22 Apr 2014

Recently, I was listening to an excellent panel discussion on Orange is The New Black. Like most people who have found themselves hopelessly addicted to the programme, binge-watching every episode in a matter of a days and then lying around bereft waiting for the new series to be released, I loved the series for its varied, realistic and very raw cast of characters, the fact it put women's stories centre stage, and of course the fact that as well as heart-wrenching it is also very, very funny.

And yet, unfortunately, it seems that one piece of pop culture that focuses on real women - old women, black women, Latina women, overweight women, butch women, trans women as well as white, young, slim, cisgender feminine women - is apparently still one piece too many for some. A male listener put his hand up during the Q & A section of the discussion and said that he thought the depiction of men in the show was “horrendous”, that the sex scenes in the show were “horrendous”, and that the fictional prison was “a matriarchy”. I could almost feel a collective sigh of “Oh, for fuck’s sake, can we not avoid someone whining ‘What about teh menz?’ for even one frickin’ hour?” go through the women seated in the room, and although the speakers gave dignified answers, none of them said what I’d really like to have heard them say in response to this man.

Firstly, I’d have said, let’s address your real issue. Do you really care that some men (and it is only some men, as there also sympathetic and ambiguous male characters in the show) are portrayed as power-abusing shits in OITNB, or can you just not stand the fact that all the male characters play second fiddle to the female ensemble? Because I’m guessing that’s your real problem. Not that Pornstache is a corrupt, sleazy, excuse for a human being who abuses drug-addicted prisoners for his own sexual gratification, gropes Piper, tries to blackmail Red and lets Trish die of an OD to cover his own back. Not that Healey is a homophobe who at first is apparently helping Piper but is so appalled at the prospect of her being a lesbian that he ends up trying to control and punish her. Or even that prison guard Luschek is a drunk racist with little concern for his charges. But that all these men are in the periphery of the storyline, not central to it. I’m betting that’s what gets your goat – that men don't get the spotlight in this series.

So I’d say to you, try to imagine a world where men are rarely, if ever centre stage. Where men are portrayed as, at best helpers and supporters to female characters whose lives are the truly important ones, and at worst, as visually pleasing window dressing to fill out the story, or simply absent. Where male audiences are expected to be grateful that in a cast of women, there might be one token male character. Where men are never portrayed in nuanced or complex ways, but instead are fitted into insultingly simple tropes of dutiful spouses, disposable sex objects, smart and ugly or attractive and dumb. Where the sexuality of men over 35 is rarely if ever acknowledged, and where lead roles for men over 35 are even rarer. Where same-sex relationships between men are considered mere tantalizing fodder for the opposite sex to masturbate over, rather than serious and loving connections.

It’s a pretty shitty world, isn’t it? Not one that you want to be in, really, is it? Well, that’s the media world women are expected to accept without complaint, and perhaps that’s your real fear about TV programmes which break the mould becoming popular. You’re afraid that the fire hydrant will become the dog, and that women will treat men with the same contempt that has been foisted upon us by decades of a medium that wants to reduce us to tiresome tropes. But I’d say, don’t assume women will descend to such a level; consider that women might like to level the playing field upward. Also, consider that depicting the men who do terrible things to women is not an attack on all men, nor on you as an individual, but rather something that is not done enough, or that is done in cringeworthy ways which manage to romanticize abuse, implicate the victim as complicit in her abuse, and excuse the perpetrator. Yes, it’s uncomfortable watching these things. Perhaps it makes you feel guilty for sharing your gender identity with these people. So I’d say to you, how do you think it feels seeing your gender constantly represented as inferior, mindless, disposable? Women have had to endure far more tarring with the broad strokes of the same brush than you ever will, so if I were you I’d be grateful that a couple of shitty prison guards is the worst depiction of manhood you’ve ever had to endure.

All that aside, the questioner's take on the programme, as one panellist pointed out, is also overly simplistic. It ignores that fact that the behaviour of the women in the show is also pretty ‘horrendous’. Every female character is flawed – how could they not be, they have all done enough to end up in prison, after all! – and some are so deluded, selfish or aggressive that most of their value to the show is as comedy fodder or serve as contrast to our OK-she’s-may-be-in-prison-and-she-messes-her-lovers-around-a-lot-but-she-never-did-anything-that-bad-so-we-still-like-her protagonist, Piper. There are also deeply sympathetic male characters, such as John, the young and na├»ve prison guard who falls in love with Daya. Although Healey’s relationship with Piper is troubled, there is a sense that he has genuine sympathy for her and wants to help her, even though he goes about this in a controlling and paternalistic manner. We see that his life outside of the prison is not without its frustrations, and we are privy to his troubled relationship with his mail-order wife. Like the women, the men in OITNB are not two-dimensional caricatures, but rather fleshed-out, convincing portraits of imperfect human beings. Even Pornstache is not devoid of empathic characteristics - his lousy attitude towards women seems to originate more from loneliness and frustration rather than misogyny, as demonstrated by his tenderness towards Daya when he believes that she reciprocates his feelings. The sex scenes between them may be uncomfortable for us as viewers, knowing as we do that Daya is faking feelings for Mendez in order to frame him, but they are not violent or degrading, as we might expect from his character, and the balance of power is ambiguous - it is as easy for us to laugh at Mendez's starry-eyed delusions that Daya loves him as it is to cringe for Daya's ordeal of having sex with a man she despises.
As for that old hooey about matriarchies? Please. As one panellist pointed out, the power of Figuroa, the female assistant to the warden is entirely derived from the unseen male figure she serves, and it can hardly be said that she acts as much of a friend to the prisoners, instead prioritising the prison's media image and financial outlook over any human considerations. Yes, amongst the prisoners some of the older women hold sway over the younger ones - Red alternates between playing mother and dictator to her favourite women - but these relationships are entirely a result of the artificial and limited circumstances within which they take place. Outside of the prison, it is doubtful that many of the women would forge links with each other due to their differing class and race positions, and it is also highly doubtful that they would be able exercise the kind of power that they can exercise over their follow prisoners, over anyone on the outside. If this is an environment where "women rule", then this says a great deal about just how restrictive circumstances have to be before women can wield any power. The power of the oppressed is simply not comparable to any kind of real power - yes, the women forge alliances, make deals, barter for goods, protect their allies and attack those who threaten them, but they do so out of necessity - because they're in fucking prison. To say that this reflects any kind of genuinely empowering structure of female relationships is frankly insulting, and no more true than suggesting that zoo animals (to which the women are compared in the programme's title music) have more power than their keepers.
Still love the show though. Roll on June!

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