Jenji Kohan and her writing team has not done a lot of research in the history of pop culture lesbian sex.  According to Vito Russo*, a prominent LGBT film theorist, lesbians, especially during the Hayes Code period (1930s – 1960s), were often found in jails.  They are imprisoned because of their sexuality and can only find solace and relationships in these places.  Because of this, OITNB is not as revolutionary in its depiction of sex as it thinks it is.  This is problematic because what can be seen as a breakthrough in public displays of sex and sexuality is actually wrapped up in a typical, downgrading, disturbing stereotype.  It plays into the idea that it’s things better when in fact its not.

OITNB plays into the same stereotypes that we see everyday in the defense that we hope can change the perception of people and sexuality.  It is completely ignorant of acknowledging problematic images created in the past as it tries to be the “voice of reason” for today.  As a viewer, I see it as preachy and quick to making assumptions that are rooted in the context of today’s activism in race and sexuality.  Again, it’s a controversial opinion, but I think it needs to be said.

*Vito Russo is best known for his book The Celluloid Closet (1981), an in-depth look at the portrayal of homosexuals in film.  It is considered one of the most important books in understanding the stereotypes of homosexual characters in pop culture.

Author: Samantha Felmus

Samantha Felmus is a writer with a cinematic vision. She holds a BA in Liberal Arts with concentrations in film from Sarah Lawrence College and a MFA in writing and producing for television from Long Island University - Brooklyn, specifically the TV Writer's Studio Program. In her downtime, she likes to cook and watch all the random things available on Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. She currently resides in New York City.

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