Writer Compares OITNB to ‘Slave Narratives,’ Sort of Has a PointS

If you’ve already gorged yourself on Netflix’s new mega-popular original series Orange Is the New Black, you know why the show has been the darling of TV critics for the last several weeks — it offers something a little different from even the well-produced cable drama, a format dominated by Tony Soprano antihero clones like Ray Donovan or Don Draper. Instead of Tortured White Dude with His Own Peculiar Moral Code, OITNB features a racially diverse ensemble of characters from different backgrounds, all with their own distinct hopes, fears, sexual frustrations, and, most unusually when it comes to female characters on TV, body types.

The problem, though, according to some of the show’s more vocal critics, is that all of these characters must be filtered through Piper Chapman, the white protagonist who will experience the inevitable erosion of yuppie convictions that make her so wide-eyed and, according to the show’s logic, uncorrupted by the sort of hard-living that makes many of the other prisoners so cynical and short-sighted.

The big thrill of OITNB is what we might call “the reveal” — that series of flashbacks explaining how a previously lurking character who’s just about to become super relevant landed in prison. Aw, yoga lady seems so sweet, what with her Patti Mayonnaise voice and sinewy, sun-saluting limbs! What the hell is she doing in prison? Laverne seems to be a sensible enough woman — what vicissitudes of fate brought her to Litchfield?

These revelatory sequences are by far the show’s most interesting moments, and though one may be tempted to think that the end justifies the means, i.e. that filtering all of these narratives through a nice white lady is just what showrunner Jenji Kohan had to do to tell stories about culturally marginalized women, The Nation’s Aura Bogado isn’t impressed with OITNB’s dabblings in diversity. She argues (not unsuccessfully) that the show only feints at truly characterizing the non-white prisoners idling in Litchfield, while all the time making sure that Piper Chapman is having the sort of paradigm-shifting experience that will finally mold her into a complete and self-sustaining human person. In other words, this is still a show by, for, and about white people.

Bogado frames her criticism of OITNB — a show her smitten friends and colleagues have insisted Bogado is “wrong” about, as if someone’s personal taste can be objectively incorrect — with the idea that it’s cultural impact is that of a modern “slave narrative,” a genre of nonfiction or fiction that was really popular among white abolitionists in the antebellum North:

Slave narratives became most fashionable among abolitionist circles in the mid-nineteenth century. These narratives remain deeply powerful, yet each one is framed by a white introduction, which authenticates the black experience. The white practice of verifying the lives of black fugitives who were skillfully plotting their own liberation has changed in circumstance and in medium—but the role of white people at its center has not. Today, its latest manifestation is playing out in the Netflix hit series, Orange Is the New Black.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the show’s construction (though in a way, it is an indictment of the stereotypes OITNB relies on to sketch so many of its characters) — Bogado is really criticizing the way people talk about OITNB, as if by the simple act of watching it they’re broadening their perspective on race and class in America. Oh, well, Orange Is the New Black is a very important show. It shows the other side, you know? Really gives one a new perspective. You can almost hear the endless cocktail party chatter about how “important” or “diverse” the show is, and it’s this attitude that Bogado seems to take most umbrage with. If OITNB is supposed to somehow present multi-dimensional characters of color and give a real, credible voice to the marginalized women currently at the mercy of our thoroughly fucked criminal justice system, newsflash: it fails. Pretty miserably, too, according to Bogado:

With very little exception, I saw wildly racist tropes: black women who, aside from fanaticizing about fried chicken, are called monkeys and Crazy Eyes; a Boricua mother who connives with her daughter for the sexual attentions of a white prison guard; an Asian woman who never speaks; and a crazy Latina woman who tucks away in a bathroom stall to photograph her vagina (the pornographic image is indiscriminately paraded throughout an entire episode).

This, it turns out, is what some of my friends and colleagues are gorging themselves on. 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.

With the exception of Laverne, Bogado hasn’t found one truly redeeming characterization in the entire series. She does, however, admit that the show has given many actors of color steady work, even if they’re all working on what is essentially a instant-watch slave narrative for self-satisfied white people.

What’s most interesting about Bogado’s criticism is the link she builds between OITNB enthusiasts and abolitionists hungry for slave narratives. With very few exceptions, slave narratives like Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative or Frederick Douglass’s autobiography were written mostly by men (a very notable example is Harriet Wilson’s semi-recently discovered Our Nig). They all rely on the same basic structure — a slave begins the narrative a slave, then by some twist of fate finds him or herself free, and, consequently, remade.

Slave narratives are basically conversion narratives, a form of American self-styling that’s as old as the earliest European footprints on beaches in the Western Hemisphere. Everyone (every transplanted European) writing in colonial America wrote a conversion narrative, and everyone who wrote a conversion narrative wrestled with the same idea of refashioning the self to fit the new world. It’s a remarkably consistent and prolific genre, and an especially appropriate way for freed slaves to fashion new identities for themselves. More relevant to Bogado’s criticism, though, is that slave narratives aren’t a one-way interaction. Sure, white abolitionists in the North eager to storm the moral high ground might gobble up slave narratives while resisting any true characterization of “the other,” but such narratives were also an attempt by former slaves to establish an identity within the predominant culture. Just like the Puritan conversion narrative, the slave narrative functioned, in part, as a testament to the larger community: I am indeed like one of you.

If OITNB fails to fully characterize people of color, it does so because Piper seems unnecessary now. If this series is indeed a slave narrative, with “slave” in this case meaning any prisoner who finds herself at the mercy of a gleefully dehumanizing and corrupt penal system, then framing it with Piper’s experience seems old fashioned. The genre has advanced well beyond polite introductions by college-educated white people who are oh so impressed by the plight of their non-white fellow people; people of color can tell their own stories. Piper, then, isn’t a lens that helps us see the other prisoners more clearly, rather, she’s an impediment, an outdated glasses prescription that keeps white audiences from really seeing Litchfield.

White Is the New White [The Nation]

Image via Getty, Jesse Grant