The Women Of Color in OITNB Deserve Better

*May contain spoilers or triggering content*

Like many social justice students, I was interested in Orange is the New Black. I knew by verbatim it took place in a federal penitentiary. During my undergrad, I had done research on the Prison Industrial Complex and how it was an active force shaping my experiences as a young black woman in America. For many people of color, in particular, Latinx and Afro-descended revoke, mass incarceration is a big part of our collective cultures. When presenting my research at conferences as an undergrad, I was not surprised by the amount of students of color who found a personal connection to my work. Students like the ones I encountered knew of family members or close friends who are/had been incarcerated. Over the last few years, we have seen a surge in programming related to mass incarceration or the Prison Industrial system. With shows like FOX’s Prison Break, HBO’S The Wire, and many reality shows like Scared Straight. These aforementioned shows are solely for entertainment. Though I had incarcerated family members, I have watched those shows knowing that they exist for consumption. However, I know a vast majority of people still hold onto misconceptions on prisons, incarcerated people, and the American Criminal Justice system.

Many shows promote toxic ideas such as: prisons are sites of unrest and they capitalize on violence. Imagery reinforces this idea that humans are disposable. These shows also happen to highlight people of color. Often times the people depicted in these shows were the cartoonish brute, more or less a caricature of what we think about people of color.

I begged, asking, “where are the shows that recognizes the fullness of humanity?” So my friend told me to watch an upcoming Netflix original series which was based on the story of a formerly incarcerated author, Piper Kerman. It piqued my interest. Perhaps this was the alternative to the previously mentioned titles that I longed for. So I gave the series a shot in 2014. I’ve so far stayed close to the series but felt slighted due to the aftermath that was last season. Like many fans of color, I was initially attracted to the series for its seemingly diverse cast. It has queer women, women of color, and a female centric narrative. However, like many fans of the show, we can all cordially agree that the women of color deserve better on this show.

Orange is the New Black is an American dramedy released summer 2013. The show is a loose adaptation of the book, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (2010), the show stars a fictional Piper Chapman portrayed by Taylor Schilling. Piper is a newly incarcerated woman who lives at the apex of privilege: educated, “straight”, and white. Piper’s main arc is trying to prove to herself that she doesn’t deserve to be there. Without going into detail, Piper is a Mary Sue at most and the supporting characters really drive the show. Many of the characters exist in racial categories at Litchfield Penitentiary; they are divvied by their cell blocks. The Latinas’ group is named “Spanish Harlem”, the Black girls group is named “The Ghetto”, and the white girls group is named “The Suburbs”. Everyone else is more or less outcasted, which is explored throughout the show. Despite some of its flaws, it does provide commentary on race, gender, and sexuality.

Orange is the New Black, is a show that features an ensemble cast. Though Piper Chapman is the main character, there are moments where we get to focus on various cast members through a series of flashbacks. This was one of the things that drew me in, as I related to so many of the stars. The actresses of color bring so much to the screen compared to Taylor Schilling, whose character is often time grating.

The show is very popular; its fifth season was released June 9th. We received a trailer late April following the aftermath of the season four finale released last year. Ever since then, fans alike have rallied in disappointment, whether it’s a Tumblr post or think pieces. Last year, an image of the writing team surfaced online posted by the official OITNB account on Twitter. Some have completely abandoned the show due to the treatment of the WOC in the last season. I am still trying to articulate my feelings about this series, but as a person who revels in accurate representation of POC on screen, it’s hard. It’s a problem because while I’ve grown to really love some of these characters, I am distrusting of white people who see POC’s pain as a lesson.

OITNB is abundant in scenes where romance and sexual relationships are present. Many people in the fandom have the pairing they ship. There’s same gender loving couples as well as heterosexual couples. With its abundance of onscreen love, you see some that are endearing, healthy, or downright upsetting. There are several characters that have ongoing relationships. This is another alternative belief: that incarcerated persons can not engage in relationships. Poussey Washington, portrayed by Samira Wiley, is a young black woman who was introduced in the first season. Poussey worked in the library and is arguably one of the highlights of the show. Poussey was openly queer, shown to have feelings for her best friend, Taystee; they are unrequited but remained friends. Poussey then started dating a newly incarcerated Asian woman, Soso. While I am here for interracial pairing, Soso said a lot of antiblack sentiments towards Poussey, at one point even making assumptions about her black identity.

Daya Diaz, a character I grew to love since the first season, is a Latina woman who is incarcerated alongside her mother. Daya is a young woman who essentially got caught up in drug world through her family ties. There’s an overwhelming sense of naivety that surrounds Daya. It’s revealed in one season that she’s an artist. Daya soon finds herself falling for a corrections officer. The two begin a relationship, though it is unequal because of the power dynamic. Bennett, the white corrections officer, a began to court Daya by giving her little trinkets. The affair is charming but overall feels inappropriate given the circumstances. Without giving any big spoilers away, the relationships complicate further as she becomes pregnant later in the series.

Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren is commonly seen with the black girls. Susanne has a disability but it is never revealed what exactly it is. Susanne is kind hearted but her disability can make her fly into a rage. Susanne forms crushes very easily; at one point she has a crush on Piper. Susanne is misunderstood, most often assumed to be violent. Suzanne eventually does find love with fellow inmate Maureen. The two are a cute pair, seen exchanging poems and holding hands. This was a change because often times people with disabilities are deemed as unloveable.

It should again be noted that there are several canonically queer relationships on this show. However, there is a sharp contrast about how white queer relationships are handled compared to the relationships with people of color. In many ways, Orange is the New Black displays gratuitous amount of nudity. To be more clear, nudity that depicts white thin bodies reinforcing the ideals that they are the standard of beauty. This is seen with Piper and Nicky. It’s subtle, but if you take notice of how their scenes are choreographed you’ll see it. I would like to assert that I am not for the fetishization of queer women. Those relationships are not just limited to sex, however, since that is a large part of the show it would be wrong for me to not acknowledge it. There are queer relationships that do happen in spaces like prisons, both predatory and consensual. I will admit that Orange is the New Black is a rare example where we see same gender relationships in prison with a gamut of power dynamics. Female sexuality is often conceived as something that is for the consumption of men, for Orange is the New Black, at times it caters to its straight male audience. I will admit that I wish that the queer women of color on this show were seen as desirable as their white counterparts.

Friendship is something not often depicted in media centered around the incarcerated. With shows like the aforementioned, there’s this misconception that all prisoners are out to kill each other. There are relationships formed in spaces like prisons and jail despite the dominant cultural norm. In Orange is the New Black, there are several relationships formed within the cell blocks, as well as outside the cell blocks. The Latinas are comprised of women from varying Latin ethnicities. Similarly to the Latinas, the black girls have friendships that resemble families. There are some folks that do not belong to any particular group, such as the few asian inmates. While there is cross cultural interaction it’s strained by prejudices that various parties have. However, there are some notable friendships in the series. Many of the pairings re-define friendship because there’s a stereotype that young women of color cannot form the friendship. The women in the show seek refuge with their friends because of the separation from their family on the outside. In many ways, maternal figures like Sophia and Mendoza comfort many of the cast members and provide insight to life.

I enjoyed the actors and actresses that have now gained prominence due its success. I enjoy that they attempt to show women of color in queer relationships. This is the first time I’ve seen so many different women of color on a show. I am, however, conflicted about OITNB, especially after last season. I was gravely disappointed in the storylines of season four, which were triggering. The senseless violence against black and brown characters was insensitive on the show runners part. As someone who has been in spaces where I’ve met incarcerated women of color, Orange is the New Black sheds light on the plight of that demographic. I strongly believe that we should have media that tries to reflect issues on intersectional topics such as incarceration. Incarceration is messy, often displacing the innocent from their homes at the whims of an unforgiving criminal justice system. The show tries to shed light on these issues with limited range, but that’s the fault of the writers.The show can be clumsy and I would caution people to proceed; it’s better than other series, but is still problematic. Orange is the New Black shouldn’t be the go-to source to learn about incarcerated people. During my junior year and senior year, I’ve volunteered in the local jail near my campus, forming relationships with female inmates. They have shared intimate moments about their life on the inside with me. Are some of the storylines similar to things I’ve heard in real life? Yes. Women get separated from their homes for “crimes”. These women are all various races, religion, and ages.

If you are interested in the criminal justice system and how it treats incarcerated persons of color, I would look to other sources. There are several books dealing with prisons: The New Jim Crow, Just Mercy, and Assata: An Autobiography. Orange is the New Black is simply an entry point to conversations about incarcerated women of color.

Author: Brittney Maddox

Editor: Trianna Nguyen

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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