Williams Response

Before the first word was written, Orange is the New Black was already fucked.

In an essay we posted earlier this week, guest author Apryl Williams refers to the 4th season of Orange is the New Black as a spectacle, comparable to the lynch mobs that used the destruction of black bodies as a form of entertainment. In her excellent post, Williams especially laments the lack of a trigger warning accompanying the graphic death of a key black character, one which unapologetically mirrored the 2014 suffocation of Eric Garner. Had there been black writers, Williams contends, things would have been different—she would have been warned instead of just “entertained.”

Williams and others critique the writing decisions that played out in Season 4 and attribute the season’s missteps to a very white writing crew. Indeed, by Isha Aran’s careful calculation, exactly zero black people have been involved in writing Orange is the New Black across its 4 seasons.

Undoubtedly, Williams is right that the series, and the 4th  season in particular,  would have been generally better, and also more carefully written and produced, with a racially diverse staff. The issue of racial representation in the writing room is one that pervades the popular media industry, and Orange, a show about prisons that tells stories about race, is a cautionary tale. Rather than reimagine how much better the season could have been with the inclusion of writers of color, however, I think the critique of a whitewashed profession and industry stands strongest when we table the quality of the writing altogether. Because even if Orange is the New Black Season 4 had been the greatest story of our time, it would remain, unacceptably, told by the wrong people.

Season 4 of Orange is a useful case for the explication of the racial homogeneity problem because, unlike other seasons, it wasn’t terrible and in some cases, did things exceptionally well.  Although expositional writing, heavy handed character arcs, and a little shark-jumping certainly seeped through, the 4th was by far the most sophisticated and politically astute season, throwing the dearth of black writers and what that means, into stark relief.

The first season of Orange began from a literal white perspective and asked viewers to giggle along as the pretty blonde navigated her way through Trader Joe’s withdrawal, the indignities of public bathing, and of course, the black people, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, and the impoverished who disproportionately populate her new home. Piper Chapman was very much at the center of the story and the rest of the inmates played the foil for Piper’s misadventures. Seasons 2 and 3 followed a similar formula.

But then there was season 4. Piper’s role was minimized (Thank. Goodness.) while impoverished, drug addicted, mentally unstable, and racially marked characters drove the story[1]. From a political commentary perspective, the season hit the prison system hard and demonstrated its disproportionate effect on people of color, people in poverty, people with mental illness, and people at all of those intersections. More than any other season, the 4th season addresses how the prison industrial complex traps people in a corrupt and backwards system out of which escape is all but impossible. The system is bigger than those imprisoned by it (inmates), those who work in it (guards), and even bigger than those who run it (administrators). The corrupt and callous operate alongside the well intentioned, all equal cogs in the juggernaut of (in)justice, wittingly or not. The writers’ decision to parallel real life events—namely the killing of unarmed black people by those charged with protection—was a bold move that refused to write or film around an issue, but tackled it head on, unflinchingly, and I might add, heart wrenchingly.

In short, the writers did a good job writing a story and demonstrated that they could articulate the systemic connections between race, poverty, and police states well enough to capture it in fictional form. This is not deserving of praise. It is instead appalling that people can “get” the argument so well, and yet so seamlessly reproduce the very system that they spend a season (and arguably, a series) deconstructing. What could have been meaningful political commentary was instead exploitative.When white people  make money off of black people’s pain, the best possible outcome is an empty signifier of compassion that entirely misses the point.

The relatively decent product of the show itself made clear that under no conditions, whatsoever, should white ladies get to profit by creatively portraying black deaths. It’s smug, disingenuous, self-serving, and entirely typical.


Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis

[1] Can we please all pause for a moment and applaud the phenomenal performance by Danielle Brooks AKA Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson!?