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Why Doesn't 'Orange Is the New Black' Deal With Men in Prison? Because It's Not About Them

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire June 30, 2014 at 10:43AM

Criticizing "Orange Is the New Black" for failing to represent the reality of male prisoners not only misses the point, but fails to consider what kind of show it is in the first place.
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Kate Mulgrew and Pablo Schreiber in "Orange Is the New Black"
Kate Mulgrew and Pablo Schreiber in "Orange Is the New Black"

There's going to be a lot of inflamed response to Noah Berlatsky's Atlantic essay about "'Orange Is the New Black's' Irresponsible Portrayal of Men" today. One might go so far as to say that's why the Atlantic is running the article, if not (perhaps) why Berlatsky wrote it.

OITNB has attracted a substantial following—it's the most-viewed show in Netflix's history, though we don't know what exactly what that means—and even more substantial media coverage precisely because it's a show about women. Not just any women, either, but the non-white, non-straight working-class kind who are all but invisible on the rest of the virtual dial. But it's a different kind of invisibility Berlatsky is concerned about: 

While media is full of men, real-life prisons are even more so. Men are incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate of women. In 2012, there were 109,000 women in prison. That's a high number—but it's dwarfed by a male prison population that in 2012 reached just over 1,462,000. In 2011, men made up about 93 percent of prisoners.  

Of course, "Orange Is the New Black" is under no obligation to accurately represent prison demographics, and just because they're a minority in prison doesn't mean that women's stories there aren't important. The problem is that the ways in which OITNB focuses on women rather than men seem to be linked to stereotypically gendered ideas about who can be a victim and who can't.

Berlatsky has a point about how the suffering of young, incarcerated black men is systematically disregarded by American society: "Part of the reason we see our violent, abusive prison system as acceptable," he writes, "is because we have trouble seeing violence against young, black men as violence." But he is dead wrong about it being OITNB's responsibility to represent that fact.

In his closing summation, Berlatsky attacks OITNB for its "distorted view of incarceration," but he makes the critical, fatal mistake of failing to argue at any point that "incarceration" is the show's primary subject, or that the show makes or implies any claim to being a scrupulously realistic portrait of the prison system. (Spoiler: It does not.) Berlatsky ignores, either through deliberate misreading or epic tone-deafness, "Orange Is the New Black's" light-hearted magic realist quality: An abusive boyfriend who mocks the saints is burned up by holy candles in a room whose doors are inexplicably locked; a woman's insistence on kissing her partners in larceny becomes a death curse. If it's a realistic portray of life in a woman's prison you seek, I recommend Cheryl Dunye's "Stranger Inside." (Actually, I recommend it regardless.) This, as the saying goes, is not that.

It's true that OITNB's inmates tend to end up in prison as the result of some romantic misfortune: They fall under the sway of the wrong guy or the wrong girl (or, in some cases, the wrong drug); even those born into situations with limited choices still manage to make the wrong one. "The backstories," Berlatsky points out, "don't really focus on systemic injustices. Instead they show how individual weaknesses lead the women to prison." Upon making this observation, one can do what Berlatsky does, which is to complain that this fails to reflect what a former inmate calls the "uncomplicated and undramatic reasons" many women wind up in prison. Or you could ask, If OITNB does not reflect that, what does it reflect? And why does it reflect the one instead of the other?

It's almost preposterous to have to point this out, but as a show set in a women's prison, "Orange Is the New Black" is, more or less definitionally, Not About Men. That's not to say all male characters get short shrift—Nick Sandow's soft-hearted administrator Joe Caputo has grown in particularly interesting ways this season—but they are not the center of attention. True, when Piper (Taylor Schilling) is transferred to a facility in Chicago, she's menaced by a black male prisoner who demands a pair of her dirty panties in return for a favor. But I would submit that particular circumstance is not one in which a male and female inmate are likely to have a profound meeting of the minds, and that in that context Piper has little reason to see a man as anything other than a threat. Should you take it upon yourself to read that fleeting encounter as a comment on the nature of every man in the prison system, that's not "Orange Is the New Black's" fault, or its problem. Not every show can be about everything; the best ones often aren't. All that's required is an acknowledgement that a world exists outside of the world of the show, that there are stories is isn't telling as well as the ones it does.

Given that Berlatsky recently wrote an article for Salon called "It's Time to Retire the Bechdel Test," it would be easy—and quite possibly correct—to conclude that he's a liberal concern troll, albeit one who doesn't seem too concerned about gender inequity when it swings the other way. (If that argument has not been made half a dozen times in the course of my writing this post, it will be shortly.) One could argue that, whatever the validity of the complaint that popular entertainment fails to reflect that reality of the millions of men, most of them young, black and poor, who are chewed up and spat out by the prison-industrial complex, Berlatsky has picked an extraordinarily poor show to make his case. If OITNB were "'Girls' in Prison," that would be one thing, but a series that is by any other metric one of the most diverse in the history of television is not the rock on which to build that particular argument. But it's also important to hold the line against criticisms that fail to even address what a work of art is at its base, attacking it for not doing one thing without considering it might be doing something else just as important.


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