… just because as a society we haven’t begun to fully accept and celebrate PoC the way we should. It’s not just an issue of tv, look at the Zimmerman trial. A kid is dead and his killer walked free because people still generalize that black people are violent and we should be afraid of them. Right now we are in the stage of progress, having these supporting characters and seeing how truly amazing they are, that’s how change happens. That is how the minds of people open up, when they start to say “I want a show about this character.” Think back to all of the scifi shows you love. Countless times they use aliens or monsters as a metaphor for race and still didn’t cast PoC in the show. It is a process, and I agree that we should be much further along and I’m ashamed of it, but don’t sneer at progress because it’s not far enough long. Support the progress. These writers created an interesting show and have included a number of people in it. I wouldn’t say that the protagonist’s “whiteness” is what this show will be know for. It will be known for exploring a different kind of culture. You can’t know that this show wouldn’t have been made with a black/hispanic/asian/etc. protagonist, and even if it wouldn’t, keeping people from watching this show won’t make the television industry move any faster. It will make people think shows about women in prison don’t work. It’s a good show. It took work and time to create. Be a positive source for this show and support the women of color in it, don’t discourage people from watching it because it doesn’t give them large enough roles. Fringe is a fantastic show where the 3 lead characters are white. Over the course of the series Astrid got one episode and you didn’t look down on that. Watch it and then make your judgments. Support writers!
OK, wow. I have a lot of feelings about this series of asks. And none of them are going under a read more, because this is muy importante. I like to say that this blog is a safe space, so I will reply as rationally and as sensitively as I can.
So, first off, I believe in apologizing when you offend/hurt someone, even if you disagree with them. Because I don’t want to hurt people. So, I’m sorry that my posts cause you to feel hurt. I also don’t want you to think that my feelings about Orange is the New Black are preventing me from hearing what you really have to say. I still vehemently disagree with you messages to me. But as recently as last year I probably would have thought the same way as you on the subject. Since then, I’ve reconsidered a lot of my perspectives and what they really mean. Despite the fact that I still disagree, there are elements of your post that are totally true. I simply feel that those points negate my original posts or feelings about OITNB.
I’ll start off with the things you’re right about, and elaborate my position regarding those points:
· Writers: Writers work hard. This show’s writers are actually pretty commendable. Including the showrunner, OITNB has five writers. And four of them are women. That’s amazing!!!!!!!!!!!! I stated earlier that I was going to make a more in depth post about why OITNB is problematic and this is actually one of the things I was going to talk about in that post about what people need to celebrate about this show. You are 100% right that we need to celebrate writers, especially PoC and female writers. It is absolutely despicable that women remain stuck at 27% employment in the TV writing industry, according to the most recent WGAw statistics report. It is beyond upsetting that of these women who make up 27% of the workforce, the majority of them find it impossible to rise above low to mid-level writing positions. The statistics for PoC writers, male or female, are similarly depressing. There is not one genre of TV in which women make up the majority of the workforce, although they are more prominent in science fiction/fantasy, female-driven, or teen-driven content. But that is largely because they find themselves excluded from traditionally more respected genres such as family sitcoms and one-hour dramas. To have a one-hour drama helmed by a WoC and made up primarily of female writers is one of the more amazing, inspiring stories about writers rooms I’ve heard about in recent years. With that in mind:
o Jenji Kohan: She is the showrunner. She has several shows under her belt, namely she created Weeds and has worked on many other successful shows. Also, pertinent to this discussion, she is a successful WoC in the TV writing business. Go Jenji!
o Piper Kerman and Nick Jones and Lauren Morelli: These writers have no previous writing credits and two thirds of these newbies are women. That is a huge deal! It is so great that this show gave them entry to the industry and allowed them to list not only that they were on a writing staff of a show, but to have several “written by” credits is fantastic. I hope their careers go amazingly.
o Sarah Hess: Has writing credits from House and Deadwood prior to this series.
o If I’m being totally 100% honest, yes. This makes warms me up to the show a little bit. And I am pretty conflicted about how to feel about it. But the OITNB has already been renewed for a second season. These writers are set for another year of work. Three writers with no previous writing credits now have writing credits for a critically acclaimed show. And this will make them more marketable in the industry and that is fantastic for them. They will be employed for the upcoming year.
o As I stated in my original posts, my problem is not with the writers of the show but with the underlying rationalization of racism in media that underlies the development of media projects.
o I understand the decision to watch this show in an effort to support this writing staff’s cultural and gender make-up.
· Progress is a process: In general, most media is problematic on some level. That’s par for the course when we still live in a society were equality is still such a struggle for so many different social, economic, and cultural groups. And you’re right that it’s important to not get so wrapped up in what’s wrong with media that we don’t appreciate the positive steps towards more egalitarian programing. That said, I still don’t believe that OITNB reaches a level where I can overlook the problematic issues within and inherent to it. I will explore my reasons for feeling this way throughout this post. You’re allowed and welcome to disagree.
· Fringe has a race problem (I still love Fringe and will defend its quality).: Astrid as the mammie figure is a problem. So why do I still watch/love this show? Why do I still stand by this show and defend it so strongly? Well, actually there are a variety of reasons. Firstly, I bring a lot of my own baggage to that show. I’m willing to admit that. As you can tell from my blog, I have a strong sensitivity to issues involving child abuse/death/neglect, etc. This show is one of the few shows (perhaps the only show) I’ve ever seen where this issue has been addressed in a way that rings true to things that I’ve experienced/witnessed. The lead female character had a history of being abused that was an intrinsic part of her character and that shows in a more multidimensional and realistic way (in terms of the long term psychological affects) the way those experiences come to define who you are and the ways in which they don’t. That resonates with me. Furthermore, the show consistently was one of the most progressive shows I’ve ever seen on the topics of age, psychological trauma, and disabilities (mental and physical). These are topics that are almost never addressed at all within media. And if they are, they are usually an of-the-week plot. I’d never before seen a show that explored the multiple variations of people living with these issues as an intrinsic part of the premise, but not ever treated as a gimmick. Olivia was a badass. But she wasn’t a badass BECAUSE she survived abuse and she wasn’t reduced to only being a helpless victim because she survived abuse. She was a badass because she was a strong woman who had dimension and vulnerability and a desire to love and be loved and was also self-sufficient and not dependent on anyone else for happiness and she was a fully realized depiction of womanhood. It is simply a part of that fully realized depiction that came from an abusive home/was abused throughout her childhood and learned to overcome years of trauma. Walter was dealing with the very real repercussions of age, diminished mental capacity, psychological trauma, and massive amounts of guilt for doing things so terrible that he actually removed part of his brain to make himself a better person. Peter was a victim of kidnapping. His mother killed herself. He was brainwashed and then neglected by his father. This show was about a family coming together despite all of these things. This show was about these very real psychological issues. THAT is progressive programming in a way that Orange Is the New Black simply is not. The white leads, for Fringe, really didn’t bother me, for a lot of reasons. 1) I’m not gonna go hating on EVERY show that has white lead characters. That’s not productive. There should be more PoC leads on TV. Most shows don’t have PoC leads. I’m not going to stop writing or watching or loving TV waiting for this to change. Rather, I intend to produce more culturally sound works when I’m successful enough to make that kind of call. I’m going to keep the concerns of a multiethnic, multicultural audience in mind whenever I write. 2) Of the three leads, two are father and son and the whole dynamic is kind of based on them having more in common than they realized at the start of the series. There’s a need for them to look pretty similar because of biology and also a need for them to look similar that to the level of metaphor. So, if one’s white, the other kind of has to be as well. You can debate the issue of whether or not those characters should have been white. I’m not going to get into that argument. I don’t feel as though it is inherently wrong that those specific characters are white. I’ll just refer you back to point #1. 3) Color-blind casting is… interesting. I don’t believe that the writers ever intended for Astrid to be as major a character as she turned out to be. But hell, maybe they did. I don’t know. All I know is that, at the time that Fringe was cast (and still now, I think. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Casting is not my area of expertise to a degree where I feel comfortable commenting with abandon on current trends) color-blind casting was all the rage. This means you don’t cast a character looking for “white” or “ethnic” or whatever. You just pick the person who read best regardless of race or ethinicity. This provides more opportunities for PoC to get work. Which is great! Yay! But it also has some unforeseen consequences, the likes of which we see on Fringe. Suddenly, the lab assistant/caretaker/junior agent takes on a much more racially insensitive connotation because the character is black. Same goes for the way a lot of people perceived the “Astro” name jokes. But that is a fundamentally different problem than what we have with OITNB. Jasika is just so darn loveable in the role of Astrid that she asserted her importance in the show. It would have been a major mistake to get rid of or replace her. But as her importance grew, the writers did not adjust their portrayal of her to make her a fully realized portrayal of a WoC accordingly, which sometimes unintentionally made for some uncomfortable viewership moments. And the writers attempted to address these issues, but they went about it in the wrong way. Instead of giving Astrid more screen-time or scenes in the field instead of the lab, they tried to steer away from that mammie stereotype by attempting to make it clear how much Olivia and the Bishops loved her and, in any episode that manipulated the world in a way that removed Walter from the equation, the writers show how strong and independent she was when he wasn’t holding her back (a sentiment expressed many times throughout the show, but most memorably to me was the season 3 finale in a discussion between Walter and Peter). It would have been great if the writers realized that they should have included more information about Astrid’s background and home life to make her as dimensional as Olivia and the Bishops. But there was at least some level of recognition throughout the series that there was a race problem that needed fixing and there were attempts (however fumbling) to address that. Fringe is not a fundamentally racist series. It is a wonderful series that stumbled noticeably in some of its portrayals of race. And that is something I can respect and forgive. I understand if others can’t, though. Everyone brings their own readings to a show. The race problem in OITNB is different; because it’s problematic perspectives on race are built into the fabric of the series from the outset, and that is why I have a problem with it.
· Science fiction and fantasy shows and films in general DO have a problematic history with race and gender. As do all genres in film and television. Historically speaking, I’d argue that SciFi/fantasy tends to be among the most inclusive, if not the most inclusive. Especially in television history. From Star Trek to the modern Battlestar Galactica! Both had their faults to be sure, but they actively attempted to improve the portrayal of race and gender in media, which is more than I can say for a lot of other shows and films. But, to be fair, I also think that workplace comedies from the 1960s-80s played a large role in expanding gender portrayals and family comedies from the same time period attempted to expand the portrayal of race, both with varying degrees of success. I’d still argue that SciFi/fantasy television does this best in the modern era, but 1) I am open to the possibility that I’m wrong. 2) I don’t need to defend my love of SciFi right now. That’s not what this post was about. That’s another topic of debate entirely. This post is about OITNB.
Here are some things I’m going to suggest you think about.
· There are five writers on this show. Unless you are one of them, I’m not entirely sure why you’re offended, specifically. But I’d prefer not to hurt anybody. I don’t like hurting feelings. But let’s examine what I did. I encouraged people not to watch a show that I felt left much to be desired in terms of racial representation. I did not insult those who chose to watch it anyway, and if anybody felt like I was insulting them for watching OITNB then I apologize. I tried to make it clear that the writers were not the individuals I had a problem with. I cited the industry’s ongoing prejudicial principles as my source of concern. Just because I am a writer, that does not mean I need to love every TV show. And as much as I support the five writers of OITNB and PoC and female writers in this industry in general, I can’t bring myself to justify promoting a show that has brought PoC viewers to tears and makes them feel like their perspectives are less valuable than the perspectives of white people. Furthermore, I feel like it is fair of me to share those opinions on my blog. I don’t think that crosses the line into disrespectful or unprofessional on my part. I can understand, I suppose, how writers would be upset that I’m calling out a show that is, by all accounts, very well-written on a narrative level. But why is it OK to talk about shows I don’t like based on how poorly they’re written but not about how much they offend entire ethnic groups? Those five writers might be offended by my posts, and that sucks and I’m sorry, because I really hate making people feel badly. But… why do their emotions mater more than the literally millions of PoC people who are offended by the blatant disregard for their perspective? Why don’t I get to be upset about that? Why does admitting that PoC viewers have a legitimate complaint make me antagonist to all of my peers whose work and efforts I respect? In the end, those writers will be employed next year. But PoC viewers still won’t have adequate representation in media.
· What do you mean “different kind of culture?” Different than what we normally see on TV? I understand the impulse to say that, but I disagree. And I direct you to my next point to explain why.
· The “at least it’s progress argument” is no longer progressive. I know this may seem contradictory to what I wrote about Fringe. But the progress I was praising in Fringe has nothing to do with race. It’s progress for a differently marginalized and under-represented group of people and does not negate the lack of progress that Fringe made in terms of racial representation. And I’m not going to use the progress that Fringe made with regards to anti-ableism as a reason to justify its race issues. And, although I feel that Fringe’s problematic portrayal of race is not an insurmountable barrier to my enjoyment of the show, I do understand and would never judge if someone chooses not to watch Fringe (or any other show) because they feel uncomfortable with the portrayal of race. What OINTB is doing is extremely different. Your argument is that the racial representations on OINTB are problematic, but not as problematic as they could be so we should just be grateful that there are PoC in the show at all. That argument dates back to Amos ‘n’ Andy (a show from the early 1950s), if not further. It is especially untenable, because as a concept that show really isn’t THAT progressive. It’s not progressive just to have a show with black people on it. It’s not even progressive to have a show with PoC leads. It’s not something that we need to work towards making possible on television, because it has been done already and it has been commercially successful (The Cosby Show, Ugly Betty, The Jeffersons…). I’m not saying that those shows were perfect either. I’m not saying that any show is perfect. Neither society nor media is perfect. But I am saying that there’s nothing particularly progressive inherent to the narrative of OINTB, in my personal opinion. And that whole, “we should be grateful because at least those perspectives are being shared so who cares if it’s through a white lens” thing is also not new. Not remotely. There are tons of other examples of white people giving PoC permission to have their perspectives shared or that the white perspective is used to shine a light on problems facing PoC communities rather than allowing PoC to reveal problems facing PoC through their own perspective (The Blind Side, The Help, etc.). This isn’t new. And the thing is that this concept provided a perfect opportunity to show a PoC perspective (but not “THE” PoC perspective, because there is not one perspective that can ever represent the ideas of an entire ethnic group), because of how well-documented the inequality within the prison system is. The proportion of PoC in the prison system as opposed to white people in the prison system is shockingly skewed. So I can’t commend OINTB for doing something fundamentally unique, because I don’t feel it has. I believe that all of us writers can do better. I believe that audiences are more than ready to see more varied perspectives and that white audiences will be more than able to identify and empathize with PoC leads in a setting where PoC make up the majority of the population. I don’t understand why that’s offensive.
· Why is it that I “can’t know” the show wouldn’t have been made with a PoC character as the lead, but you CAN know how the show will be remembered? Why do you get to decide how the show will be remembered when there are people like me who are saying we are unhappy with it? Why is your reading of the show the one that “will be remembered” and my perspective won’t play a part in the legacy of this show? Double standards, bro.
· You say that me discouraging viewers from watching this show “will make people think shows about women in prison don’t work.” I feel like this is a strange form of victim blaming. Viewers choose to exercise their right to not view a show, the primary way of letting producers know that they have a problem with a show, and it’s suddenly their fault that other people might interpret this in a way that is antagonistic to feminism? I would be more willing to consider this argument as valid if there wasn’t already tons of media worldwide that centers around women’s prisons (Chicago (one of the most acclaimed films and successful musicals ever), Bad Girls (which ran for 8 seasons), Cell Block 6: Female Lock-up (a hard-hitting reality series that explores the reality of women’s prisons)…). It seems to me that people are willing to watch shows about women in prison regardless of how realistically or exaggeratedly writers and producers and networks and studios portray those experiences. People are not inherently resistant to this as a concept. People’s minds are already “opened up.” And we’re saying that they want shows about these characters. And we’re saying we want PoC people in leading roles of these shows. And we keep getting white people. And that’s why I wrote my post in the first place.
The things that really bugged me on a personal level about your questions.
· They seemed much more accusatory than they were about actually debating the issue.
· Honestly anon, I’m offended that the one time I expressed a negative opinion about a series you felt justified in attacking my integrity as a writer, my respect for other writers, and a TV series for which I have made clear time and time again the reasons the factors that make it important to me personally and that I have previously acknowleged the underuse of PoC characters on.
· I’m offended that you, as a self-identified person who follows my blog and would therefore know that I had to sign off because I was so triggered by the Zimmerman case, would bring that up in a flimsy effort to make your point on the same night that I signed off due to being triggered. That’s rude and insensitive. It’s not like I’ve made it a secret that I have a major problem with children being victimized. I don’t think you’re a terrible person or anything. I’m not even mad at you, but I’m disappointed with your approach to this debate.
· Frankly, I respect the fuck out of writers and I have an endless respect for this entire industry for continually pushing itself to challenge systems of normative privilege. And I believe we can do better as content creators and that we deserve better as content-consumers. And I think that makes me extremely supportive of my peers and my profession.
I promote good TV shows all the time. And I’ll recommend avoiding ones that I think are not worthy of your time. I never admonished the AUDIENCE for watching the show if they chose to disregard my suggestion. I encouraged people to examine what they were encouraging by watching that show and suggested that they no longer continued to encourage it. If you watch the show, I don’t think you’re a terrible person. I don’t even judge you for watching it. I’m not even disappointed in you. But I am saying that if you have a problem with or feel empathetic towards marginalized ethnic groups, then you need to think about what this show is doing to increase that marginalization.
I’m allowed to love a show that has it’s own problems. I’m allowed to bring my personal baggage to it. I’m allowed to be offended by shows and explain to people why that is. I’m allowed to make recommendations for or against programs that I like for whatever reasons I choose.
I can’t cite a show or film that has a perfect representation of gender or ethnicity. Because we still live in a society where these things are, by and large, still issues that society and media are working on improving. But I can point out when I believe a show has gone too far in the wrong direction. And I did. You’re welcome to disagree and question my opinions. This post constitutes my defense of those opinions.
However, I would prefer if next time you chose to message me you would:
· Not go on anon. It’s easier to have a conversation that way. You clearly know my blog. I have no idea how well I know you. It makes it difficult to correctly gage the level of familiarity I should have with you in my writing.
· Not attack my interests as a way to prove your point. It’s rude. I’m allowed to like SciFi or any genre without being cognitively dissonant.
· Not attack my integrity as a writer, an advocate for writers, or a lover of television. Flat out offensive.
· Be more sensitive when discussing issues you KNOW are difficult for me to discuss. I’m not opposed to discussing them. But you could and should be more sensitive.