The Atlantic posted an article today criticizing Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black for its irresponsibility at how it portrays male characters. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with OITNB, here’s a brief synopsis: The show is the story of a woman named Piper who goes to prison for a drug-related crime she committed years back. But the series becomes much more than just Piper, who is white; it’s a showcase of all minorities—blacks, Hispanics, and, of course, women themselves—that sets out to break stereotypes and tell stories about women that aren’t being told anywhere else on television.
Penned by Noah Berlatsky, the article tries to reason that by its lack of male characters and its supposedly stereotypical small set of male characters it does have, the show somehow reinforces some sort of victimhood. Before we’ve even begun going point-by-point, that conclusion is unequivocally false regardless. One of the strongest elements reinforced by the show is that these women are not victims at all. They’re all mostly in situations because of choices they consciously made. In fact, season one was all about destroying the preconception that Piper doesn’t belong in prison because she unwittingly transported money for a drug op.
But just for you-know-whats and giggles, let’s go through Berlatsky’s points deliberately.
1. Men are incarcerated more than women.
Here’s a counterpoint: So?
Orange Is the New Black is not a show about all prisons or all those incarcerated any more than Breaking Bad is a show about all drug dealers. Just as we journeyed through Walter White’s story, on Orange Is the New Black, we’re watching a show about this specific women’s prison. It’s a prison for women, and therefore does not have any male prisoners. How would male prisoners factor into the show? To Berlatsky’s credit, he does state that the show doesn’t have to represent prison demographics accurately. But the problem here isn’t that Orange Is the New Black isn’t representing the demographics accurately, it’s that the show lives within the universe of this specific prison. It is limited at representing the demos of all prisons. It just can’t. That’s not the show this is.
2. That one male prisoner was stereotypical that one time.
Berlatsky references a male prisoner who made sexual advances to Piper during the season two premiere, stating that this prisoner was portrayed as all other males in “aggressively stereotypical ways.”
The one prisoner who is given a more substantial role is a black man who makes frightening sexual verbal advances towards Piper; he’s a contract killer and refers to himself, apparently without irony, as a “super-predator.” He eventually delivers a message for Piper in exchange for her dirty panties. The one male prisoner we meet, then, is violent and abusive, with a sexual kink that is presented as laughable and repulsive. He (sic) deviant, dangerous, and the show seems to think that he is exactly where he belong—behind bars.
Gun (as he was nicknamed) does in fact refer to himself as a predator (I don’t remember “super-predator,” but I digress). But what Berlatsky fails to notice is that Gun is referred to as a predator with much irony.
Once Piper exchanges her underwear for the message to be delivered, she is quickly informed that Gun is in jail because he was a hitman. She is then relieved of thinking that Gun might actually assault her, sort of breaking the prejudices she had of him from the moment she met him because he is black and male. In fact, when Piper propositions pleasuring him, he refuses by saying that it’s no fun if she offers because he’s a predator. But the point is that he refuses, and instead asks for her underwear which Piper (and I believe audiences would agree) sees as a much tamer task that she easily consents to.
And while Berlatksy is quick to point out that more men are incarcerated and should be portrayed more too, he fails to mention that more men are likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes, which is plainly stated in the same report he cites.
3. But there was no flashback for him!
Berlatksy uses Gun as an example for many issues he deems plague male characters on Orange Is the New Black, one of them being there was no flashback for him, and therefore no way for audiences to sympathize with him. But during his appearance, a flashback would have been moot for two reasons.
The first is that the joke about Gun being a hitman would not have landed if audiences knew he was. But second and most importantly, what the joke reveals about Piper is the point for Gun’s presence in the episode at all. The fact that she could be relieved that someone is a hitman proves just how much prison has changed Piper—or, rather, just how much prison as brought elements of Piper’s personality to the surface.
Gun’s backstory is a non-issue, as is the fact that none of the other inmates in the Chicago prison received any flashbacks. This is not their story.
And, yes, the show believes Gun is exactly where he belongs. But the show also believes all the characters are where they belong. More on that later.
4. Men are victims too.
Berlatsky spends a five-paragraph interlude on information he read in a book about society’s tendency to downplay when men are victims of violent crimes. I agree with him, but I don’t understand what this has to do with Orange Is the New Black in any way, shape, or form.
The show hasn’t downplayed men being victims of violent attacks at all. In the few cases when men were victims of violent attacks—including when Vee kills RJ by proxy—it’s never understated or downplayed. In the Vee example, it actually cemented the fact that this woman was certifiably dangerous. And though it’s not a great example because Pornstache legally did rape Daya, as did Bennett, the show makes no excuses for both Bennett and Daya trying to make Pornstache fall for what they’ve done. Several episodes are then dedicated to whether or not what they did was morally right, certainly casting Pornstache in a victim spectrum.
In any other case, this show isn’t about male prisoners. And it’s also not a show about people being jailed for violent attacks. These women are in a low-security prison because either (A) They’ve done enough time to show they’re not violent or (B) They were not involved in violent crimes.
5. Women being victims reinforces stereotypes.
A point Berlatksy loves to bring up is that we’re supposed to sympathize with the prisoners on the show. More distinctively, whenever a woman lands in prison on OINTB, it’s because of matters of the heart.
Though there are a couple of exceptions (like cancer-victim Rosa, a former bank-robbing adrenaline junkie, or sociopathic new villain Vee (Lorraine Toussaint)) for the most part the characters land behind bars because of a tragic lack of love. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is a foster-child who craves a mother; Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) is a black adoptee of a white family hungry for affection and acceptance; Morello (Yael Stone) is a stalker fixated on romantic love; even Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), the nun, has a story framed around her failure to connect with Jesus in her heart. The backstories don’t really focus on systemic injustices. Instead, they show how individual weaknesses lead the women to prison. A woman in OITNB goes to the bad when her impulse for love is thwarted.
This analysis of why any of these women were jailed in the first place is one-dimensional at best. Berlatksy seems to understand why Ms. Rosa and Vee are in prison, but he somehow missed why any of the other women in his list landed in prison. It’s true that Taystee wanted a family, but she didn’t start being Vee’s drug business accountant because of that. Sure, it was a perk of the job to finally have a family, however messed up it was, but that’s most likely the reason she stayed. She started because she deduced for herself that there was no other way to make a living or to move up the ladder without getting your hands dirty. Berlatksy notes that the show doesn’t portray any issues with systemic injustice, but even when Taystee is released during season one, she makes the decision to return to prison because the system makes it near impossible for her to secure a job after being an inmate.
We don’t exactly know why Suzanne is in prison yet, so I have no idea why he felt the need to include her. However, Morello isn’t in prison because she’s fixated with romantic love. (In fact, her delusion of what love is was actually heartbreaking and outraging, but anyway.) She’s in prison because she committed credit card fraud due to being obsessed with the finer things in life. She didn’t commit credit card fraud for anyone but herself. And Sister Ingalls is in jail because she was an attention-craving egotist.
All of these backstories serve the purpose of underscoring that these women made choices that lead them to this, most knowing that what they were doing was not OK. But just because a woman commits credit card fraud doesn’t mean she’s incapable of love, or incapable of wanting to be loved—and it also doesn’t mean she isn’t allowed to want or feel those things either.
6. This one person said prison wasn’t like that for them.
Orange Is the New Black being based off real-life source material notwithstanding, one time someone I know told me that the show was an accurate portrayal of prison. It’s almost like one person’s experience doesn’t dictate the accuracy of all experiences. Crazy.
7. Heroin doesn’t make people evil.
No, but it kills people and is really addictive, which is why Red doesn’t want Nicky to take it.
Ultimately, to deduce that all Orange Is the New Black does is victimize the women in Litchfield is doing a disservice to a series that has paid careful attention in creating nuanced women with layered personalities and backstories. Never once does the show consider that these women don’t deserve to be in prison. In fact, many of the characters have stated repeatedly that they’re criminals. As aforementioned, in season one and beyond, much of Piper’s storyline was getting to the realization that she has no one to blame but herself for the situation she’s in. In season two, she constantly reminds her parents that this is who she is, a prisoner—completely.
Meanwhile the male characters’ worst crimes are that sometimes they’re just not as interesting. Larry, as much as he may be disliked, was given a surprising ample amount of screen time dedicated in a way to what happens when your fiancée is in prison, that became a bit of a soap opera but revealed he may be just as entitled as Piper. Mr. Healy is drowning in that foreign wife story, but was also given depth with his battle of either caring for the women in the prison or doing the bare minimum—or sometimes worse, actively wishing for their harm. And Bennett proved to be sucked into a bit of darkness by refusing to do his time and allowing another man, Pornstache, to fall for his crimes.
Orange Is the New Black is one of the small venues portraying these stories for all demographics of women. Insomuch that, when you don’t factor the fact that they’re prisoners, this is a show that gives screen time to minorities who are often misrepresented and definitely over-stereotyped on television and film. OITNB goes beyond being a prisoner, it’s a haven for that misrepresented demo. And even then, its purported “irresponsibility at portraying men” is a non-issue.