Can 'OITNB' Transgress Racial Stereotypes?

Can 'OITNB' Transgress Racial Stereotypes?

Can Orange Is The New Black Transgress Racial Stereotypes?

Since time immemorial, the media has always placed different social and ethnic groups into specific stereotypes. These blurred lines between race and culture are often inaccurate, leading to ill-informed audience members. Before we begin exploring how race / culture is represented in Orange is the New Black, it is important to clarify one thing:

  • Race is the physical color of an individual’s skin tone

  • Culture is an individual’s mental following from his or her choice in practices, traditions and beliefs to his or her choice in rituals, etc.

Although a strong correlation can be found between race and culture, it is not as clear and definite as the media has represented it to be.

The acclaimed American comedy-drama series, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) debuted on Netflix on July 11, 2013. It is quite a realistic television adaptation of Piper Kerman’s true personal experiences in prison. In the show, the main character, Piper Chapman lives a privileged life as a public relations executive until she finds herself locked up in a minimum-security prison for a drug-related crime she participated in. There, Piper interacts with women who hail from all walks of life, story, race, culture, social status, religious belief, sexuality, and educational advancement.

In many ways, OITNB explores every intersection between American culture, women’s traditions and the difficulties that rise from these merging beliefs. However, the show depicts culture as a form of racial representation, rather than anything else. It plays up certain social stereotypes that particular groups may find offensive. It defines distinct racial groups into specific classifications: the “blacks”, the “whites”, the “Latinas” and the “golden girls”. Furthermore, it also categorizes subgroups by sexuality, religious devotion, etc.

The “blacks” are portrayed, in some ways, as belonging to a lower social class than other groups. From the women’s background stories and economic situation outside prison to their educational statuses, the “blacks” seem to experiencing a bout of disadvantages over and over again. Perhaps the most prominent voices from this group are Black Cindy, Taystee and Crazy Eyes. These characters evoke a tough girl attitude, learning from their experiences in the streets and escaping poverty by committing crime. They mock the privileges that “whites” possess and choose to hang out with people of their own race instead.  

On the other hand, the “whites” are portrayed as a higher, privileged, educated group both in and out of prison. The most prominent voices from this group are Piper, Alex and Pennsatucky. These characters often face mockery from other ethnic groups because of their advantages, lack of rough exterior, lack of comprehension of poverty and their easy access to quality higher education a.k.a college.

As for the “Latinas”, they are depicted as people bearing rich stories, hardships and glorious beauty. Much of their characterization revolves around the idea of them being immigration criminals, maids or high school dropouts. Emphasis is often placed on their looks instead of their intellectual capabilities. Crucial voices from this group include Aleida Diaz (the young abusive parent), Flaca (the “hot” Latina) and Dayanara (a pregnant women dealing with an affair with a prison guard).

On the contrary, the “Golden Girls” are often labeled as the “others”. They are either the “Asians” or are mature-aged women. Often, these women’s presence in the drama is significantly reduced or cut shot. In OITNB, in spite of the equal representation of the “blacks”, “whites” and “Latinas”, there are only two “Asian” characters in prison. Of the two “Asian” characters, Chang barely gets any airtime, whilst SoSo possesses Scottish origins (She’s half Asian) and is accepted by the “whites” in prison.  The reduction in “Asian” appearances in prison may also be influenced by the stereotype that “Asians” are less likely to become criminals.  

Even though I believe that OITNB dedicates time into preserving female traditions and cultures accurately, there are some noticeable adherence to stereotypes associated with race that affects the message it sends out. Regardless of the reason for this choice in portrayal of stereotypes, it’s mostly likely the media’s fallacious depiction.

Grace Tang is a Senior high school student (starting September 2015) residing in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario, Canada. She spends most of her free time scribbling down inspirational quotes, ideas for new articles, or anything on her mind. Although the spine of her composition notebook has already fallen apart, she still refuses to write on technological functions (unless it’s mandatory). 

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