Saturday, August 17, 2013

Privileged Tour Guides and the Purpose of Media: OITNB and Facing Reality

Orange is the New Black is getting a lot of rave reviews and for good reason. As I wrote earlier, I'm enjoying the show and urge people who are hesitant about it after the first few episodes to give it a little longer.

I not only enjoy the show personally (getting invested in many of the characters' stories and feeling compelled to keep watching and learning about them), but I also think that it is doing important and necessary work to improve our overall media options. The diversity of the cast is overwhelmingly refreshing, and I don't just mean the racial diversity. Yes, the show provides a much-needed outlet for many Latina and black actresses to use their talents, and their characters provide viewers with some important privilege-checking moments. I like that Buzzfeed author Heben Nigatu labels this exchange a "response to patronizing white women everywhere":

But the show can boast real roles with characterization for a range of identities that we rarely even see in mainstream media, let alone see developed. Main character Piper, for all her other mainstream privileges, self-identifies as a secular humanist, a position that certainly doesn't get much media attention. Among the characters whose stories are becoming richer and more layered with each passing episode is a transgender woman, several older actresses (a group who has been fighting for more screen time), women whose bodies do not fit the Hollywood beauty standard, and poor women. 

Take a look at what Lea Delaria experienced when she tried out for a role (originally as a prison guard) and found out that they liked her audition but couldn't find a place for her until they created a new role (as butch lesbian "womanizer" Big Boo):
"I remember I was standing in my manager's officer and I lost it. I just went, 'They're making a television show that takes place in a women's prison and there's not a part for me? Then I f***ing quit! I'm out of showbusiness for good.' I got on a plane and I flew back to London, where I lived at the time, and said, 'You know, f*** it. F*** America. F*** it' ... And when I got off the plane and went through customs, there were like 1,000 messages from my manager going, 'They wrote a part for you ... and come back because you're going to start shooting in five days.'"
There seems to be a genuine effort to make a space for the diverse realities of the world we live in on the set of this show. Of course, no television representation is going to be perfect, and it is definitely disappointing that creator Jenji Kohan felt she had to use a white Trojan Horse to tell these stories, but I think that we're throwing the baby of good character development and social impact out with the bathwater of limited Hollywood acceptance if we reject this show for that reason. 

Criticism and Rejection

And some definitely are rejecting the show because of it. Writer Aura Bogado writes for The Nation that she couldn't even finish the series because it, like many slave narratives, requires a privileged white tour guide and "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."

I take issue with the assertion that prison is a "black experience." While black women are impacted by horrendous arrest and sentencing disparities, there are still many white women behind bars, many of whom face their own set of inequalities like never having finished high school and fighting drug addictions. 

Piper still serves as something of a cultural tour guide to all of these women. Her blonde hair, blue eyes,  thin body, rich background, education status, and white skin all give her privilege that gives the show (and Piper Kerman's book, as well as her own lived experience) an air of novelty. It's billed as a peek of a woman getting put where she doesn't belong, but both Piper the character and Piper the person are very clear: she belongs there as much as anyone else. If we have to question her presence there, we have to question everyone's. 

This, for me, is the real social justice power of Orange is the New Black: it is starting mainstream conversations about the prison system that very much need to happen. It is important to note that the "Free Piper" t-shirts Bogado derides as a publicity and money-making ploy in her article were used as a fundraiser for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. It does not seem that Piper Kerman is denying that her position is a privileged one, but once she recognized that privilege, she tried to harness it to make a difference. 

I highly suggest you read the comments on that Nation article (yes, really. Read the comments.) Readers bring up many good points. Several people question Bogado's interpretation of the portrayals of the women on the screen as stereotypical and ask what she'd like to see instead. After all, the harsh truth of prison, and of reality in general, is that these inequalities exist. Piper Kerman, by her own admission, really did get better treatment in prison because of the color of her skin and her wealthy background. (I'm reading the book right now, and she gets offered choice prison jobs and other perks because she's a "Northerner," a privilege that she disdains and sometimes tries to turn down.) 

Would it be better to portray a prison system that doesn't exploit racial minorities and poor women? What good would that do? 

What is Media For?

That brings me to my final reflection: why do we use media?

Everyone is free to respond to media from their own positions and experiences, and they are equally free to watch or not watch anything they want. Bogado does an excellent job of explaining how the show makes her feel and why she chooses not to watch it. The problem is that media is not just an individual experience. Our collective response has power to decide what gets funded in the future, what gets to stay on the air, and what stories--ultimately--get told. We respond as individuals, but the impact is felt collectively. 

Through mediated experiences, we have the power to "experience" things we never actually do. Media can be a tremendous tool in creating empathy for people whose experiences differ from our own, and watching/reading media that moves us outside of our own comfort zones is tremendously important for making progress. 

There's something about those slave narrative introductions that I think Bogado glosses over. They weren't there to make the slaves' stories real; they were there to convince an audience that could easily have shut their eyes and ears to listen. Is it right that it took a white introduction to make them do that? Of course not. Were there plenty of people who refused to listen no matter what introduction was given? Of course. 

But progress was made when people listened. Progress is made when we hear stories that aren't our own, when we are able to listen and learn from experiences beyond our boundaries. 

Orange is the New Black has tremendous potential in pushing many people out of their comfort zones. It's designed to have many elements to make that prodding more likely: the serious subject set in a comedic backdrop, the privileged protagonist, the layering of complex character development over time. 

No one should feel like they have to watch a show that they don't like, but all I have to do is look at the television programs of 50, 30, even 20 years ago and know that we've made a lot of progress in providing diverse representations that make people question their own assumptions and stereotypes. 

What do you think? What shows have you seen that have made you question your own experiences and assumptions? Does media serve a social justice function?

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