The Soapbox: Is “Orange Is The New Black” Entertainment Or Education?

Everybody has feelings about Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black.” I have all the feelings. Since the show’s debut, we’ve tossed opinions back-and-forth about the cast of characters and the powerfully written narratives that reveal the unseen lives of American’s imprisoned women. But of the many conversations that have surfaced, the most discernible for me is of the legitimacy of Piper Kerman, the memoirist about whom the show was made.

In brief, after getting involved with an international drug dealer, Kerman (a white woman) was indicted for money laundering and spent a year in a woman’s prison – you know, the usual account of a well-to-do white woman who graduated from Smith. She subsequently wrote a best-selling memoir, which was adapted for Netflix. You can watch all of season one there now; I finished it in less than a week.

The show follows her into prison and tells the backstory of several other inmates, many of them women of color. The storyline is emotionally riveting. We’re met with race-related segregation, which mirrors the actual prison experience where racial categories and separation are often strictly enforced. Piper’s race and class privilege are checked in the first episode when it’s revealed that she “read up” on prison etiquette before she arrived. One inmate gives birth in prison and comes back to her bunk child-free, showcasing the reality that two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers and busting the myth that women who labor in prison get to keep their babies. As a birth justice activist, I wished they’d shown the inhumane way in which many prisons shackle women during labor.

Mental health, recidivism, Christian fundamentalism, substance abuse death, and deep-seated prison politics are all surfaced, raising the political stakes of this well-liked Internet series and forcing some viewers, whether consciously or subconsciously, to realize (at least facially) some hard truths about the harrowing American prison system. In a spectacularly surprising twist, “OITNB” features a transgender woman: actress Laverne Cox, whose lived experience as a trans woman is authentic, not an actor playing dress-up as with many exploitative Hollywood spectacles. Trans-related reproductive health issues, family dynamics, and sexual exploits come to light. (Trans activist and blogger, Kortney Ryan Zeigler writes about “OITNB”‘s black trans narrative wonderfully.)

Like most popular culture that deals with systemic institutions, the show has been hyper-analyzed and criticized. Some have celebrated its ability to couple prison humor with heart-wrenching anecdotes that hit close to home, while others are horrified that Kerman’s book was adapted in the first place. The crux of the criticism is how Piper’s story is one that people of color in the U.S. have experienced for centuries. This isn’t a new narrative, but by centering an affluent white woman, it has suddenly become all the rage. Additionally, Piper’s plight relies on the precarious stories of women who are facing significantly harsher sentences, whose stories are not romanticized and for whom a lucrative book deal and TV series won’t ever be offered.

Last week, racial justice activist and The Nation blogger Aura Bogado, wrote descriptively about her distaste for the show. Her aversion is layered but centers on the show’s approach, which she says bears great resemblance to 19th century slave narratives in which white people authenticate the black experience. In other words, no one gave a fuck until white folks legitimized the story. Bogado wrote:

… I reject that it’s a guilty pleasure. If we’re addicted to “Orange Is the New Black,” then we’re strung out on the drug of spectacle — jonesing for hateful, racist images created by a white imagination for profit and fame. What most bothers me about this is that so many people have told me they hated the advertising posters and the ridiculous Facebook photos, and they always repeat that they wanted to turn “Orange Is the New Black” off during the first couple of episodes but kept watching — going against inclination, and buying into the garbage that keeps our eyes glued to something we know we shouldn’t be enjoying to begin with.

Bogado and I are not in disagreement here. In fact, I was giving her story all kinds of nods and snaps when I read it. However, where we diverge (or maybe not, because her piece only inferred a difference of opinion and did not explicitly state it) is that I don’t believe that as entertainers, Jenji Kohan, Piper Kerman or the producers at Netflix have a moral obligation to educate folks about the historical significance and implications of the black experience. As a black woman whose experiences are rooted in various oppressions and racism, I’m seething that some producers and filmmakers reject the stories of people of color for fear of how they’ll be perceived or low ratings. But if I am thinking critically about it, professionally, they have no obligation to me, to people who look like me, or to our stories. Which would be less problematic if we didn’t live in a country that’s more invested in popular culture — including the exploitation, and avidity of genocidal, colonial legal institutions like slavery and prison — than education.

Because of the vacillating relationship between popular culture and education, we’ve become negligently uninformed. Unfortunately, for many of us, that is a luxury we cannot afford. As a society we put more prominence on Hollywood than on education and are consciously and unconsciously propagating an injudicious conversation among a nation of folks who have no racial analysis. In other words, because we don’t teach people shit in school about race or other social constructs, they leave receive their education via TV —which sometimes informs their behavior. This kind of edification leaves the most vulnerable people to these narratives — LGBT folks, people of color, women, immigrants, etc. —  at the center of an oblivious shitstorm.

This conversation is largely about the privilege of education and the access to it. I know that when I (and based on her writing, maybe Bogado, too) watch shows like “Orange Is The New Black,” I can choose to wear one of two hats: excited, TV-watching enthusiast who will laugh, cry and emote throughout or the social and racial justice activist who will hyper-analyze every cringe-inducing scene that appropriates the culture and experiences of marginalized people. I can watch and write some kind of analysis. Or I write nothing, yet feel completely satisfied that I know the difference between what the media teaches us and what really exists.

It is entirely possible, encouraged even, to both watch a show and be entertained and to think critically about how producers have the luxury of making money without considering the precarious social implications of their work. Pending your radicalism, you may decide altogether to avoid shows and movies whose historical complexity isn’t coupled with an authentic and comprehensible analysis. Or, like me, you may reconcile that some battles can’t be won. Piper Kerman and Jenji Kohan have a lot of money to tease out their visions. They don’t have to care either way how their work informs public opinion, but I’d argue that unlike many shows, “OITNB” offers some insight to important social issues, despite the exploitative nature.

In an ideal word, we’d have a public schooling system that provides every citizen with a comprehensive global history lesson so upon watching TV or film, we are all equipped with the skill set to separate fact from fiction or to have a critical eye toward exploitation. We would all be better served with more contexts, more education and an opportunity to have more conversations about race and privilege. But for now, the onus is not on the entertainment industry but on us to start critical conversations about the importance of storytelling and how shows like “OITNB” shape culture largely depending on the privilege and point of view of the viewer.

[The Sentencing Project Fact Sheet: Incarcerated Women]

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