There is a lot of media criticism out in the world that focuses on the idea of representation. It’s no secret that the vast majority of characters, especially protagonists, in Western media are straight, white males–a tendency that leaves anyone not fitting in that category with, at best, only stereotypical representations of themselves. Less frequently discussed, though, is the ways in which “minority” characters are created, and how that process can mean that even attempts at diversity can still erase whole swaths of the human population. Thus, today we are going to talk about deviating from the norm–and the awesome new Jenji Kohan show Orange is the New Black.
Most of the time, when “diverse” characters are created, they only deviate from the straight, white male norm in one aspect. For example, you might get a straight, white female, or a straight male person of color, or a gay, white male. Those characters are rare enough, but to find one that changes more than one of those elements is even rarer. Of these groups, women of color pop up the most frequently, but are never the main character (Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope in Scandal and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project are excellent notable exceptions), and gay representation is so limited that it’s practically non-existent. Off the top of my head, the only examples I can think of are Wayne Brady’s character on How I Met Your Mother (gay, black male) and Olivia Wilde’s Thirteen from House (bisexual, white female), and neither of them are main characters. If you’re a gay, female person of color (or a transsexual), forget about it; no TV representation for you.
This is where Orange is the New Black comes in. OitNB is one of Netflix’s new original series, which means that it doesn’t have to answer to executive interference when it is designing its characters–thankfully. It’s a comedy/drama set in a women’s prison, so most of the characters are already barred from the white, straight male generic by virtue of the setting; almost the entire cast is female. Variation among characters has to come from the other two elements–race and sexuality–in addition to their individual personalities. Because the characters are trapped in an almost all-female world, romantic relationships also exist almost exclusively between women, which brings up questions about lesbianism and the nature of bisexuality. By taking away the normal, male-based character design, OitNB forces itself to feature characters who deviate from the norm in ways that are normally completely ignored.
FOR EXAMPLE: The cast of Orange is the New Black features:
1. FIVE separate lesbian relationships over the course of the first season, including two bisexuals, five lesbians, and one questioning
2. SEVEN uniquely drawn black women
3. FIVE uniquely drawn hispanic women
4. a black, M2F transsexual woman (played by a black, M2F transsexual woman! holy shit! And her brother plays her in pre-op flashbacks, which is just cool)
Because they aren’t the sole representatives of their race or sexuality, all of these characters are instead defined by their own unique personalities, interests, and histories. The pressure doesn’t fall on one character to represent an entire community, so they are allowed to be individuals. The main character, Piper, is still a WASP, but her story is not the only one that gets told; the other women in the prison with her are equally important, and they get whole episodes dedicated to their individual back stories and relationships both within and without the prison–and to point out how very narrow Piper’s perspective on the world is. Even characters who might, at first glance, appear to be stereotypes eventually get fleshed out into complex people with their own ideas and goals, and we get to know them as Piper gets to know them. Not as criminals, but as people.
Of course, it is still super problematic that in order to get a show that gives equal representation to minority women, you have to literally set it in a women’s prison. And it is also annoying that that show requires a white protagonist as a sort of liaison between the audience and the minority characters, because that still implies that the audience is primarily white. These are fair criticisms, but I don’t think they reflect on Orange is the New Black so much as our larger television culture in general. Why did it take a show set in a women’s prison to be able to tell stories that aren’t just about white, straight men? Can we change this, please?
“By all means, attribute my legitimate feelings of sadness to menses.” -Piper, Orange is the New Black
P.S. One of my favorite internet sex and sexuality experts, Laci Green, also criticizes the show for its lack of representation of bisexuality. I’m not sure that I agree with her assertion that it erases bisexuality in favor of lesbianism (while there are certainly characters who think like that, Piper argues against it every step of the way, even once saying, “…you don’t ‘turn gay.’ You fall somewhere on a spectrum. Like, on a Kinsey scale.”), but I do think it’s another interesting point in Orange in the New Black’s favor. How many shows are even asking those kinds of questions?
P.P.S. It is also very worth noting–and I don’t know how I forgot to include this in the original post–that very few queer characters on this show are also women of color. In fact there is only one of them, and her sexuality is played as both predatory and comical. Even with a progressive show like OitNB, we’re still only varying diversity along one axis. That is a huge problem.