Posts Tagged ‘racist stereotypes’

I wanted to respond to this Salon.com piece about ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, which laments the state of television’s portrayal of women of colour.  It does so quite rightly, but I might offer a corrective to its reading of the show itself.

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is, it is true, blatant in its use of racist stereotypes; all of Gay’s plot-points (cited from Aura Bogado’s even more dismayed evaluation) do indeed occur:

With very little exception, I saw wildly racist tropes: black women who, aside from fanaticizing about fried chicken, are called monkeys and Crazy Eyes; a Boricua mother who connives with her daughter for the sexual attentions of a white prison guard; an Asian woman who never speaks; and a crazy Latina who tucks away in a bathroom stall to photograph her vagina…

This leads Gay to make a grim prognostication:

“Unfortunately, we will never see a similar show about a woman of color as a stranger in a strange land, bewildered by incarceration.”

But I feel like this gets at something the show understands that this piece – a good thesis ruined by a somewhat careless reading of the material – does not, and that is that the show (and Kohan) are interested in playing the ball as it lies.

In other words, I want to talk about Taystee.

Jenji Kohan has remarked that:

“In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

This is fascinating, and expediently pragmatic so far as it goes, and if it were the whole story writers like Gay and The Feminist Griote would be entirely justified in their disappointment at this half-measure and its deforming effect on our perception of  a hopelessly damaged system; this story cannot only be worth telling because of the tragedy of it happening accidentally, or incidentally, to a white woman such as Piper.

Her legibility AS a walking, talking White People Problems (her nickname to many of the characters is “College”), however, is insistent; she is an avatar of White Privilege, confronted with a naked racial tension her world has been designed to conceal from her sight and, along with many of its viewers, she comes to it with a woeful lack of cultural literacy.  She has “studied to go to prison”, but what she should know isn’t, must remain, off the books, inaccessible to her.

…and Piper most of all.

Not so her fellow inmates; the prison is, we learn, FULL of intelligent women of color – but none of them could be “bewildered” by their arrival here, as Gay’s article’s imagined Ideal Protagonist ought to be, precisely because they come from a world that is designed, with Calvinist inevitability, to send them here. They are smarter characters than Salon’s article wishes them.

The shallow reading of “Crazy Eyes” (her name is actually Suzanne, and she is manifestly awesome) is only part of the refusal to see that; the article’s swipe about the women “fantasizing about fried chicken” is purposely eliding what is actually happening in that scene. When management decides to hold an election, the prison divides along explicit racial lines (evidently condoned by the guards and counsellors themselves – “tribalism, not racism” is evidently more than the casual racism of a dim but well-meaning young prisoner; it is codified).

In a scene ABOUT being elected AS “The Black Representative” – the candidate, Taystee, who manages the prison’s legal library, promises Fried Chicken in the cafeteria.

She does so while underlining the stereotypes involved, shrewdly recognizing that defining yourself AGAINST a racist stereotype is still a capitulation to an oppressive dialectic – which the election itself only concretizes.

Pennsatucky: the most contemptible character in popular culture since Mr. Potter stole Uncle Billy’s envelope of cash.

That it is TAYSTEE who embraces this play to stereotypes, who accepts the oppression because there is comfort in it, isn’t an accident – it’s a curious bit of foreshadowing.  Taystee explains her disdain, and contemptuous refusal to engage with ‘real’ issues, in a brilliantly funny (and, again, racist) refusal to play along with “white people politics”, which she skewers devastatingly with friend Poussey:

It seems important that Poussey and Taystee’s impression of “White People Politics” is full of moments of embarrassed negation; to be a white person is apparently to speak constantly at a remove – “I’d rather not”, “I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have”, to flag uncomfortable subjects, things we ought not to talk about because they are distasteful.

Taystee is a hyper-literate character (she will not abide a copy of HARRY POTTER being used as a foot-stool; she compulsively corrects the grammar of a death threat from “YOUR GOING TO DIE” to “YOU’RE”; she writes semi-original poetry which plagiarizes liberally from the masterful ROCKY 6) and she has studied her text carefully; when Piper asks her why she does not try to effect real change when she wins the election on her Fried Chicken in the Cafeteria Platform, Taystee points out that the power to resist is an illusion; better to just enjoy the donuts offered as hollow treats by the management.  The show emphasizes who is to learn from whom: the banner for Taystee’s farewell takes two tries; Piper’s first attempt – which bids farewell to “Tasty” – has to be junked.  “I thought you went to college,” Alex chides.

Toward’s season’s end, Taystee eventually decides, brutally, to continue to play by this broken system’s rules; set free (“free”), her prison term over, she finds there is nowhere to else to go.  Compelled by its gravity, she returns by her own design to prison, because she has learned – bitterly, again – it is the only space that has been made for her in this world.

Piper is – must be – horrified at the prison’s overt racial divide; her dumbfounded horror upon arriving in a federal institution that sharply splits into racially segregated cell-blocks is met with an eye-roll: “oh, you’re one of THOSE. It’s tribalism, not racism” (and of course the show goes on to prove that this character – bubbly, charming, sweet – is also the most casually racist person in the facility).  Taystee could never be so surprised – not even the FIRST time she was sent to jail.  For her, prison is merely the bricks-and-mortar version of something that is everywhere; at least in prison the meals are regular.

So much of the show is about the dignities we sacrifice and the dignities we won’t. Gay’s article wants a show where no one sacrifices any – where no one is ever forced, by their circumstances, to be flattened into a type or a pattern or a statistic. And it sounds a little boring to me.

The article’s final question – when, how much, are we willing to settle? – is actually the show’s question, too.

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Anthony Oliveira is a PhD candidate working on the literature of the irrational at the University of Toronto. You can follow him on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/oliveiranth.