This Season of Orange Is The New Black Walks The Line of Exploitation *spoilers*

Orange is the New Black Writers Room

Photo Orange Writers Room | Words By Shanice Brim

I knew I was in for a ride this season when Leanne & Angie had a little discussion about Dominicans. As a Black American who lives in New York and went to high school in Teaneck, NJ, I am well aware of the tension between Black Americans and Dominicans who do not identify as Black or Afro-Latinx. I did not want to see that discussion between two white people nor did I think it appropriate. However, I am used to racial missteps on OiTNB as I found last season’s episode about Chang questionable (I wasn’t alone.) Things continued to get fishy for me when the Black characters had a discussion about race and mostly reached consensus on the fact that Black people can indeed be racist. Now, I have a hard time believing that these Black characters who have been written by the show as among the most well-read people in the prison, who have discussions about pharmaceutical companies and their role in capitalism, and who are interested in reading The New Jim Crow, would ever come to that conclusion. I also have a hard time believing Taystee who, along with Poussey, is the most avid reader of the bunch would suddenly have trouble understanding the vocabulary of the other inmates and would need to check in with Caputo about commonly used phrases but I digress. What I’m getting at here is that when I saw the picture of the OiTNB writer’s room it all suddenly made sense.

I'm among the first of my friends and family to finish this season of Orange is The New Black and I often describe this season to them as an “endless parade of triggers.” If you are Black, Brown, TGNC, or struggling with mental health, this season is disturbing in a deeply personal way. And the fact that the writers room is white makes that even more disturbing. But, it clarified what I saw this season. It cleared up for me the fact that no one thought that in a world where Black people die at the hands of police and the media works overtime to justify their killings and the actions of the people who killed them, that it was maybe a bad idea to: take a white, male, character, spend an episode playing up how good of a guy he is, have him accidently kill a Black character; play up his agony over it; and then have Caputo verbally vouch for him in case the audience hadn’t had it hammered home for them what an innocent puppy the writers wanted us to know that he was. It also cleared up for me how anyone thought it would be entertaining and quirky to have Black viewers see one of our worst nightmares play out in a scene in which Caputo’s new girlfriend pulls a gun out on a Black couple and threatens to kill them for inquiring on the whereabouts of Sophia only to have it played for laughs when it turns out Caputo and his girlfriend are turned on by the incident. It makes sense that the only time we see Sophia is when she is a mere shell of herself in solitary confinement and even those brief glimpses feel like afterthoughts and don’t involve any real larger commentary. It made sense, suddenly, the overuse of racial epithets, the playing off of racial stereotypes, the racist incidents easily forgiven by Black inmates, a Non-Black character using the N word in conversation with a Black person with no real repercussions and so much more.

What’s worse about all this is that in my everyday life as a Black person I see the media spin machine work overtime to humanize white killers of Black folks. I see the media and other people work overtime to justify acts of injustice committed against Black people. Now, thanks to Orange is The New Black I get to see it in one of my favorite fandoms. I argued with Non Black fans about how repulsive all this was and they argued that the show is just exposing “real life.” I argued that humanizing the killer of the inmate and having him kill her in the way that he way that he did was not some sort of strategic choice on behalf of the writers. No, they were just reflecting the real world. I insisted that this is not how the real world works as most of the people, especially officers, who kill and brutalize Black folks know full well what they are doing. They are not merely accidents as presented in the show. But, of course, my voice and the symphony of other Black voices in agreement were not believed. Which is why it was bittersweet to hear it from one of the writers herself:

“We did flashbacks for Bayley to humanize that side of the experience.”

After the murder we spend more time with Bayley and watching Alex and Piper run around the prison on some silly task than we do on the inmate’s prison family, girlfriend, and blood family in their grieving processes.

As a Black person, this season has been as another site called it “trauma porn written for white people.” From the formation of a white supremacist group, the ceaseless targeting of Black/Brown people, the constant barrage of racial slurs/stereotypes, and more. Now, I realize that I am watching a show that has made a name for itself on making statements about the realities of prison. I’m not surprised by the depiction of the horrors of prison and the for-profit-prison industry. I actually applaud the show for depicting the complete lack of regard for human life in the for-profit-prison industry: Correction and the PR people for MCC were nice touches. I even appreciate how real they kept it about the racism, sexism, and the sheer brutality of the people who work inside prisons. I do not, however, think it was responsible to have the show essentially make sacrificial lambs out of their characters of color in what felt like an ceaseless spiral into misery. I also do not think it was necessary to have Black viewers (who have to deal with the murders and brutalization of Black people every time they open their laptops, turn on the news, or feel their heart rate increase around police officers) deal with the senseless murder of their own for entertainment value as well. I do not believe it was cool to have Black viewers sitting through some Leave It to Beaver flashbacks of the person who killed her to really drive it home that the real tragedy of this situation is the person who killed the inmate.

I'm tired of Black/Brown/Queer characters dying and suffering to make a point to white, cis, Hetero, audiences. I'm tired of white writers milking very real stories that we have to live with offscreen to teach other white people about the real world. And I'm tired of them doing it wrong.

To have their viewers of color sit through 13 episodes of racial epithets, stereotypes, and racial profiling just to have a beloved Black character killed by someone the writers put so much energy into making us feel sorry for is dishonest and inappropriate. Rarely, are the cops who murder and brutalize Black people 1. Remorseful or 2. People who just made a mistake. If that were the case these murders and acts of violence wouldn’t be happening at such alarming rates and wouldn’t be such a huge part of the entire history of this country. The writers had a chance to make a commentary on that. They had a chance to expose the real racial bias that has reached such a boiling point in this country. But just like a lot of news outlets they’re expecting us see this poor innocent white male as the real tragedy in a Black death. I understand that part of Orange is the New Black’s “thing” is to humanize characters we aren’t expected to love or view as complex but sometimes it’s inappropriate and insensitive. The choice they made in having that particular character killed was also a very specific choice. This character was prepping for life outside of prison and was a fan favorite:

“And ultimately Jenji made a point that has really stuck with me, and that I’ve used as my centering device throughout the season — and that is, whatever character we chose, she wanted it to feel like that character had a future on the outside of prison ahead of them, so that the loss of that future would really be felt.”

This just goes to show why fans are starting to write “OiTNB is a show with people of color not for people of color.” Because no one in that white writers room was thinking of the fact that Black people already feel that loss. We already carry that pain. A point about what’s happening in America at this moment could've easily been made without triggering and further hurting audiences of color. There were plenty of white characters who were in actual real danger all season and yet none of them died. Black/Brown characters however are searched, locked in solitary and appear almost as a second thought, forced to eat live animals at gunpoint, sexually harassed, forced to fight by prison guards, forced to stand for hours in their own pee, and forced to endure medieval punishments.

Orange is the New Black had a chance to make statements. They set up so much to show what a racist, corrupt, and inhumane institution the prison industry is. They set up so much to make a commentary on the kinds of people allowed to work for this institution and how the very nature of said institution feeds into and supports their behavior and then at the last minute decided to go All Lives Matter on us. And they took their characters of color (and, by proxy, their audience members of color) and put them through the ringer in a way that I felt was completely overboard and exploitative this season.

Shanice Brim is a 25 year old New Yorker by way of Alabama, New Jersey and California. She’s an avid reader, Beyoncé enthusiast and fan of the film Clueless.

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