Yesterday morning, just before the hub-bub over the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court verdict broke, Noah Berlatsky published a piece in The Atlantic about, the title declared, “Orange Is the New Black’s Irresponsible Portrayal of Men.” It was ill timed, to say the least, and it seemed designed mostly to generate clicks through a tidal wave of fury.
The piece itself hinges on Berlatsky’s assertion that, in a show designed to tell the stories of a diverse group of women, the men don’t get a fair shake. “This may seem like a silly complaint,” Berlatsky admits, and then advances the theory that the show should represent more men, more fairly because “men are incarcerated more than 10 times the rate of women.” The few men prisoners that the main character, Piper Chapman, does encounter are “presented as a threatening uniform mass” and shown “in almost aggressively stereotypical ways.” (This is based on the single episode of both seasons that features male prisoners.)
No, Orange Is the New Black doesn’t feature many male prisoners. But that’s because it is a show about a women’s prison. Complaining that Orange Is the New Black doesn’t adequately represent male prison culture is like complaining that bananas are insufficiently apples. It is like launching a diatribe against Animal Planet for showing so few tennis games. It is a critique that misses the point of the show so completely that it barely seems worth responding to.
But here I am, responding to it. For what it’s worth, I think that Berlatsky’s reading of the show is totally off base. He complains that female prisoners, all of whom landed in jail because they committed a crime, are presented as “innocent victims, doomed by circumstances and their own painful but touching flaws.” Indeed, “for the most part the characters land behind bars because of a tragic lack of love.”
Leaving aside that circumstance is, in fact, what sends men and women to prison—lack of funds and a judicial structure that disproportionately incarcerates people of color—I wonder if Berlatsky and I watched the same show. When I watched Orange Is the New Black, I did not find the characters in the least cuddly, nor lovelorn damsels wistfully whiling away their time in jail. The show does not for a moment delude you into thinking that the women are anything but criminals, nor does it obscure that many of them are capable of real violence and otherwise fucked-up shit. Think of last season’s portrait of Miss Claudette, a woman who not only was actively involved in the child labor trade, she murdered a client. She is not in jail because of her adorable foibles, I promise. The characters are shown sympathetically for the most part, sure, but it’s part of a way of complicating the ideas we have of prisoners in general, adding richness and complexity to the way that few shows about them do.
Even the “threatening uniform mass” of male prisoners that Berlatsky complains about is a misreading of what’s going on. The men are no more or less scary to Piper than the women of Litchfield were when she first arrived. Red serves Piper a bloody tampon in an English muffin, for Christ’s sake. Try freeing that from the context of a violent and sexual threat.
The joy of the show is in the way that the monolithic crowd of the prison breaks down into components and individuals. Berlatsky also conveniently ignores the male characters that operate the prison, who, even as peripheral figures, have far more nuanced stories than Berlatsky gives them credit for. Even Officer O’Neill gets to have a complicated relationship with religion in an episode with protesting nuns.
But aside from disagreeing with Berlatsky about the merits of his reading, his assumptions smack of the good old “not all men” assertion. No, not all men prisoners act like the ones in Orange Is the New Black. You know where you can find depictions of male prisoners? On Oz or Prison Break or basically any other show set in a prison ever. (Berlatsky goes out of his way to say that men are “amply represented in the media, in major and minor roles.”) The number of men in prison is a real problem, that’s for sure. But asking Orange Is the New Black to make way for them feels like trying to introduce a herd of endangered lions into a panda preserve. There is room for discussion about both. We don’t have to wedge male prisoner’s stories in an environment where they don’t make sense. Orange Is The New Black is not a flawless show, but it is trying to bring voices to television that aren’t already there. Instead of shouting over them, it might be wise to listen.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby