When will our society stop stanning for cruel white men?
**No, there are no spoilers for Season 5, but there are spoilers for previous seasons. Proceed at your own risk.**
I started watching Orange Is The New Black during either my senior year of high school or freshmen year of college. It took me a while to get into the show, but once I got into Season 3, I was pretty much hooked.
I like Orange Is The New Black. I think it does a lot of good: it shows a group of people (prison inmates) that our society has conditioned us to view as less than human. Society tells us that those in prison deserve to be locked in a cage for 22 hours a day, devoid of television, books, fresh air, and education. Society tells us that prison inmates don’t deserve our sympathy as soon they enter those prison gates. Society tells us that prison inmates deserve whatever hell they get in there because, well, they shouldn’t have committed whatever crime they did. Society tells us that the private prison industry is nothing to worry about, even though it’s essentially slave labor and the interest shifts from rehabilitation to profit, which only results in increased sentences for minor crimes. OITNB attempts to undo that harmful thinking. Through the show, we’re prompted to symapthize with women that we’ve been taught don’t deserve our sympathy. We’re also made privy to the horrors that go on in prison, especially in women prisons.
The writers of the show are mostly women, which is probably why it’s so successful in showing a full range of women with different backstories, personalities, motivations, and character developments. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t acknowledge how the writer’s room is seriously lacking women writers of color even though most of the show’s core characters are of color, but I’ll get to that in a sec.
You wanna know what really irks me about this show, though, especially after watching Season 5? It’s how easily the writers give sappy and supposedly relatable backstories to the guards, mainly the white male guards who are really sick in the head and abusive towards the inmates.
Case and point: In the midst of Poussey’s death at the end of Season 4, we’re shown flashbacks of C.O. Bailey’s life, how he got peer-pressured into climbing a water tower and how he’s just a young kid. The same “young kid” we just watched kill an inmate via lack of training and gross overestimation of her strength is now given a captivating, sappy backstory that makes him relatable and capitalizes on how young he is in comparison to his co-workers. The entirety of Season 4 we’re shown just how young and naive C.O. Bailey is, which makes it even easier when he kills Poussey for the writers to then invoke his “small town boy with big dreams of helping people” backstory. It’s his naiveté that made him such the perfect character to kill Poussey. The writers were banking on the fact that we’d be torn between being angry at him and feeling sorry for him at the same damn time. Gimme a break.
It’s infuriating, to the point where I had to stop watching and take a break during Episode 11 of the fifth season because I was so incensed at the fact that we were getting yet another backstory about yet another abusive white male guard. I don’t watch the show to learn about these manchildren and their weird, twisted sexual fantasies or how they got to be twisted psychos who enjoy forcing women to fight to the point where one’s face isn’t recognizable. I watch it because of the women in the prison and because these women are relatable.
It’s just so baffling to me that this is an issue with a writer’s room full of women. As women, how do they sleep at night after creating these elaborate backstories that humanize our abusers and oppressors? And I say “our” because there’s such a variety of women in that prison that it’d be damn near impossible for a woman watching the show not to identify with at least one inmate. Why can’t these guards just be sick psychos who inflict pain? Why do I have to know where they come from? Why do I have to be forced to acknowledge their lost or deranged humanity after watching them inflict pain and misery on women inmates, the same women inmates who the show writers craft to be relatable? If they’re an abusive guard who makes an inmate swallow a live baby mouse with a gun pointed to her head, I don’t give a flying rat’s ass what their backstory is. If they’re out here raping inmates because they’re stronger than them and feel superior, I DON’T WANT A BACKSTORY! Frankly, it’s not even needed.
Remember how I mentioned the lack of diversity in the writer’s room? Yeah, well, here’s how it connects:
The writers of Orange Is The New Black are mostly white, and when I think about this fact paired with my main grievance with the show, I’m really not surprised. Even though most of the writers are women, they’re still white women, and right now, there’s this epidemic where white liberals/supposed allies want to “reach across the aisle” to bigots and those who perpetuate oppression in an effort of mutual understanding and figuring out common grand in order to have a peaceful conversation. And while in the process of doing this, they shame and scold people of color who don’t want to engage and try to dissect the psyche of those hell-bent on oppressing us and perpetuating our genocide. I see it on Twitter all the time, as well as my college’s Open Forum and in the comments section of my friends’ posts on Facebook.
And they can afford to do this because, at the end of the day, it’s not their lives and humanity on the line. They can go home, take a break, take off their cape and kick off their shoes, then proceed to enjoy the spoils of white supremacy.
Reaching across the aisle isn’t dangerous for white allies who claim to fight racism and xenophobia. Reaching across the aisle doesn’t mentally, emotionally, and spiritually drain them. Reaching across the aisle doesn’t make white liberal allies want to throw a table across the room because some bigot’s comment could literally endanger their lives. For a white “ally,” reaching across the aisle and coming back to the other side with your mental health unaffected is a privilege, a white privilege, and it’s because they are unaffected that they so willingly hear our oppressors out. And this moronic ideology leads to yet another annoying trend: white liberals playing devil’s advocate in an attempt to explore the other side and sympathize with those who oppress us, all of us. They’ve dubbed the act: being open-minded.
The sad reality is: this isn’t being open-minded, and it’s actually counterproductive in that it gives space to and validates the oppression of those we’re supposedly trying to protect and liberate. The backstories of the guards in OITNB help further this dangerous white liberal habit. These writers show the abusive guards’ backstories in tandem with their consistent abusive behavior or after they’ve started the abuse, and it’s always tragic and overdramatic in an attempt to get us to sympathize with them. And it is because of this that OITNB is indeed guilty of attempting to reach across the aisle. We saw it happen with C.O. Bailey, as well as with C.O. Healy (Piper’s old advisor) and C.O. Mendez (also known as Pornstache). And in Season 5, we see it happen again in tandem with some of the worst abuse towards the inmates shown on the show. You see, reaching across the aisle isn’t just politely debating bigots; it’s also giving thorough and unnecessary background and attention to white men who commit heinous crimes and acts of abuse, and showcasing them as family men, naive young kids, and lonely people who just want to be accepted.
By showcasing the backstories of the abusive guards, the writers perpetuate the humanization of white men who commit heinous crimes.
Our society is already obsessed with providing anecdotes and proof that cruel white men are humans just like the rest of us, that they deserve sympathy and trips to Burger King, all while ignoring the humanity of innocent people of color and women who fall victim to them on a daily basis. OITNB is at least one step above, I guess, as they focus on the backstories of the inmates, but they are no doubt very much culpable in perpetuating this pattern.
Yes, the writers of OITNB might be mostly women, but still they fell into the trap of and are only helping perpetuate a patriarchal and white supremacist system that continues to allow white men to be excused for their abhorrent actions.
Do you watch Orange Is The New Black? Do you see a habit of white liberals trying to “reach across the aisle?” Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
If you haven’t already, read my previous article here, and check back in 2 weeks for a new article!