Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s Original series is known for its realist portrayal of racial stereotypes and its ‘hold nothing back mentality’ regarding the realities of classism and racism in America’s prominently diverse population. Set to take place in fictional Litchfield, a minimum security women’s correctional facility, the stories of black, Latina, transgender, immigrant, and working class American’s are depicted within the prison as well as through a series of flashbacks to the inmates lives on the outside. Orange Is the New Black is both progressive and regressive as it is told from the perspective of an upper middle class white female, representing the ignorance this group holds to the blunt realism and prevalence of racism and inequality in society today.
Maintaining her white middle class mentality, Piper shows an extreme sense of colorblindness during her first few days at Litchfield. Different racial stereotypes are continually reinforced through the actions and attitudes of the inmates. Not only are stereotypes of black, Latino, immigrant, and transgender women presented, but the stereotypes held about white women are also shared. Piper believes she is living in a modern day, post racist society and does not hesitate to talk with other races at on her first day. In a critique of the show’s depiction of race and identity T.F. Charlton writes, “OITNB makes clear that the world where no veneer of polite colorblindness papers over racism and racial prejudice” (Charlton, 2013). In one of her first interactions where she receives a tip from fellow white inmate Lorna, she is told, “We look out for our own.. don’t get all PC on me, Its tribal, not racist” (“I Wasn’t Ready”). After a series of obstacles, Piper is taken in as a group member of the white women. Although a part of her own group, her white privilege continues to shine through for other inmates, and her ignorance to the idea that this concept even exists.
In the sixth episode, “WAC Pack” racial stereotypes are especially represented and continually reinforced. While sitting in the cafeteria, each group talks about their perceptions of other groups as they prepare to run for the Women’s Advisory Counsel. White inmate Lorna explains to Piper, “[Hispanics] live like 20 people to one apartment, they have more kids than even the Irish... They’re dirty, they’re greasy, their food smells nasty and they’re taking all our jobs” (“WAC Pack”). The horrified look on Piper’s face shows her true shock that someone would speak these stereotypes out loud. Meanwhile, the Latina’s converse about black people having different bone densities. For the first time in this scene, negative stereotypes of white people are expressed from other ethnicities. Black inmates Taystee and Poussey engage in a conversation mocking ‘white people politics’ and go on to talk about affluent white activities such as; sushi, yoga, wine tasting, being vegan, hedge funds, documentaries, and having really quiet sex at 9:00. This scene brings forth the typical stereotypes loud and clear that each group holds for each other. Communications scholars Mastro and Greenberg write, “Social perceptions are impacted by content attributes of television stories. False ideas about a group can be validated and that stereotype can become the norm for certain groups” (Mastro & Greenberg, 2000). Although the show itself is not creating these stereotypes, they are reinforcing them from the white protagonist perspective. Here, the show is both enabling and constraining race and using TV as a cultural forum. Different perspectives are shared and stereotypes are put on the table, which allows for a discussion about the realities of each group beyond what is presented. The viewer is left to make their own decisions about what they want to believe in, rather than the show convincing the audience that these stereotypes should be upheld in real life.
Piper’s reaction to these conversations during the election emphasizes her ignorance in the realities of racism and social inequality. One relationship that depicts this ignorance and white privilege is that between her and counselor, Mr. Healy. Through a series of early interactions, Mr. Healy makes it clear that he doesn’t view Piper like the others. T.F. Charlton writes, “’Healy’ extrapolates from Piper’s race, class, and gender presentation, and expects that her loyalties will be with him over her fellow inmates, and treats her differently based on this assumption” (Charlton, 2013). This privilege does not play out in Pipers favor outside of Healy’s office. Charlton also writes, “[Black characters] seem especially aware of the ways in which women like Piper support and benefit from white patriarchy and classism, to the disproportionate harm of women like themselves”(Charlton, 2013). This favoritism in many ways shadows the larger social structure that these inmates sit in outside of prison walls.
Piper does not realize how her white privilege has positively impacted her life on the outside, nor how the ideology of the ‘American Dream’ isn’t realistic for everyone. There are structural issues that override willingness to work hard in America. According to writer Mohadesa Najumi, these Sociocultural determinants contribute to the high percentages of black women in prison (Najumi, 2013). When talking to her mother during a visit, Piper admits that she made bad choices and that is why she is in prison (“WAC Pack”). Bad choices however are only a part of the reason why women go to prison. Taystee, for example, gets out early on parole. When entering the real world she soon realizes she has nowhere to sleep, eat, work, or any support. She quickly reoffends to enter back into Litchfield where she has friends, food, and a bed. (“Fool Me Once”). While Piper got bored and into trouble post-college, other minorities face more complex reasons for offending. As a Feminist blogger wrote, “Women of color enter the justice system from being severely abused by a boyfriend or being forced in the sex trade...being forced to commit crimes out of necessity to feed their children” (“Orange is NOT the New Black”, 2013). Piper is not aware of the crude realities of the cycle of poverty because she has been so privileged her whole life. The difference in her outside life therefore debunks her statement when comparing herself to the others based on just making ‘bad choices’.
Orange Is the New Black brings attention to the structural inequalities of society and gives a chance for identification with Piper’s background and character. Mitell (2010) writes, “Identification invites viewers to imagine themselves as part of the text’s story world (or perspective on the real world) and to adopt an attitude consistent with its tone” (278). Targeted specifically at young white females, a typical Netflix audience, Piper’s perceptions of the world are realistic for her class as well as the audience watching. The idea of colorblindness in a post racist society is normal and easy for white middle class females to believe in. The show however brings these stereotypes to the surface and breaks the boundaries for viewers watching to realize its realistic shadowing of the political world beyond Litchfield.
By raising awareness of the stereotypes pinned on black, Latina, immigrant, and white women, OITNB opens up the discussion for viewers to decide how these stereotypes play out in their own lives. Between the different character flashbacks and Piper’s own background, the stories told allow for a deeper understanding into where each inmate comes from beyond their ethnicity. Piper’s ignorance at the beginning of her stay at Litchfield draws attention to how colorblind white Americans may still be to the real life struggles and obstacles minorities continue face everyday.
Charlton, T. (2013). ‘Orange is the new black’, and how we talk about race and identitiy. RH Reality Check: Reproductive and Sexual Health and Justice. Retrieved From
Mastro, D., & Greenberg, B. (2003). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 44, 691-692.
Mitell, J. (2010). Screening America. Television and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Najumi, M. (2013). A critical analysis of orange is the new black: the appropriation of women of color. The Feminist Wire. Retrieved from http://thefeministwire.com/2013/08/a-critical-analysis-of-orange-is-the-new-black-the-appropriation-of-women-of-color/
Orange Is Not the New Black. (2013). The Feminist Groite. Retrieved From http://thefeministgriote.com/orange-is-not-the-new-black/