White Privilege and Orange is the New Black
Summertime’s for fun and relaxation, but unfortunately the switch controlling the sociology part of my brain rarely turns off. So when I watched the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black, a few gears turned in my head. If you didn’t see it or read the book, you might want to look it up. Race. Class. Gender. Culture. Mental health. Deviance. Religion. Drugs. It’s a streaming Intro to Sociology class ready for unpacking!
The show and book are based upon Piper Kerman’s real life experiences in a Connecticut minimum-security prison after she was busted for drug conspiracy (i.e., trafficking drug money). The first few episodes detail Kerman’s struggles to adjust as a fish out of water.” She is the “viewpoint character: the person in the story the audience sees this world through and can, in some fashion, relate to.
But the best move the television show writer made was the decision to spend the majority of time not on Piper, but on the more interesting stories about the other women in the Litchfield Correctional Facility. Among them are Red, the Russian mob wife who runs the kitchen; Sophia, who is a African-American male-to-female transgendered inmate; Tiffany/”Pennsatucky” is a former meth-addict turned religious fanatic; Suzanne/”Crazy Eyes” suffers from not receiving adequate mental health treatment. Each serves as a character type, representing a variety of social issues.
I won’t make a series of sociological connections about the content of their stories. There’s a lot of them, and I’ll leave that to you! Instead, I will focus on the craft of storytelling in the media, because I think understanding who does the crafting of these characters and how it is done has relevance.
There is some background in sociology on this. At the turn of the last century, Georg Simmel wrote a series of short essays on broad character types—“The Stranger,” “The Man in the Middle,” ”The Renegade”—to offer a sociological method for connecting the micro- and macro-level of social life. He called these characters ideal types, not because they’re perfect but because they are grounded in the realm of ideas. These ideal types want for real world applications. Simmel saw them as a way for sociologists to see how people are shaped by bigger structural issues. (Read more on the sociological use of characters, here.)
I suspect the characters on Orange is the New Black, while bordering on the stereotypical, could also serve as Simmelian types. (The average viewer probably thinks of these creations as representations rather than types to analyze.) “The Stranger” reflects the man who wrote it, not just in the application of the type. Similarly, we as viewers should be thoughtful on who makes these TV characters too.
We should always think about the perspective of the narrator, and midway through the first season, I grew tired of Piper’s storyline but also started to question what stories she’s telling. These are tales of minority women told through the lens of a liberal arts college-educated, white woman. On the one hand, it is great that these issues are being brought to national attention. On the other hand: why does it take a white person’s story for people to listen to it?
One of the best things about this media age is that there is all sorts of extra information—interviews, blog posts, video clips—for us to look up details about how a cultural good is made. Jenji Kohan, the writer and producer for the show, provides an answer to my question.
She told NPR that Piper’s character is a “Trojan horse” to smuggle in all of the other, more compelling stories. (That’s why I was hoping the character would die, or at least be released, at the end of the first season.) I thought that was a sad commentary on the media, but also an interesting wrinkle to what I knew about the show.
It is not just TV, of course. We can think about the characters superstar musicians craft themselves into (e.g., The Rockstar, The Troubled Twentysomething Onetime Disney Star), and the content they produce too.
When Macklemore raps about gay rights on “Same Love,” on the one hand it is great. He is straight, and he is criticizing the hip-hop community for anti-gay rhetoric. Like Kohan and Kerman’s show, his music should be lauded for raising issues. On the other hand, there have been plenty of voices from the LGBT community singing the same tune without as much of a media impact. Why is it harder to find their voices on stage? But color me a little impressed when I read Macklemore actually gets this. In an interview with Rolling Stone he owns up to his success as another example of white privilege, but I would add that it’s an example of heterosexism as well:
We made a great album… but I do think we have benefited from being white and the media grabbing on to something. A song like ”Thrift Shop” was safe enough for the kids. It was like, “This is music that my mom likes and that I can like as a teenager,” and even though I’m cussing my ass off in the song, the fact that I’m a white guy, parents feel safe. They let their six-year-olds listen to it. I mean it’s just … it’s different. And would that success have been the same if I would have been a black dude? I think the answer is no.
It’s a good start when white, heterosexual men recognize their unearned privileges.
So, interrogating the motivations of the creators of the characters and stories in our culture is a good first step. We should think about our sociological readings on this point as well too.
Look for points of reflexivity in your sociology: where the creators know that they have a limited perspective, or bias, or even unearned privileges in their work. Are there viewpoint characters in sociology? Do creators speak for those communities or offer a chance for those characters to speak for themselves?