Netflix series Orange is the New Black debuted almost three years ago to a crowd that rejoiced in its seemingly diverse cast. Orange is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s book of the same title, reverses the dearth that typically meets the black and hispanic demographic. As products of white authorship, both the book and series depicts oppressed groups as perceived by the majority— a dynamic very familiar with western media. Ironically, the show’s diversity accurately mirrors the prison population—the sole place in North America where where minorities are the majority. Orange is the New Black works to appease racist ideologies in its so-called diversity. Thus, while striving to appear diverse, the series evokes said diversity to truthfully depict yet another stereotypical portrayal to marginalized groups.
To be frank, I hated this book. Despite excitedly approaching this reading during a Special Topics course, I quickly found myself cringing as a privileged member of the majority epitomizing racist behavior and ideologies’s attempt to be non-racist all the while epitomized the very racist behavior and ideologies she desperately tried to refute. The black actresses, while immensely talented, bring to life the stereotypes that continue to daunt black female portrayal. Even in ignoring overtly sexualized names like “Tasty” and “Poussey,” the series soils black beauty in foul-mouthed and gauche depictions.
As an obviously feminist project, the series functions to address the wrongs of whites while working tirelessly to humanize them. Namely, the series portrays, protagonist Piper Kerman (Taylor Shilling), despite her covert racism and overt elitism, as a victim. Viewers watch Piper struggle to fit in, a conflict the series suggests is due to her education and conventional beauty. The series touches an issues like racism, but oversimplifies all systemic practices by subtly implying “reverse racism” in the pseudo discrimination posed to Kerman in her transition.
I do comment the series for its accurate and often under-discussed dynamic regarding marginalized identities and oppressive action. Namely, head of security Desi Piscatella (Brad Williams Henke) assumes the height of white supremacy despite residing outside theteronormativity. He’s cruel, ruthless, racist, prejudice and anything else he needs to be to maintain his placement at the top of the hierarchical structure.
Piscatella dissolves the implication that all marginalized factions emphasize with oppression, or understand oppression to be a problem. Despite his status as other with regard to sexual orientation, Piscatella still occupies a position of privilege, a position that he uses to oppress other minority factions. In an effort to overthrow the white male authorarive figure, inmates stage a retaliation. In this struggle, it is the black body that ultimately becomes the sacrificial lamb. Poussey, the multi-lingual, worldly inmate incarcerated for petty drug charges, faces murder at the hands of an inexperienced officer. This depiction paints Poussey in the image of the thousands of black female bodies given lengthy sentences for minor crimes. For example, Sharonda Jones and Ramona Brant are just two of the many black women given life sentences non-violent petty crimes. The scene brilliantly captures the cowardice responsible for sending too many black youths to an early grave, or sending underserving youths to exaggerated sentences. As a result of this displacement, many blacks, as seen in Poussey’s fate, end up prematurely killed or irreversibly harmed and unable to foment their upward mobility. Any harm that finds a displaced body proves a direct result of social irresponsibility on the part of the American government. It also reveals that the American government is far more willing to pay to imprison black female bodies than improving their neighborhoods or opportunities. This portrayal personifies what Malcolm X said years ago, “The black woman is the most disrespected person in America.”
While the celebrity inmate was freed, and her peers went on to serve the rest of their sentences, Poussey lay dead on the ground for hours after her untimely passing. No one phoned her father, and in a press conference she went unnamed as the warden addressed the incident. In addressing the incident, the warden did what we’ve seen so many times— he pardoned the murderer. In fact, the entire episode worked to humanize what the series presents as an “accidental killer” painting C.O. Bailey ( Alan Aisenberg) as a boy molded into a man by a series of unfortunate and premature experiences. In fact, the series paints the victim and murderer as victims to a tragedy of systemic western practices. A system that makes experience optional for those of the majority, and systemically displaces minorities as bearing the detriment of said inexperience. Thandeka poses a similar argument in article “The Demon in Darren Wilson’s Head.” In said article, Thandeka argues that slain teen Mike Brown and his murderer battle a common enemy. While this assertion is not incorrect, it fails to resonate with me in its oversimplification. For racism is not equal nor equitable, its affects hindering blacks both physical and mentally to reinforce a fictive white superiority. To suggest anything else is to minimize the magnitude of systemic disenfranchisement. My question with regard to this series and finale episode is simple. How exactly is Orange the New Black when those deserving of this orange attire wear their white privilege instead?
Orange is the New Black strives to reassert the connotations surrounding “blackness” in depicting a feminist view of oppression. This perspective illustrates all beings not male and white as systemically disadvantaged. Although marginal groups like women, immigrants, the LGBT community, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor are oppressed in a white supremacist society, they all maintain a position of privilege over the non-migrant black. The series works to suggest that orange, a blended medley of colors, is the shared color of criminality. However, in the western world, there is only one color of criminality and that color is black. Orange imposes criminality solely in a penitentiary setting, whereas black imposes criminality throughout the world. Dr. Martin Luther King was deemed a criminal in his demand for social justice, because as a black man he’s a thug starting trouble not a man vowing for much-needed change. Similarly, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and any other black body throughout the United States earn criminal status instantaneously due to their skin color.
Blackness, in color and concept, affords whiteness the fictive pedestal of which it stands, all the while composing its essential binary opposite. With this in mind, the season finale’s title “Toast Can Never Be Bread Again, ” proves ironic. Toast will never be “just” bread, just as Orange will NEVER be the new black– simply because it can’t.