'Ambivalence as Privilege: On Orange is the New Black', by Kat Muscat

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In the backyard of my friend’s house last week we drank wine from a box and discussed what we hated the most about the second season of Orange is the New Black. There were many things; unlike our single cask, this show tries to tick many boxes, many of which we were personally invested in. Since Netflix released the whole season at once, though, we had both binged in a big way, and so some episodes and characters had become blurred, making a bird’s eye view difficult to find.

We aren’t alone in having mixed feelings. Over at The New York Review of Books, April Bernard praises the freshly released season of OITNB, while struggling with her own enjoyment of the show. She frets that it turns the viewer into a ‘tourist of suffering’. Bernard is deeply ambivalent, to the extent that her piece doesn’t even finish properly. Unless you count ‘Perhaps it does. And yet.’ as an ending, which I don’t. The problem with ambivalence here is simple: it is a luxury. It’s a way of washing your hands of any consumer responsibility (not very cool, guys). It’s also the reason why my friend and I started with what we found problematic about OITNB, rather than straight up fawning over it—though fawn we certainly did.

There is a lot to be excited about. OITNB take two has a primarily female cast, hosts a wide range of well-formed characters of colour, and draws attention to the inhumane standards deemed acceptable for the incarcerated. Not to mention a kickarse trans lady played by a kickarse trans lady (I heart you so hard Laverne Cox).

The representation of women, especially women of colour, and how society treats those in its prisons is not something we can afford to ignore or get complacent about. And fourteen hours of television will make you invest in these issues to depths that newspaper articles just can’t reach. Even Andrew, a journalist in the show, recognises this when he remarks that no-one cares about the cruelty of ‘compassionate release’. People would rather read a more scandalous story about the embezzlement of tax dollars. OITNB humanises its felons: we are unable to dismiss them as a breed apart, or lacking in morals. Instead, their situation can often be explained by a lack of available choices. And further, we can see that such circumstances are not a personal failing, but systemic ‘rock and a hard place’ zones. While this is all depressingly rudimentary, considering that it’s 2014, there is also potential for this heightened visibility to have a positive impact. For people who had a simplistic view to find their capacity for empathy. As a society, this is the step before meaningful reform.

If a beloved show is perpetuating harmful stereotypes, we must call it out.

However, if a beloved show is perpetuating harmful stereotypes, we must call it out. In OITNB the viewer must remain critical. Do you consider Vee to be a lazy regurgitation of racial stereotypes because she sells drugs, while the Russian (read: white) woman sticks to tights and mascara? Or is Vee a representation of pure and ruthless capitalism, with her extensive talk about profit margins and stakeholders? Maybe she is both. These are difficult questions that people will approach in different ways. (To walk the talk and hold an opinion, I reckon she was an agent of chaos designed to give us insight into others—often through skillful manipulation. Drugs are a surefire way to do this, both outside and behind bars. Additionally, the intensified racial segregation that occurs in prison dictates that Vee needs to be a woman of colour for her matriarchal role to work within these confines. #mytwocents). And, as always, we must listen first to the people who come from the marginalised or oppressed groups that are being portrayed. (So my two cents is really more like point two cents). Especially when it comes to critique like ‘why do we need an archetypal white woman to make the stories of [women of colour] appealing and worthy of television?’—a fucking good question to apply across the board—or state that the portrayals of women of colour are actually racist, and question whether we really need another show set behind bars that makes black people a sudden ‘must have’.

Whatever your opinion, if you’re going to have one you should get informed about both content and context. For an excellent breakdown of how the television show matches up to real life, Autostraddle have got you covered, at least for season one. Between reality, Piper Kerman’s autobiographical depiction, and the Jenji Kohan’s TV show, certain facts are lost in translation. But does this necessarily devalue any of these mediums? There is no doubt that the episodic nature of OITNB affects the scope of the stories we’re shown. However, scope is not synonymous with depth. In fact, I feel that the structure was used to delve more deeply into the ensemble cast that is the magnificent core of the drama, or ‘dramedy’, as Joe Loya terms it. Previously imprisoned himself, Loya quotes Flannery O’Connor: ‘The maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy’. In other words, it is possible to take something seriously while still being entertained.

Essentially, I reckon this approach undercuts the ‘tourist of suffering’ angle put forward by Bernard. Further, the elements of OITNB she worries are fun to the point of exploitative—‘wise-cracking bull-dykes, its transgendered hairstylist, its holiday parties and home-made booze’—generally serve a much greater narrative purpose than she implies. While she’s been given less screen time this season, Sophia’s reunion with her son is truly touching. Parties often serve as a brief reprieve, with a side of plot development. Poussey’s hooch is the catalyst for an outburst, followed by a brutal beating. The latter is problematic, as the violence, while orchestrated by Vee, is delivered by Suzanne—whose character arc has been arrested. While season one balanced her outbursts with moments of beautiful insight and clarity, in this season Suzanne quickly becomes ‘the muscle’. Here a line is crossed as Kohan’s show conflates mental illness with a capacity for violence—we’re in very tricky fucking territory before race is even considered. Furthermore, Big Boo was more than a lol-inducing bull-dyke in the first season, but this time around she’s reduced to a predatory sex fiend—who we never actually see having sex because she isn’t young and femme, despite her competition with Nichols. This backstep in her portrayal, especially considering the conspicuous lack of dyke presenting lesbians, is also less than okay. So in addition to the previously mentioned topics, we can now add ‘representation of mental illness’ and ‘diversity of queer representation’. Rather than shrugging these topics off, we should recognise that they are the reason OITNB is an important text. These are conversations we might not be having otherwise (box wine optional).

If you’re a member of any of these groups—female, a person of colour, incarcerated, mentally ill, or queer—ambivalence is not a very attractive option. (I tick three outta five of those boxes). It’s only really available to those who already feel comfortable with their own media representation, or are too timid to honestly confront the dialogue. I’m a white girl with no experience when it comes to prison, and as a result I’m ripe for being called out. However, that isn’t going to stop me listening, discussing, and trying stubbornly to make sense of OITNB—both what it has to teach, and what it gets terribly wrong.

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Kat Muscat is an editor, writer and feminist based in Melbourne.