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Friday, July 26, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Responding to Yasmin Nair

Race, Class, & Queer Issues in 'Orange is the New Black'

In These Times recently published an article in which the author, Yasmin Nair, stated that while Netflix's 'Orange is the New Black' gets "an 'A' on queer issues", it gets "a 'C' on race and an 'F' on class". While I agree it's important to contemplate and critique the portrayal of queer issues, race, and class in media, there are several points that the author states as fact which in reality rely on her personal interpretation of what is shown on screen.

In full disclosure, I am (as the main character in the show states) a white lady with blonde hair. I'm sure that colored my interpretation of the show, and I in no way claim that my perspective is the right one.

The first point that Nair makes is that 'Orange is the New Black' (OITNB) ensures that white women's nudity is "artfully covered" so that their "placement in the hierarchy of voyeurism" is made clear. To make her point she references a few key scenes; the first being the scene in the chapel where Morello and Nichols are having sex. Nair, rightfully, points out that Morello's breasts remain artfully covered throughout the scene in an unrealistic way. There is also a scene where Chapman gets out of the shower and her breasts are only briefly flashed before they are hidden by a towel (viewers will remember this as the "TV titties" scene). Nair states that in contrast women of color are shown naked fairly often--breasts and all. She sees this as a way to eroticize women of color, while the white women "preserve their putative modesty".

It certainly is true that eroticization of women of color in mainstream media is a major problem. However, I don't think that the examples Nair has given support her argument.

While it is true that the fact that Morello's breasts are covered throughout the chapel scene would be unlikely in reality, it is also true that Daya and Daya's mother are both shown naked in scenes, and they are just as artfully arranged. Even in the scene where Daya's mother poses for Bennett in the storage closest, it is filmed in such a way that we do not see the full extent of her nudity. I find it far more likely that the main actresses in the show had nudity clauses in their contracts, while the show's creators purposefully found extras who would be willing to walk around naked.

My assumption is that this nudity was used for numerous reasons: one, if anything it illustrates Chapman's lack of comfort. She doesn't quite know how to react to women who are so comfortable with themselves and their bodies that they will walk around naked. It is a major theme of the show that Chapman is uncomfortable with herself in terms of her body, her personality and her life decisions, and I think her attempt at modesty throughout the series illustrates this.

Second, as Nair herself states, there is the simple fact that there are a higher percentage of women of color in prison. Thus, it makes sense that the majority of the extras are women of color, and that these are the women who we see naked in the background. It's not as though women's breasts are being flashed throughout the show, they are really only seen in the background at times when it makes logical sense--namely in the shower scenes. The truth of the matter is this nudity was probably used with specific aims, but I don't think eroticizing women of color was one of them. I think that besides the contrast it makes to Chapman's own issues, the nudity in these scenes, particularly in the first episode, helps to drive home to the viewer that they're entering a different world with it's own rules. The main point is that most people--white women, women of color, whoever--would be uncomfortable being nude around strangers, but in prison that changes.

Nair argues that in OITNB women of color also get a different kind of agency. She supports this argument with a discussion of the advisory council scene. In this scene Chapman and several other women (who all are women of color) have been elected to a board. However, in the first meeting Counselor Healy tells them that he can either make changes, or they can get donuts and coffee at every meeting. The other women all vote for coffee and donuts, while Chapman wants to make large changes--reopen the track, fix the GED program, etc. Nair states that this is the portrayal of Chapman as the "only [inmate] who can rise above her own needs to consider the larger issues facing inmates". I think this is a misinterpretation of the scene. This scene doesn't show Chapman as a white women who is the only one willing to fight for change, but rather as a naive women who has no understanding of the complexity of prison life or, indeed, life in general. It supports the theme running throughout the season, that things have always been handed to her: a comfortable childhood, a good education, etc. and that this has led her to have unrealistic expectations of what is owed to her. How can she "a nice blonde lady" be in prison? She accepts it outwardly (verbally stating the she "did it"), while inwardly she blames everyone but herself. The inmates know that the advisory council is a joke and they've known it from the start. If anything, this scene shows the women of color as having a more realistic worldview, while Chapman is still living in some secluded world of her privilege's making.

What are your thoughts? Have you been watching OITNB?

1 comment:

  1. As a white guy, cognitively aware of my skin privilege but very likely unaware of every manifestation of it, I viewed the WAC stuff in much the same way that you did - it was more about Piper's privilege and lack of self-awareness than it was about women of color not caring. Nair didn't even get into the basic facts about the election process for the WAC, in which the only candidate who wanted real structural change was Sophia, and the fact that the election was clearly rigged, with two councilmembers who didn't even run, but placed there by the corrupt CO's. The whole system was rigged from the beginning, and the only people who clearly didn't know that were Chapman and Sophia.