No, Realism isn’t the New Black
I’m going to be blunt: the new season of Orange is The New Black is a shit storm.[warning: potential spoilers]
And yes, I watched all the episodes. From one to 13. Within a span of 22 hours, I managed to have laughed, cried, wanted to punch the computer screen and yelled. I went through a complete slew of emotions, but I was mostly disappointed as hell.
From the death of one of the most beloved characters of the show, to the horrible portrayal of mental disabilities, I was doing a lot of cringing. This show stopped feeling like something that was supposed to entertain (and mildly educate) and instead tried to shock. However, the shock value was horribly executed and highly cringeworthy.
Seriously. What the fuck, writers?
While Ashleigh Shackleford’s Wear Your Voice article basically summarized my feelings around this entire season, I feel like there’s still a lot to be said about this. Many folks have implied — or flat-out said — that the reason season four struck a nerve with a lot of people was because it was so “realistically” done. That being triggered was part of the process of how it struck a nerve, that season four was so raw because of it tackling “real” shit.
But to be honest, is the experience truly “real”?
This is the question I have to ask, especially when the show continues to center around white people despite people of color getting some type of shine. When the folks with disabilities are constantly portrayed as “evil,” like in most forms of media. Where the writer demographic doesn’t match up with the population of people in prison.
If you Google, you can find a picture of the writers for this season. None of them were Black or any form of Latinx. It was mostly white people. So think about the racial and ethnic makeup of the people on the show and the people who experience the most violence (whether direct or indirect). While this is true that in the prison system, people of color are likely to get the most shit, in this show, the people of color who were able to possibly discuss how systemic oppression is real were never given that chance.
One of the things I saw an issue with was how one of the Black characters described racism. It made it seem like racism wasn’t a form of system oppression. And the explanation of racism was done poorly. Another time, a character was explaining the cycle of poverty and what it actually means. You know what happened? It got explained poorly and, on top of that, the explanation didn’t stick because it became part of a punch line.
It’s hard to take to this seriously when the people writing the lines discussing oppression among people of color will never be able to understand. These discussions will happen, whether in prison or at an academic conference, but when the people creating these conversations aren’t a part of the demographic of people telling their stories, the “realism” is no longer there. When you make a conversation about deep topics funny, it stops being “realistic.”
Constantly there is a discussion about whether or not we need to sacrifice realism to entertain people. Or, vice versa, we lose the humor to keep the educational aspect. In the end, as much as we’d like to believe, this is not an accurate portrayal of prison life. As much as we want to justify being triggered, this is not or never be realistic. The book the show was based off of didn’t even tell the full stories of these people, so would there ever be true realistic portrayals of prison?
We know that prison is no joke. We know that women of color are more likely to be incarcerated for longer sentences than their white counterparts. We know that the slurs will be thrown. That the inmates will be mistreated. When you watch the show, you can even tell that this is not the full range of what happens in prison. You’re only getting a small glimpse of what prison is. There are a variety of articles explaining how Orange is the New Black doesn’t accurately portray prison life. Here is a link to one of them.
But here’s the bottom line: it was poorly executed and extremely messy. It is important to make a point, but using imagery that mirrors murders that have happened to other Black folks is NOT creative in the slightest. Not only did they use someone’s death to mirror a combination of Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s, but there was also a scene that could be a representation of what happened to Trayvon Martin.
Not only that, but the death was of a queer character. The queer and trans characters got the shittiest end of the stick this season. While the death was extremely crushing, a scene involving two disabled queer characters also broke my heart, because while I can see this being a realistic portrayal, it ended up being something just randomly thrown in for shock value.
It felt empty as fuck and hollow. It was not there to pull heart strings. It was not there to educate. It was there to make you cringe.
I’m not going to even talk about about the treatment of Sophia, the only trans woman character on the show. She was in there, but it was like they tried to overcompensate for the humor aspect of the show and dumped all the heavy shit onto her. While it was important to discuss the treatment of trans women in prison, this also seemed like a random plot dump to come off as groundbreaking or edgy.
Instead of it being a realistic look into what prison life was, it felt more like a game of who could create the best torture porn.
And, well, that’s not realistic.
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