“Piper was my Trojan Horse”

Orange is the New Black castNetflix original series “Orange is the New Black” has garnered a great deal of attention, much of it having to do with the portrayal of women of color and the prison industrial complex. But the main character is Piper Chapman, a “nice white lady.” According to series creator Jenji Kohan, the show wouldn’t have been made if that weren’t the case. From her interview with NPR’s Fresh Air:

“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.”

It’s good to see that Kohan understands very well the obstacles of getting stories about women of color told, but it raises some questions about what kinds of stories get told and who gets to tell them. The cast of characters surrounding Piper are a fascinating bunch of black, Latina, queer, trans, immigrant women. But what does it mean that executives green-lighting these sorts of shows would be unwilling to explore those stories were it not for the middle class white cis woman at the center of it, and the white woman creator behind it?

Think also of the new website being launched by Bryan Goldberg, of Bleacher Report fame, “for women” and how he raised $6.5 million in start up funding for Bustle.com. Goldberg has received much deserved flack for comments he has made in advance of Bustle’s launch, but even if he hadn’t put his foot in his mouth and created the greatest website ever, it would still warrant exploration of why he is the chosen one. What already existing woman-centered website couldn’t benefit from that type of cash infusion? But how many could realistically expect that type of investment?

None of this precludes those on the margins from making their own television shows or starting their own websites. It does, however, mean that those without access to this type of monetary or social capital have a tougher uphill battle to wage in ensuring their voices are heard.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon.

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