The first season of Orange is the New Black almost made me weep for joy. Look at all these women! Look how many girls are on our TV screen at once! There was Piper, the pretty blonde girl who landed herself in prison after coming clean about her drug mule past. Was she flawed? Sure. But she wasn’t flawed because she didn’t have a man. She wasn’t a ditz. She wasn’t clumsy. She was flawed like a person, not a female movie character. There were fat women, skinny women, white, Latina, black, strong, weak, junkies, lesbians, murderers and the amazing trans actress Laverne Cox playing trans woman Sophia. I was hooked.
Who let this show happen, and how could I ever thank them enough for taking the risk? I made it my mission to make sure everyone I knew watched it. I was not letting this masterpiece succumb to the same uncertain fate as Community. After what felt like an eternity of Big Bang Theory and Two and Half Men we got the show we deserved. Then the second season came along and I was finished in a weekend.
While most of the buzz surrounding OITNB has been that of adoration, there has been another group making their concerns heard. A recent article by Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic expressed concern that there is one minority that OITNB has “barely, and inadequetly represented”. Oh shit, you guys. In our excitement, we completely forgot about the most underrepresented group in mainstream media. Men. How could we?
While Berlatsky admits it may be a “silly complaint”, or as I like to call that “an understatement”, he feels that OITNB does not give an accurate overall representation of the amount of male to female prisoners incarcerated ratio. Which is correct, but irrelevent. This is a show about a female prison and does, however, provide an accurate ratio of women’s prison demographics, unlike television as whole, with approxomitately 50% of all characters white males. Confusingly, Berlatsky seems to think that human rights groups focusing more attention on “suffering of women rape victims and refugees, while largely ignoring the mass, gender-targeted killing of ‘battle-age’ men” is more relevent to his point than comparing OITNB to Oz – a show on HBO about a men’s prison that ran for 6 seasons.
Berlatsky is appalled at how the male prisoners featured breifly in the first episode of Season 2, describing them as a “threatening, uniform mass”. Not only that, but the male inmate that did get a more substantial role in the episode “is violent and abusive, with a sexual kink that is presented as laughable and repulsive. He’s deviant, dangerous, and the show seems to think that he is exactly where he belong—behind bars”. Piper exchanges her underwear with him for information on Alex, and as soon as she learns of his offense she is instantly relieved. “He’s a hitman?! Oh thank God!”, she exclaims, “I thought he was a rapist”. A not-so-subtle nod to the fact that for many women, the fear of rape is far more realistic and inevitable than murder.
Let’s compare this to Oz’ only female inmate, Shirley Bellinger. Bellinger is sentanced to death for murdering her daughter, exposes herself to Timmy Kirk shortly after her arrival, and prostitutes herself to prisoners and guards alike, and rejects Adebisi (with whom she had a secret pen-pal affair with) because of his race. She becomes pregnant, miscarries her baby under “mysterious circumstances” after demanding an abortion or she will kill “this monster inside of me”. Eventually she is executed as planned. But women can’t complain about that, because we had some women who were prison guards, given a position of power over the male inmates, so why isn’t this the case for OITNB?