The third season of famed TV show Orange is the New Black just came out on Netflix, and the internet was set ablaze by one name: Ruby Rose. The attractiveness of the actor was a hot topic for a few days, causing her name to become a trending tag on Facebook. Most of the attention the show has received has been for the white actors and characters, i.e. Ruby Rose’s beautiful face and Piper Chapman and Alex Vause’s on-again, off-again relationship.
When it was first released on Netflix, Orange is the New Black was celebrated for its representation of people of color and relatively nuanced queer relationships. The very fact that a show of Orange is the New Black’s nature, with an almost completely female cast of color, has been so successful demonstrates that there is a serious lack of varied identity in television.
The writers of Orange is the New Black, however, are primarily white. This does not necessarily preclude them from writing about the experiences of people of color, but it does limit the way the prison-industrial complex is talked about. So, the racial identity being focused on in this show is, in fact, White. Because this show is applauded for its representation of people of color as well as its depiction of something primarily affects people of color (mass incarceration), this focus on whiteness confuses me.
Jenji Kohan, the creator of the show, has talked about this in the past. She mentions that Piper Chapman, the main character and a White woman, was the Trojan Horse for her to be able to talk about women of color: “The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”
So the focus on Piper is a vantage point to talk about women of color — but is it truly representation if it has to be filtered through a White identity first? I don’t think the mere fact that Orange is the New Black has women of color in it merits its credibility — in fact, if Piper Chapman is what’s considered “relatable” in the context of a prison, then people aren’t getting the right depiction of the prison-industrial complex. Most of the people incarcerated are Black and Latino, but to have to show that through a white woman doesn’t fully grasp the implications of violence against Black women and Latinas.
And so, Piper Chapman, is a white woman who never really belongs in this system, while the Latinas and Black women who are also imprisoned are perpetually drawn out as the backdrop of this complex. Granted, the entire premise of the show follows Piper’s experience in prison. The show succeeds comically because we are told, from the first episode, that Piper doesn’t belong in prison, which raises the question, who does? Her not-belonging in prison is a symptom of her whiteness, while the Latinas and Black women do belong in prison, as others like them have come and gone through the same system. In fact, the first episode depicts Daya, a Latina, interacting with (okay, being slapped in the face by) her own mother, Aleida, showing a continuation of the cycle inflicted on women of color. Piper, meanwhile, is completely alone in the prison, because she is white, and people like her don’t go through the system.
Just by virtue of having a satisfying number of Black and Brown women in the show, Orange is the New Black does not seriously tackle the notion that Black women and Latinas are an outrageously large contingent of the prison population. However, Orange is the New Black points to a deep problem in our consumption of entertainment as it relates to very serious systems of violence. The lack of writers of color who write for shows that depict people of color, particularly this one, a show so celebrated for its breadth of representation, is also a cause for concern. Why is it up to white writers to portray the experiences of people of color, when so many aren’t given the platform from which to speak?
The fact that most Orange is the New Black writers are white points to a further need for people of color in television, particularly television about people of color. This also causes me to question whether entertainment can fully grasp the seriousness of mass incarceration and its effect on people of color, even if people of color are writing that entertainment. The very fact that Orange is the New Black is entertainment depicting the prison-industrial complex causes the reality of its violence to be watered down. The show is, after all, a comedy.