When Orange Is the New Black debuted in 2013, it was celebrated for its range. Its forged was full of actors of colour, it depicted many aspects of the LGBTQ spectrum, and it featured actors of all physique varieties with out lowering any of them to punchlines.
Creator Jenji Kohan described Piper Chapman, the white lady who started the present as Orange Is the New Black’s principal character, as her “Computer virus” — a technique to get a present on the air (as a result of “white woman goes to jail” was an arc that was simpler to promote to largely white TV executives), so Kohan and her writers might instantly begin telling tales that weren’t about white, straight, cis individuals. (And it’s price noting right here that Piper herself is bisexual, and her nice love affair within the present was with one other lady.)
However many of the critics (together with me) praising the present for its range have been additionally white. The longer Orange Is the New Black ran, the extra it was criticized by many critics of colour for the way it repurposed very actual tragedies and traumas confronted by communities of colour for tales each written by and focused to white liberals.
Few doubted the present had good intentions in its hopes of telling tales about broader, extra numerous experiences, however some argued that its good intentions however resulted in exploitative tv that turned marginalized individuals’s struggles into simply one other storytelling level. And provided that Orange Is the New Black’s writing employees throughout all seasons was nearly solely white, that criticism had extra tooth than it may need on a present with extra numerous illustration behind the scenes.
One of the crucial persuasive criticisms of the present’s exploitative qualities got here from the author and critic Ashley Ray-Harris, who has criticized the sequence for failing to inform nuanced tales about its characters of colour. Now that the present is at an finish and we are able to get a greater sense of its general message, I’ve requested Ray-Harris to speak out Orange Is the New Black with me, to look at and interrogate the present’s ultimate season and its final legacy.
What have been the present’s largest failures in the way it handled its characters of colour?
Emily VanDerWerff: Earlier than we dive into the ultimate season, I’d love to listen to what you take into account to be Orange Is the New Black’s largest failures in the way it handled its characters of colour.
Ashley Ray-Harris: It’s straightforward to start out with an enormous second like Poussey’s dying by the hands of a jail guard. This stunning second on the finish of season 4 wasn’t simply unhappy — it was visceral. Like Eric Garner, Poussey was choked to dying following a sit-in protest towards jail circumstances. When she tried to calm Suzanne, a guard believed she was making an attempt to assault him and pinned her down. It slowly grew to become clear that she couldn’t breathe.
That second was essentially the most clear-cut instance of Orange Is the New Black swerving wildly outdoors of its lane. In fact, police brutality and Black Lives Matter wanted to exist throughout the world of the present. Since black individuals are extra more likely to be victims of the jail industrial complicated, violence is a sensible expectation. Nonetheless, the present couldn’t assist however do what it does finest within the course of: humanize problematic characters. The factor is, you possibly can’t humanize a jail guard who killed an harmless black fan favourite! It felt as if the present was taking a everlasting “All Lives Matter” stance, and that’s its largest disservice to its characters of colour.
And because the present moved away from Piper towards characters like Poussey, it was arduous to see her story handled as if it have been simply as necessary as racial profiling and the dying of a black lady. The ending to the sixth and penultimate season serves as an ideal instance of this dichotomy. The season finale, “Be Free,” launched ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention facilities (new territory for Orange Is the New Black) on the identical time that Piper is launched from Litchfield. However as Piper goes to fulfill her brother, Cal, Blanca, a Latina character we’ve recognized because the pilot, is separated and placed on an ICE bus. Within the ultimate scene, Piper’s brother asks her what she’ll do subsequent. After which the credit roll.
I’m sorry, however in what world do I care what Piper will do subsequent? Blanca is being despatched to an ICE detention middle! Her boyfriend is ready with flowers she’ll by no means get to see! Blanca sobs whereas Piper will get able to eat some form of chard-laced casserole, and the tonal shift is jarring.
Again in season two, when the present began bringing its extra numerous characters into focus, it did an excellent job of dealing with these characters’ tales, as a result of the tales have been extra private. Gloria’s season two episode “Low Self-Esteem Metropolis” is a good instance. It revealed that she’s a sufferer of home violence, giving extra context for the jail gang plot the sequence additionally threw her into. As a result of, like Gloria, all of those girls, regardless of their varied backgrounds, had ended up in the identical place, and it was fascinating to discover why that was.
However with Poussey’s dying in season 4, the showrunners determined to show Litchfield into a mirrored image of contemporary politics and characters grew to become stand-ins for trending Twitter hashtags. Once we take into account how the present dealt with subjects like Black Lives Matter or police corruption, it’s arduous to have religion that Orange will know what to do with one thing as emotionally complicated as detention camps. Will we see Blanca sleeping below a thermal blanket on a cement flooring whereas Piper wonders whether or not she ought to go on a e-book tour?
Nevertheless, it’s nearly to the present’s credit score that that is even a degree of consideration. Orange Is the New Black was so good at making a world outdoors of Piper that it was irritating when it tried to show its consideration again to the boring, empty carcass of a Computer virus that Piper’s character grew to become.
The present was by no means afraid to take probabilities with massive narrative shifts like kicking Piper’s ex-fiancée Larry Bloom to the curb, however the majority-white writing employees didn’t appear to know the dissonance in portraying Piper’s struggles alongside the struggles of any of its characters of colour, who usually confronted punishments that Piper averted as a consequence of her privilege. Piper labored with white supremacists. She made cash off the labor of different girls within the jail. The present might’ve made her face penalties for any of those actions, however she by no means does. Issues are inclined to work out for Piper and Alex. In the meantime, Gloria nearly sacrifices her freedom serving to an ICE detainee name her youngsters.
It generally felt as if the writers have been courageous sufficient to handle sure realities of the present however nonetheless clung to Piper as a (very white) security blanket to floor viewers if race or discrimination made them too uncomfortable. I don’t suppose you possibly can have it each methods.
How the sequence makes use of Piper Chapman is both core to its statements on privilege or intensely irritating — or each directly
Emily: Nicely, [extremely white woman voice] as a boring, blonde white lady …
Okay, sure. The later Orange acquired in its run, the extra the present appeared to be pushed by no matter was within the headlines that 12 months. This storytelling alternative allowed for some really electrifying moments, nevertheless it additionally created an odd state of affairs the place the present’s timeline started in 2013, then prolonged into some undefined 12 months later within the 2010s, though Piper’s incarceration technically solely lasted 18 to 24 months. The timeline felt far too imprecise, and that feeling of being displaced in time solely elevated the sense that the sequence was cherry-picking main social and political points to pull contained in the partitions of Litchfield as a way to touch upon them.
Having watched the ultimate season, I’m of two minds about its contemporarily related ICE detention middle plot. There are parts of it that the present handles very properly (just like the slow-building horror of the sequence’ Latina regulars who aren’t Blanca, as they understand what’s occurring proper below their noses), and there are different parts which can be dealt with … much less properly. (I didn’t completely just like the flashbacks to a few of the detainees, which diminished them solely to their trauma.) However I additionally appreciated the present’s willingness to depict the horrific nature of the detention middle’s dehumanizing forms, the way in which that disappearing into it’s like getting sucked right into a horror novel the place you don’t actually exist, even for those who’re standing proper in entrance of the one who’s insisting you don’t.
I’ve at all times been a Piper Chapman fan, nevertheless, so this can be the place we differ most. And I believe the ultimate season is instructive in relation to how the present makes use of Piper. She doesn’t turn into an writer like Piper Kerman (the actual lady she is loosely primarily based on) did. She doesn’t even attempt to turn into an activist (outdoors of taking some programs that counsel she’s going to work in some type of authorized discipline). She merely lives her life and ultimately will get a job at Starbucks. However Orange is sensible in the way it reveals that Piper’s indiscretions — like utilizing medication whereas she’s on parole — result in far lesser penalties for her than they do for, say, the character of Maritza, who discovers she was dropped at the US illegally as a toddler and disappears into the ICE detention system.
That Piper’s slap on the wrist happens in the identical episode as Maritza’s final punishment is pointed, I believe. Even when Orange’s viewers is racially numerous, what information we’ve means that it’s watched by numerous white individuals. In that sense, Orange can (deliberately, I’d argue) function as a form of White Particular person’s First Information to White Privilege. It’s arduous to disregard that if Piper hadn’t been a pleasant white woman, she may need been despatched proper again to jail; it’s additionally arduous to disregard that if Maritza had been white, she wouldn’t have been detained, even when she was nonetheless an undocumented immigrant.
The way in which Piper ultimately simply slipped again right into a model of her outdated life was one of the crucial damning issues the present might have stated about structural inequality. However, additionally, the present may need been in a position to set up that commentary with out spending fairly as a lot time with the character because it did. How did you are feeling about this season’s steadiness of Piper and the characters of colour, particularly the ICE detainees and Cindy (who can be launched from jail and ultimately falls into homelessness)?
Ashley: The bizarre want on the a part of the present to attach the struggles these girls confronted to bigger political moments usually appeared solely arbitrary. That’s what’s so irritating!
It’s like there are two reveals inside Orange Is the New Black. If you would like lovely, shifting character drama, watch the white characters: Aged kitchen head Pink faces dementia, Piper and her ex-fiancée Larry discover closure, and lovable reprobate Pennsatucky spirals right into a tragic arc. If you would like “subject of the week” political drama, the present makes use of its characters of colours’ arbitrary struggling to unfurl it, as a result of headlines demand that they endure in these methods. There are characters like Daya and Suzanne who’ve been in a position to bridge the hole between these two modes in previous seasons. However the longer the present ran, and within the ultimate season particularly, the extra it didn’t straddle that line.
There are positive to be followers who completely love the finale. It provides viewers closure, reunites Piper and Alex without end, and brings again fan favorites for cameo send-offs. And whereas we do get completely happy endings for black and brown characters, the present’s dissonance between actuality and tragedy can be clear. In case you are a viewer who strongly connects with the ICE storyline and problems with immigration, the present will go away you with the picture of Karla, left alone within the desert with a damaged foot, struggling to cross the US-Mexico border and attain her youngsters once more. Since ending the present, the picture of Karla within the desert is what has caught with me. Seeing Blanca reconnect together with her lover or Gloria together with her youngsters doesn’t make Karla’s story simpler to see.
The shot of Taystee making an attempt to hold herself runs an in depth second for me. After receiving an unfair life sentence following the jail riot, Taystee falls right into a deep melancholy. It was devastating to see this normally cheerful character lose her sense of self. Watching her turn into despondent and violent acquired the purpose throughout. Watching her tie a noose round her neck crossed a line. Whereas each Karla and Taystee’s tales changed into tragedy porn, in Taystee’s case, it’s the tactic that rankles. Viewers already know Taystee is suicidal, and he or she might have, say, swallowed too many capsules to point her intent. However no, we have to see her fail to hold herself and remind the viewers of Sandra Bland.
Moments like these characterize Orange’s legacy for me. I’m unsure what it takes to have the ability to watch this present and separate all the things else from these moments.
However I don’t remorse watching OITNB. A number of characters of colour got life and goal. Daya and Sophia are the very best examples of this. Sophia’s journey from sufferer to activist to freedom confirmed the character’s sacrifice and abuse and subsequent development. Daya, then again, regressed as she misplaced an increasing number of freedom. Watching her fall from harmless artist to a drug-addicted gang chief felt lifelike quite than overly tragic. She’s misplaced her baby and the person she cherished. Her hopelessness wasn’t brought on by societal circumstances however her personal actions.
Sophia and Daya’s respective scenes with Piper and Taystee throughout this ultimate season hit proper in that excellent center floor that made the present so good in early seasons. Piper and Sophia are each free, however Sophia’s freedom got here with a sacrifice, since she needed to drop her lawsuit towards MCC, the non-public homeowners of Litchfield. Daya and Taystee are each going through life in jail, however Taystee chooses to do good quite than comply with Daya’s path. These tales all work in nice parallel.
I can’t consider one other present that might deal with this many characters for seven seasons and stay trustworthy to their development your complete time. I want I might stroll away from this present pleased with the ideas of Nicky taking Pink’s place or Gloria seeing her youngsters once more, however then I consider Karla. Pennsatucky died, and that dying didn’t hit as arduous because the present’s ending for Karla, alone in that desert. Pennsatucky acquired to be a full-fledged character — Karla was compelled to be nothing however a stand-in for therefore many undocumented immigrants. And that affinity for brutal, exploitative tragedy ended up being the present’s biggest weak point and what stored me from loving it wholeheartedly.
Emily, what is going to this present’s legacy be for you?
What’s going to the legacy of Orange Is the New Black be?
Emily: It’s fascinating the way you describe the way in which the present steadily turned the characters of colour into “stand-ins” for sure information tales or different sociopolitical moments. And truthfully, I really feel like this was one thing the present grew to become worse on the longer it ran. Within the early going, a personality like Sophia was groundbreaking for being one among TV’s first outstanding trans characters. However had we first met her within the ultimate season, she may not have been the multifaceted hairdresser we got here to like. As a substitute, her arc could have been about violence towards trans girls of colour, as a result of violence towards trans girls of colour is within the information.
What managed to maintain Sophia from that destiny would possibly simply be that Laverne Cox’s profession blew up, and he or she ended up having much less time for the ultimate few seasons of the present. (She makes only a temporary cameo in season seven to guarantee us that she’s doing effective.) And lots of the present’s characters of colour noticed their actors’ availability tossed into doubt by the present’s sudden recognition, which led to the actors getting work elsewhere, and so forth and so forth.
That’s probably not Orange’s fault, because it didn’t have an infinite price range to lock down its many common characters within the early going (though when its price range elevated between seasons one and two, it did lock down actors like Danielle Brooks and Uzo Aduba). But it surely’s additionally telling that so lots of the characters who have been in each season have been white, particularly as a result of in that first season, many of the sequence regulars, the individuals below contract to this present and this present alone, have been white.
And this isn’t me saying that I’d have wished to observe a model of this present with out Piper or Pink or Alex or Pennsatucky. Removed from it. I appreciated all these characters. However it’s to say that even Orange Is the New Black appeared a bit of shocked by how a lot individuals cherished its many vibrant girls of colour. That speaks to your level about how the present, even when it tried actually arduous, was perpetually filtered via a white lens.
The place I half with you a bit is in your argument that the present didn’t provide us the wealthy storytelling for characters of colour that it did for white characters in its ultimate season. I, too, disliked the second when Taystee tried suicide, however I believe the remainder of her ultimate season arc was maybe the strongest of the entire run.
Her coming to grips with the truth that a grave injustice had been achieved to her (and had resulted in her serving a life sentence), but in addition looking for a technique to make one thing of her circumstances, struck me as maybe the present’s most hopeful ending, and Brooks was the ultimate season’s strongest performer palms down. (Her grief after Pennsatucky’s dying was searing.)
And whereas Gloria didn’t get fairly as sturdy of an arc, her slow-building realization that she might solely achieve this a lot for the ICE detainees gave Selenis Leyva a few of her strongest work all through the sequence. Distinction this with, say, the weird compression of Blanca’s storyline within the finale, the place she went from receiving her inexperienced card to going again to Honduras to be with Diablo as a result of love conquers all, I assume.
However I believe it’s telling that the characters the sequence lavished essentially the most consideration on in its ultimate season are Piper and Taystee. Neither will ever attain as a lot of their potential as they could have. However they’re each working to construct one thing higher with what they’ve. That these two variations of “one thing higher” look so totally different isn’t an accident, and its delicate (perhaps too delicate!) storytelling about damaged techniques inside this nation could be the present’s truest legacy.
Ashley, I wish to flip that query again towards you. What do you suppose the present’s legacy will probably be? And what ought to or not it’s?
Ashley: You increase an excellent level about Sophia. That storyline might have so simply felt exploitative, however Orange at all times stored her personhood in thoughts. That empathy and Laverne Cox’s expertise meant that Sophia’s was a narrative I felt fortunate to observe unfold.
And even with my many issues with the present, once I consider my favourite characters and moments, I really feel a bizarre sense of gratitude. Orange Is the New Black gave us a glimpse into the lives of people that aren’t normally featured on TV reveals. For a few of these characters, it did a tremendous job of bridging real-world points with intimate drama. So regardless of its faults, perhaps the present’s legacy must be how properly it might write nuanced minority characters. Moments like Gloria admitting it was her cellphone getting used to contact ICE detainees or Taystee receiving Pennsatucky’s diploma after the latter died made Orange Is the New Black top-of-the-line character dramas of all time. And that character drama centered on girls of colour! So … I must be grateful, proper?
It’s simply that the present can be a evident instance of what to not do with minority characters. There’s the legacy I need the present to have, and there’s the grim actuality of what the present is. I can’t separate Taystee struggling to breathe or Poussey mendacity lifeless on the bottom from the present’s higher parts. I can’t cease considering of Karla within the desert when I attempt to bear in mind what I appreciated.
Tragedy is a robust device, and the present did use it properly on occasion. However the longer the present ran, the extra it appeared as if the writers have been extra within the buzz struggling might create. However Orange Is the New Black’s viewers of colour don’t want these reminders, particularly once they’re deployed recklessly.
We don’t have to be reminded of Eric Garner whereas we’re watching a beloved character die. We don’t must think about Sandra Bland’s ultimate moments projected onto somebody we’ve constructed a reference to over seven seasons. We don’t have to be proven the horrors of ICE detention. When the present makes use of tragedy on this style, it’s clear the writers are working from a white perspective and aiming at a white viewers that doesn’t suppose these horrors may be delicate. At a sure level in its run, the present determined it had the job of training its white viewers, and it got here on the expense of alienating black and brown viewers. The present doesn’t appear to care that black and brown viewers could stroll away horrified by what they’ve seen as long as white viewers higher perceive no matter social justice hashtag is presently trending.
I wish to really feel grateful for Orange as a result of it featured individuals who appear like me. But it surely ended up making viewers like me secondary to its supposed want to coach white viewers. Numerous viewers of colour that I do know stopped watching when Poussey died. You simply can’t use a neighborhood’s deepest fears and traumas in a mindless effort to coach the bulk.
It would take a while earlier than I can say if my love for tales like Sophia’s or Cindy’s outweighs my disdain for the tragedy porn, however proper now, it doesn’t. Because the forged members stated goodbye in brief clips featured over the finale’s credit, I couldn’t discover pleasure in it. I nonetheless love characters like Pink and Suzanne, however I haven’t been in a position to advocate this season to viewers who dropped out way back. I don’t need them caught with the picture of Karla dying within the desert, a second so heavy it consumes all the things else. And a second that was completely pointless.
That divide between intentions and tragedy porn executions gained’t be Orange’s legacy for everybody. However I’m afraid it is going to be for me.