Discussions of race, gender and sexuality are usually featured in the peripheries of popular culture. Jenji Kohan’s new television series Orange is the New Black attempts to unpack these issues in an accessible way, which is exactly what is incredibly problematic. Whilst I genuinely enjoy watching Orange is the New Black (OITNB), the very notion that the show’s creators believed that OITNB should explore and unpack race through the perspective of a white, middle class woman is irritatingly familiar and disappointing.
On numerous occasions the show’s writer and creator Jenji Kohan has expressed the utility of the protagonist, Piper, as a ‘Trojan Horse’ in lessening the stigma of discussing race in a public forum. However, as a result, audiences can be ‘tricked’ into caring about the issues that Women of Colour face, when in reality we should be celebrating movies and TV series that have protagonists that are people of colour. However, show itself provides an amazing platform for a range of different women of different races and sexualities to share their stories.
Like many TV series, it’s very easy to sympathise with Piper, a white, middle class, bisexual woman who is incarcerated for smuggling drug money. But as the series progressed I found myself skipping her needlessly self indulgent antics, and instead found myself falling in love with characters that I felt were more relatable as a person of colour.
In particular the portrayal of Gloria Mendoza, played by Selenis Leyva, as a passionate and protective Latina was a character I finally felt represented a part of my culture that I hadn’t seen on television before. In an interview with Refinery29, Leyva advocated for the Latin American community, discussing how many of the roles that were originally intended for Latina women were often played by White women, and how the entire spectrum of Latina women of different descent, shape, size, colour and shade should not be pigeonholed into Hollywood’s narrow definition.
OITNB does an amazing job at telling the much-needed stories of people of colour, but the centralised problem lies within its main context. OITNB is set in a women’s prison, where the ratio of Women of Colour versus the ratio of white women is severely unbalanced. We expect Women of Colour to outnumber white women in prisons, because women of colour are criminals and are highly invested in crime. OITNB feeds surreptitiously into this harmful narrative where Piper is a ‘Fish out of Water,’ as it would be unheard of for a White women to ‘belong’ in a prison. Thereby, Women of Colour become the inevitable collateral damage. This is the most harmful and threatening aspect of the Latin/African American Prison narrative, which is often taken as the norm.
This all comes together and makes clear the struggle that Women of Colour continuously face, the constant mitigation and concessions of the implications of how Men of Colour and White people see us.