A few weeks ago over at The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky wrote about what he sees as “Orange is the New Black‘s Irresponsible Portrayal of Men.” Very early in the essay he admits “This may seem like a silly complaint,” because it is. But he continues anyway because… I’m not entirely sure.
Oh, wait. He explains here:
The reason: While media is full of men, real-life prisons are even more so. Men are incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate of women. In 2012, there were 109,000 women in prison. That’s a high number—but it’s dwarfed by a male prison population that in 2012 reached just over 1,462,000. In 2011, men made up about 93 percent of prisoners.
We are dealing with a crisis with regards to incarceration in this country. We have outsourced the responsibility for solving issues surrounding poverty, mental illness, and drug abuse to the penal system, on top of being racist in administering punishment and allowing people to profit off this system. It’s absolutely disgusting. So, if that’s Berlatsky’s beef, I’m right there with him. I just don’t see how leaving men out of Orange is the New Black is connected to this.
I agree with Berlatsky that Orange lacks a systemic analysis of the prison-industrial complex. It doesn’t take the time to provide a history lesson on how we reached this point of modern mass incarceration or to deconstruct how policies affect the choices people make in order to survive. It’s not the The Wire. No show is The Wire. It’s probably wise not to try to be The Wire because you will fail.
Orange is a collection of stories about a diverse group of women. It’s a meeting place of varying identities and struggles related to being a woman in America. That’s its strongest quality.
And when you tell stories about women, you need not be obligated to additionally tell the stories of men. It reminds me of the criticism The Color Purple received in its depiction of black men. Alice Walker’s book (and the film) was interested in telling a unique story of sexual identity, abuse, rape, literacy, and sisterhood from the perspective of black women. Black men, if you believed the critics, only existed in that world as the rapists and abusers, which would only further perpetuate the larger narrative of black male predation. But the question these critics never took the time to answer: in this story of black women, why would black men show up as the villains?
For the same reason they do in Orange is the New Black. It’s not that hard to figure out. If you live in a society rooted in sexist oppression of women, when women tell their stories it shouldn’t be shocking that the villains wear the face of the oppressor. Or, in an attempt to escape their gaze, the oppressor is pushed to the margins. It doesn’t mean that we can’t then see the largely male prison population as victims as well (though we don’t, mostly because prisons are filled with black men and racism is a thing). It means there are more stories left untold that some creative mind should get to work on bringing to life.
This week, Berlatsky is back, after his “post became something of a viral hate read, with many critics complaining it was a prime example of ‘what about the men?’ rhetoric—that is, trying to bring up men as a way to prevent or derail engagement with oppression of women.” So, he’s seen the criticism. Did it change his mind at all? Nope. Instead of asking questions about why Orange is the New Black would choose to tell its stories the way it does, Berlatsky brings in reinforcements to tell us why we really should be talking about the men. He interviewed University of British Columbia political scientist Adam Jones about “the relationship between feminism and his work on behalf of men.”
You can read the interview on your own, if you so choose. Ultimately, what Berlatsky misses is that the argument isn’t against telling the stories of men who have been incarcerated, or exploring the ways in which gender constructs affect the lives of men. However, there’s a way to do that without asking a space carved out for women to tell their own stories to pause and consider the men. Privileged groups attempting to center themselves in the narratives of the oppressed is how we end up with The Help, “nice white ladies,” and any number of savior complex stories.
There are things worth criticizing about Orange is the New Black. But in a world where women and their stories are often dismissed as self-indulgent fluff, I’m not willing to say its big problem is that it doesn’t focus enough on men.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.