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

Originally published at The Feminist Wire

Since finishing NetFlix’s hit series Orange Is The New Black about a 32-year old white woman named Piper Chapman who serves 15 months in upstate New York women’s prison I have had mixed feelings on 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 disproportionately focuses on an archetypical white character in order to appropriate the stories of women of color. This is as well as the show’s tendencies to peddle to racist stereotypes.

Aura Borada 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, the thing that 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 story-lines?

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 fanticize about fried chicken, teach the naive, white protagonist Piper how to fight and utilize intimidation and scare tactics on other inmates.

In one episode, 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– at least she has a bed, a prison job, and friends. This is a heartbreaking reality for those WoC inhabiting low socio-economic communities and find themselves re-offending.

Socio-economic and race issues are either ignored or not deficiently addressed in the show. Although Orange does well to depict trans and queer women– wider issues of race and class become 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 neccesity 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 WoC socio-economic destinies.

Avoiding prison is less to do with making “bad choices”, as Piper so erroneously claims,  than it is avoiding the Prison Industrial Complex that sees PoC 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 the sexual assault of inmates by a disproportionately male CO population does not come up, the WAC meeting raises like the discontinuation of the GED program and track which are all 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-sexualisation of WoC in Orange feeds into the already existent fetishization and patholigization of African American and Latina sexualities. We see this constantly in modern American culture. Two of the Latina roles in the show see a mother and daughter competing sexually for the attention of a white male prison guard and one even takes graphic pictures of her vagina and sends it to her boyfriend on a contraband phone. Jessica Valenti writes on the co-optation of WoC sexualities in The Purity Myth expressing that young WoC– African Americans and Latinas especially– are depicted as having some degree of patholigized 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 experience is palled 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.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Cynthia, Avy, Dennis, Claire says:

    Hi, we’re a small group of students at a very small high school in Seattle. A former student returned this month to give a small series of lectures to assist us with our “World Matters” final project. He used your blog as a reference for critical thinking and variety when it comes to world matters. This is one of the few posts on the list and we just wanted to say we’re so excited to have been led to you, your blog and your work is so freakin’ amazing. It’s really changed the landscape of our research papers (much to the chagrin of our teacher lol). At first there were very broad and uninteresting topics to changes like Drone Warfare, Domestic Violence and Rape Culture. Our approach is so much different thanks to your blog and a couple of others. Instead of completing a paper to get it over with we’re more invested in completing a final piece of work we can be proud of! There are four of us siting here and we just want to extend collective thanks and let you know that we’re aware of your work and appreciate your efforts to empower people!

    P.S. Don’t be surprised if you get some more comments like this! He told us to flood your blog with comments!

    Lots of thanks from Seattle!

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