Orange Is the New Black's Irresponsible Portrayal of Men

The victims of the prison system the Netflix show satirizes are overwhelmingly male. Leaving them out reinforces old stereotypes that hurt both genders.
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Orange Is the New Black has been justly praised for its representation of groups who are often either marginalized or completely invisible in most mainstream media. The show has prominent, complex roles for black women, Latinas, lesbian and bisexual women, and perhaps the first major role for a trans woman played by a trans woman, the wonderful Laverne Cox. There remains, however, one important group that the show barely, and inadequately, represents.

That group is men.

This may seem like a silly complaint. Men, after all, are amply represented in the media, in major and minor roles, whether on Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Breaking Bad or The Wire. For that matter, there are in fact a number of male characters on OITNB, such as counselor Sam Healey (Michael Harney) who gets a typical guy-plot about struggling against disillusionment and prejudice to be a good man. Why should OITNB, unique in being devoted to women, bother with more men?

The reason: 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.

The few male prisoners who are shown on OITNB are presented in almost aggressively stereotypical ways. Early in the second season, when Piper (Taylor Schilling) is being moved to Chicago to testify in a drug trial, we're shown a number of male inmates being transported as well. They are presented as a threatening, uniform mass. The one prisoner who is given a more substantial role is a black man who makes frightening sexual verbal advances towards Piper; he's a contract killer and refers to himself, apparently without irony, as a "super-predator." He eventually delivers a message for Piper in exchange for her dirty panties. The one male prisoner we meet, then, is violent and abusive, with a sexual kink that is presented as laughable and repulsive. He deviant, dangerous, and the show seems to think that he is exactly where he belong—behind bars.

Female prisoners on the show are treated very differently. They may be violent and may be queer, but they are, for the most part, presented as sympathetic. This seems like a feminist move, on the surface. But the inability to extend that sympathy to male inmates, raises a disturbing possibility: that the show is condescending to women while reinforcing old and destructive attitudes about men.

Adam Jones argues in his book Gender Inclusive that empathy for victims is often, in our culture, dependent on the victim being a woman. As he says, "We live in a culture that is trained to view the violent victimization of women as a much more serious offense than the violent victimization of men."

Jones includes a wide range of supportive evidence. Male victims of domestic violence are almost entirely ignored, though domestic violence is perpetrated by men and women at about equal rates (though, Jones points out, violence by men is disproportionately more serious because of strength and weight difference.) In Bosnia, human-rights organizations focused on the (horrible, important) suffering of women rape victims and refugees, while largely ignoring the mass, gender-targeted killing of "battle-age" men. Similarly, violent attacks on women receive much more media attention than violent attacks on men, though men are substantially more likely to be attacked.

In other words, male victimization is seen as natural, or not worth commenting on. As a result, Jones argues, it is difficult to see that, "the most severe and institutionalized human rights abuses in the United States are overwhelmingly inflicted upon men, especially—though far from exclusively—younger, poorer, and minority men."

I don't know that I agree that men are the victims of the worst human rights abuses in this country, nor am I sure that ranking abuses in that way is helpful. But I think Jones is absolutely right that part of the reason we see our violent, abusive prison system as acceptable is because we have trouble seeing violence against young, black men as violence. That's why, Jones argues, men are 17 percent more likely to be put in prison than women for similar crimes, and serve an additional year in prison when they are incarcerated.

According to Orange Is the New Black, though, men in prison are "super-predators" while women in prison are, often, innocent victims, doomed by circumstances and their own painful but touching character flaws. OITNB underlines this most clearly in its flashbacks, where we see each inmate’s life-story as a tragic melodrama (a significantly gendered genre) leading to prison.

Though there are a couple of exceptions (like cancer-victim Rosa, a former bank-robbing adrenaline junkie, or sociopathic new villain Vee (Lorraine Toussaint)) for the most part the characters land behind bars because of a tragic lack of love. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is a foster-child who craves a mother; Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) is a black adoptee of a white family hungry for affection and acceptance; Morello (Yael Stone) is a stalker fixated on romantic love; even Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), the nun, has a story framed around her failure to connect with Jesus in her heart. The backstories don't really focus on systemic injustices. Instead, they show how individual weaknesses lead the women to prison. A woman in OITNB goes to the bad when her impulse for love is thwarted.

In contrast, a former prisoner reviewing the series at the Washington City Paper said, "I get the need for drama and stories, but if the lady who runs this show wanted to be realistic, most of these flashbacks would be about 8 seconds long." She adds:

I mean that a lot of the girls I knew in prison were in there for really uncomplicated and undramatic reasons. Like, an accurate flashback scene would be a black girl sitting on the couch watching TV, and her boyfriend...says “Hey, baby, do you mind if I leave this shit here for my cousin to pick up?” And she says “OK,” without even looking up from QVC. And then, boom, cut to her serving 10 years.

The prison pipeline is routine—and, just as significantly, it's a routine involving, and closely connected, to men.

As Yasmin Nair points out, heroin in OITNB is presented as some sort of absolute, corrupting, verboten evil—precisely the attitude that has created our decades-old incarceration binge. Minority, marginalized men, often deliberately segregated and barred from most employment, turn to the drug trade. The state typically uses moral panic around drug use as an opportunity to police, harass, and imprison them.

Occasionally, women—especially minority women—end up getting caught in the gears too. That doesn't make for a dramatic, personal story about victimized individuals who want love. It's just the boring, soul-crushing, everyday grind of institutional oppression, mostly aimed at controlling minority men who are perceived, by virtue of their race and gender, as a violent threat just for existing. Destroying the lives of minority women is, in that context, mostly an accidental bonus oppression.

This isn't to say that minority women aren't discriminated against in many, many ways. The fact that Orange Is The New Black has been able to attract such a range of phenomenally talented women actors of color speaks loudly about the shamefully limited opportunities for black and Latina women in television and film. But despite its path-breaking representation of minority women, the show remains trapped by gender preconceptions that aren't path-breaking at all. OITNB is so eager to sympathize with broken-hearted women and their individual sadnesses that it has no time to consider the institutional machinery of injustice that, in this case, has little directly to do with either individuals or women. It's hard to see how such a distorted view of incarceration helps prisoners of any gender.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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