Season 3 of Orange is the New Black premiers this weekend. Thus, the series is receiving a lot of praise AGAIN. A recent Time article, puts forth 7 OITNB questions. I think these questions say a lot about the state of todays media and the character narratives that sustain it.
The Washington Post has announced, “Orange is the New Black is the best TV show about prison ever made”. According to the New York Times, “’Orange’ also presents characters almost never portrayed, at least not with much empathy, in Hollywood. The prison population is not a monolith of incorrigible rogues; everyone has a painful back story, and many of them made life-altering choices when they were far too young”. However, the main narrative is one of a white privileged woman’s experiences in prison. Yes, there are supporting characters that do not always get a lot of coverage in Hollywood, but the manner in which the story is centered around a white privileged woman, who is depicted as being sexually corrupted by the queer criminals surrounding her, and the way her supporting characters’ narratives are presented is extremely important to a full understanding of the implications of the show. Criminalizing queerness through popular narratives has both political and cultural consequences, and the queer archetype narratives in the NetFlix series Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) criminalize queer and inflict political and cultural violence upon queers of color.
I’d like to put forth a few of my own questions for discussion: Do the queer criminal archetypes that exist on Orange is the New Black continue to criminalize queerness? If so, what are the implications? Who is being marginalized/ colonized, and who is benefiting? How does the policing of gender identity, and sexuality function as tools for the enforcement of other systems of domination?
Characters on the popular NetFlix Series employ the habitual narrative of queer black degeneracy and subordination. Due to the intersections of race, class, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation; these criminal queer archetypes perpetuate the cycle of violence upon queers of color.
First, I provide a brief history of queer of color analysis. I then discuss representational intersectionality and apply a queer of color critique to the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Finally, I discuss the implications of queer criminal archetypes and the absence of a representational intersectional approach in contemporary media.
Queer of Color Analysis
In 1978, Michael Foucault’s groundbreaking work, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, created a fundamental shift in how we analyze sexuality. Foucault posed the question, how did sex discourse develop? Through his analysis of the repressive hypothesis, Foucault laid the foundations for what would later be known as queer theory. In outlining the intervention of capitalism into our sexual discourses, Foucault’s work created a fundamental paradigm shift. This Bridge Called my Back, then posed additional questions of race and gender identity in the 1980’s. It challenged white feminism and laid the foundations for a queer of color analysis by providing an anthology of black women’s experiences. By focusing on violence against women, Crenshaw uncovered the theory of intersectionality, which states that race and gender discriminations are not exclusive and overlap in an extensive manner along with issues of class and gender identity. Disidentification, according to Munoz, was then presented as a third option to identity. Given the problems associated with the dichotomous binary of identity, disidentification allows one to disidentify ones impersonal self. By 2004 Ferguson formally introduced a queer of color critique in Aberrations in Black. In an analysis of political economy, Ferguson discusses heteronormative privilege and provides a new way of looking at the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality as cultural and economic formations.
Representational intersectionality highlights the issues associated with overlooking the role that race plays in addition to gender in the subordination of minorities (Crenshaw, 1282). This neglect results in the devaluation of issues of race, class and sexual orientation that disproportionately affect queers of color. Crenshaw argues that the “devaluation of women of color … is linked to how women of color are represented in cultural imagery” (1282). Furthermore, Crenshaw states that an analysis of representational intersectionality would look at who produces these images, tropes and archetypes, as well as how modern critiques marginalize women of color (1283). In her analysis of the 2 Live Crew Controversy, Crenshaw argues that “an intersectional analysis argues that racial and sexual subordination are mutually reinforcing” (1283). Therefore, I will apply a representational intersectional analysis to OITNB by looking at issues of gender, race, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation as mutually reinforcing and non-exclusive.
Orange Is The New Black
Queer criminal archetypes, spread through the media, inflict cultural and political violence upon queers of color. According to Mongul et al. the media has produced a set of queer criminal archetypes (Mongul, 23). In effect these queer criminal archetypes have established a predetermined narrative in which “a person’s appearance and behavior will be interpreted- regardless of individual circumstances or realities” (Mongul, 23). Mogul et al. outline the following five archetypes; the queer killer, the sexually degraded predator, the disease spreader, the queer security threat, and the young, queer criminal intruders (27-43).
One of the most popular characters on OITNB has been nick named “Crazy Eyes”. This character, an African American woman, embodies the sexually degraded predator archetype as a sexually aggressive black lesbian. From the moment the character is introduced, “crazy eyes” becomes obsessed with Piper and makes strong sexual advances at her. Furthermore, later when Piper tells “crazy eyes” that she cannot be her wife, Crazy eyes pees on Piper’s floor. These acts make “crazy eyes” appear still more psychologically unstable and dangerous, which in effect further criminalizes her sexuality and race.
Furthermore, after the show was released, a popular white extremely privileged actress, singer, dancer, Julianne Hough was seen dressed as “crazy eyes” for Halloween with her face painted black (Paylor). This act demonstrates the power that crazy eyes’ criminal archetype has already had on the populace, as her character is perceived as black, lesbian, and criminal. Over the past two years, these racist costumes have multiplied. This phenomena demonstrate the perpetuation of racial subordination directly linked to the show. It isn’t funny to be racist, it’s disgusting.
“Crazy Eyes” Juliane Hough
Another popular character, Sophia, embodies both the sexually degraded predator, as a degenerate transgender woman, and the queer security threat archetypes. Sophia’s personal narrative depicts her as a thief and liar willing to do anything criminal in order have a gender reassignment surgery, even if it means hurting her own family. Furthermore, her security threat to the heteronormative family depicts her as a threat to her family and emotionalizes this narrative through her son’s disappointment and rejection of her. Sophia is yet another example of the criminalization of trans people, homosexuality and race. This story in effect, demonizes the queer black trans woman, and attempts to justify her imprisonment. The obsession with Sophia in the media after the shows release has included countless pictures of her twin brother, so that the audience can consume her image as a male, which, I’m sure has raked in a lot of money. This dichotomous pictorial of the gender-normal vs. the gender queer further empowers heteronormativity, and embraces the current system of domination.
M. Lamar Laverne Cox
Furthermore, according to D. Dalton’s work, queer criminal archetype narratives aide and abed past criminal images that resurface throughout history. This influences how we remember past queer archetypes and how we see current and future queer archetypes (Dalton, 92). Both “Crazy Eyes” and Sophia’s characters are portrayals of the queer criminal archetype resurfacing yet again. In addition, due to their current popularity, they will have a negative impact on how the populace thinks about and views queers of color. As C.G. Jung discusses extensively, archetypical symbols and narratives are synthesized in the brain in a process that makes the differentiation of the conscious and unconscious impossible (Jung, 179). Therefore, the constant exposure to queer criminal archetypes will actually create a change in the brain that will result in the viewer believing that the criminal queer narrative is factual. Thus, OITNB criminalizes queers of color and perpetuates the cycle of domination.
Furthermore, OITNB’s “criminal archetypes are pictured as both criminal and as ‘breeders’ of criminals” (Mogul, 25). Another prominent theme carried throughout OITNB is of queers luring innocent heterosexuals into gender and sexual transgressions. This theme criminalizes queers and particularly inflicts violence upon queers of color. In her recount of history, Braukman depicts the witch-hunt of homosexual teachers in a post-McCarthyism age. According to Braukman, butch women, by their appearance, and “need to recruit new members,” threaten the strict gender roles of heteronormativity (Braukman, 558). These “homosexual menace[s], further complicated by race and politics, came to conflate a wide range of individuals into a single category that was founded on the model of sexual predation and the need to recruit new, preferably young members” (Barukman, 572). This narrative lead to the Johns Committee seeking out and firing lesbian schoolteachers, in fear that they would corrupt their students.
OITNB’s Piper, has a lesbian history with her co-star ex-girlfriend Alex. However, her character is depicted as “straight now” and happily engaged in a heterosexual relationship in the beginning of the series. Yet, throughout the first season, Piper’s character is seen as being corrupted by all the lesbians that surround her, and she eventually gives in to her rediscovered “sexual deviancy”. As a result Piper’s relationship with her correctional officer goes sour, her fiancé leaves her, and she blames Alex for ruining her life. This narrative conveys the message that queer criminal archetypes are a threat to heteronormativity, in their desire to “breed” more queer criminals, particularly in prison. Furthermore, queers of color face disproportionate rates of incarceration, and the heightened policing of sexuality in prisons criminalize queers of color. In an MSNBC interview, the actress who plays Piper on the show and the real life Piper Kerman discuss the show. When recounting her relationship with Alex, the real Piper states that she got involved with a “seductive and sophisticated older woman”. Again, this perpetuates the narrative of queer seduction.
Here are a few random shots found online from “fans” of the show:
Moreover, OITNB fails to challenge the use of dictums, which inflicts violence upon queers of color. According to Cohen, the dictum between heterosexual and the all encompassing queer “others” perpetuates the cycle of domination in minority politics (Cohen, 437). Attempting to assimilate into the dominant culture and maintaining these dichotomous categories of sexuality fail to enact any progressive change and fail to understand the complex intersections of race, class and gender (Cohen, 449). Furthermore, Towle and Morgan argue against the use of categories of gender at all in their rebuttal to the use of the third gender. Towle and Morgan also argue that many cultural narratives have failed to highlight the degree of gender consistency and norm conformity, for example the norm that “gender is both binary and adopted for life” (487). This gender binary is heavily upheld in OITNB, as all the prisoners are women and guards are men. All the characters are portrayed as either a man or a woman, including Sophia. Specifically, Sophia’s gender identity is portrayed as female and adopted for life. This narrative upholds the dominant gender binary and conviction that gender cannot be transformative, which subordinates any gender-non-conforming, sexuality non-conforming person. In order to produce media that creates progressive lasting change, we must “refuse to create ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims” like the ones presented in OITNB (Bassichis, 33).
Racist jokes and racially motivated assaults, represented as humorous rely upon the false assumption that “racist representations are injurious only if they are intended to injure” (Crenshaw, 1293). The “Taystee” character on OITNB embodies a young funny mammy archetype. When Taystee runs for office in a little prison election for the WAC Pack, she calls for fried chicken and hot sauce to be served in the cafeteria. The scene projects a humorous mood attempting to make an extremely racialized joke comical. However, “the claim that a representation is meant simply as a joke may be true, but the joke functions as humor within a specific social context in which it frequently reinforces patterns of social power” (Crenshaw, 1293). Taystee then wins the election, but is quickly misguided by a box of donuts and tells Piper, another WAC Pack official, to just shut up about the important issues and just take the donuts. The marketing of this stereotypically racist mammy inflicts violence upon queers of color.
Furthermore, the prison industrial complex itself should be shown as an oppressive institution and its expansion should not be promoted. When someone is being mistreated in prison on OITNB money and funding are always highlighted as both the problem and the solution. Piper is unable to teach in the GED program, Sophia is refused her hormones, and the answer for OITNB is to figure out where the money is going, which argues that more funding and prison expansion will solve these issues. However, as Bassichis argues, building a trans and gender non-conforming specific prisons, would expand the prison industrial complex and further perpetuate the cycle of criminalizing queers of color (34). Ending trans imprisonment must be part of the long-term struggle for transformation (Bassichis, 35).
While Jenji Kohan may have had good intentions when creating OITNB, she failed to fully understand the racist queer criminalizing archetypes that she produced. Yes, she has acknowledged that, “‘Orange’ is the yuppies view of prison”. And yes, the story is female-centered. And finally, Yes, the show does attempt to provide heartfelt backstories, but those backstories do not negate the archetypes displayed. As a multibillion dollar industry, Netflix and Kohan have significantly profited from these archetypes’ perpetuation. While the “funny” “yuppy” series continues to inflict violence upon minorities.
As discussed above, the queer criminal archetypes inflict cultural and political violence upon queers of color. The theme of queers luring innocent heterosexuals into queer activity inflicts violence upon the publics understanding of queers. Furthermore, OITNB fails to challenge dictums, presents racist representations as jokes, and fails to challenge the prison industrial complex as an oppressive institution. Many of its reviewers raved about how different OITNB is and how it pushes the envelope in a progressive manner; however, the criminal queer archetypes that it displays have been invented and reinvented in the American media for decades. These archetypes function to uphold the status quo that favors the heteronormative at the expense of queers of color. While this discussion is not exhaustive, contemporary media may benefit from taking a representational intersectional approach to developing narratives that don’t criminalize queers of color through the use of queer criminal archetypes and the white privileged innocent victim lead.
I do agree that the increased media attention on Laverne Cox, as a result of OITNB, has helped her become one of the most outspoken advocates of trans equality. I have nothing but respect for her, and find her courage inspiring. That said, I do believe that there are ways of promoting trans equality without perpetuating criminal archetypes, which Cox engages in on a daily basis, when she isn’t working on OITNB.
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