There isn’t a single character in Orange Is The New Black who is played counter to racial/ethnic stereotype

I’m watching Orange Is the New Black, the new Netflix show about a women’s prison. It is amazing. Just the right mix of light and dark. Shows like this always veer in the direction of being too brutal. Like, yeah, desperate people can be horrible to each other: I don’t need to watch six seasons of Breaking Bad to know that. In Orange Is The New Black, many of the people are genuinely sort of okay, which makes it easier to understand the terrible stuff that they do. Like, almost all the guards show empathy towards the inmates at times, but in the end, they’re still authority figures, and they make the inmate’s lives terrible in casual ways.

For instance, when a guard tries to seduce a prisoner, it might be because he really loves her and she might even really care for him, but it also puts her in a seriously difficult position. Or how when a normally-pleasant guard is challenged for something minor, he’ll immediately turn to making threats.

So the show is really good. However, literally every character in it is some kind of stereotype. In no case did they dig deeper than the first choice for a given character’s race or ethnicity. For instance, just imagine the first race/ethnicity that comes to find for the following characters.

  • A hard-as-nails former restaurant owner who was involved with the mob?
    • Russian!
  • A stern, buttoned-down, very religious disciplinarian who ran a cleaning service that used illegal child labor?
    • Haitian, of course!
  • A wanna-be faith-healer with bad teeth and a meth habit?
    • Appalachian. Duh!
  • A former firefighter who transforms into an expert hairdresser?
    • African-American trans woman (the power of female hormones, amirite?)
  • The former junky who grew up on Park Slope in a house with a doorman?
    • White girl!
  • A \ woman with five kids by five different fathers, who neglected her children so she could party with her drug dealer boyfriend.
    • Hispanic!
  • A girl who was gonna go to college on a track scholarship until she got mixed up with a bad crowd and was busted for theft.
    • Black!
  • A writer who lives off his parents and mines his relationship w/ his prisoner fiance for material to get him into the NYT and New York Times.
    • Jewish!

I don’t think there’s a single prisoner in here who is played against type. I mean, maybe that’s what was in the source material, but, I mean, come on. The writers ought to have stretched themselves at least once.

The worst part of the show, though, has to be the flashbacks to the protagonist’s pre-incarceration life. All the other flashbacks (each episode focuses on a different inmate) are really interesting, because they’re well-drawn and do their best to humanize the subjects. However, many episodes also include a flashback or two for the main character (a white woman–currently engaged to a man–who is in prison because, ten years ago, she was involved in her girlfriend’s drug smuggling ring).

All the other flashbacks are good because the other inmates are presented to us in an opaque, forbidding way. Because prison imposes conformity of dress, manner, and situation, we don’t know much about them. The flashback opens up their lives and their minds.

But when it comes to the main character, the flashbacks do nothing for us.

Like, uhh, she was a WASP who was torn between security and adventure. We get it. We understood that in the first two minutes of the show’s first episode. All these contrasts between her doing yuppie things (juice cleanses) and rebellious things (smuggling drug money through customs) are wasted, because they don’t advance our understanding of the character.

All that having been said….the show is one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time.

6 thoughts on “There isn’t a single character in Orange Is The New Black who is played counter to racial/ethnic stereotype

  1. LillianC

    100% agree. What I’ve found most fascinating about the series is the way Piper has to reconsider her own self-image in light of each key inmate perceives her. Sure, they’re not exactly the most mentally healthy people, but some of them do make very telling observations about Piper’s behavior. The show may have its problems, but I’m glad to see an ensemble cast that includes all different kinds of women, even the “Golden Agers” as the senior inmates are called.

      1. LillianC

        Which gets monotonous and boring. I never thought “Seinfeld” was that funny, aside from the Soup Nazi, and that guy was a man of color.

  2. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    The premise of the show is interesting; I’ve got it on my Amazon wishlist when the DVDs come out (yes; I love in the 20th century).

    > I don’t think there’s a single prisoner in here who is played against type.

    Some playing against type is a good thing, but too much is – IMO – even worse in a PC way.

    Violent inner city gang leader? White son of a doctor!

    Physics PhD? Black woman!

    etc.

    It’s lazy to just read demographic statistics and make everyone “typical” (i.e. “stereotypical”), but it’s just as lazy (and more grating) to pile on the improbabilities. I always when shows have the balls to cast in a way that works for the story, or feels right, and then let the chips fall where they may.

  3. kayfil

    Good points about those particular stereotypical characters; however there are a few unstereotypical portrayals – I think the transgender is one (she’s a hairdresser, but not particularly stereotypical otherwise; also the fact that she was a black firefighter with a family before the transition is a big surprise), Tricia isn’t particularly “white”, and the delinquent teenager who was also a paraplegic is a biggie. I think something important and unique to New York City is that a lot of ethnic groups really are self-contained and attached to the culture of their ‘homeland’, even if they immigrated here 4 generations ago. The Upper East Side is predominantly yuppy Jews, that’s a fact, so it isn’t necessarily a stereotype for the yuppy Jewish guy to be from the UES. It is defying a stereotype for him to have a [non-Jewish] WASP wife – who is also lesbian and in jail. Pensatucky’s also a bit more interesting than you make her out to be; the bad teeth come from the meth but the religion doesn’t come from ‘Appalachia’ (which, is it even clear that she’s from there or do they just stereotype her?), it comes from trying to get a lesser jail sentence. I’m just rambling now, and for basically no reason – point is, and we both agree wholeheartedly on this, that the show is great, so I’m not even trying to argue.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      The paraplegic delinquent teen is definitely a surprise. But the white street kid and the yuppie Jew with a blonde shiksa fiance are definitely noticeable types =)

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