Did Season 3 of Orange is the New Black exude, explore, or deplore white privilege?

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Upon seeing the recent cover of Rolling Stone, before watching the third season, I thought: oh brother, it’s the third year of OITNB; do we still need pretty white women to serve as the Trojan Horse for a show that’s really about blacks and Latinas? In case you hadn’t heard, two years ago, the show creator, Jenji Kohan, said:

In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.

But what happens when the Trojan horses are the only ones left strutting around the barn? Maybe that cover stood for something else: truth in advertising. Clearly, white people have a LOT more screen time in Season 3 than they did before. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a show about white people – for example Game of Thrones – though after OITNB’s first two seasons, a turn white-ward is a little disappointing. But the question remains: was the show endorsing, examining, or excoriating whites? A little of all three, it seems. And considering that OITNB is the a paradyme of TV pluralism, a frontrunner of modern feminism, what are we supposed to think after watching it? SPOILERS follow.

This 3rd season of Orange is the New Black is about motherhood, though we almost never hear the word “Mom” – instead everyone is calling their mothers by their first names, which seems like a rather white thing to do. Even Piper, visibly dismissed by her parents, is finally working (with her brother) to become someone worthy of being a mother figure. Upgraded to sweatshop duty, Piper creates her own sweatshop…quite literally, because she needs her “employees” to produce maximum sweat into the panties she’s selling. In the American imaginary, sweatshops are a third-world experience, coded either Asian or Latino, and it’s interesting that when Piper moves into management, she only considers young, attractive white women like herself as business partners – first Alex, then Stella. When Piper’s money is stolen, she at first blames the “employee” she “fired,” Flaca, until Piper learns the culprit was white Stella. This is a relatively clear-cut case of the show blaming a white person for thinking of a Latina as a criminal – a chastisement of white privilege. So far, good. Yet we also know it doesn’t make up for why Flaca was sent to prison in the first place (which we saw in her flashback episode this season) – distributing non-drugs (she sold him blank paper; he placebo’d it to acid) to a white boy who killed himself.

What’s most striking about Season 3 of OITNB is that the lines between Latinas and whites have never seemed more sharply drawn. Many times when you’re watching TV, Latinos are so well-integrated with the whites you’d be shocking half of your white friends to even tell them there’s a Latino on screen – think of Hugo on Lost, Colonel Adama on Battlestar Galactica (his son, lead character Apollo looks pretty white), Rosario Dawson on Daredevil – it’s not like those shows go out of their way to use Spanish dialogue or deploy Hispanic culture. For the first time in TV’s current golden age, then, here in OITNB’s Season 3, one would think whites and Latinos were Hutus and Tutsis, or Serbs and Croats: opposite sides of a battlefield. It’s like Litchfield Side Story.

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At season’s opening, we have every reason to believe in the Tony-Maria-like love between Bennett and Daya, who are expecting a biracial baby together; there’s nothing atonal about Bennett getting down on a knee to propose marriage. Then Bennett meets Daya’s family, including her rough-and-tumble stepfather Cesar, and Bennett pulls a Don Draper, walking away from his job and life. (As stereotypes, drug-dealing Cesar and deadbeat Dad Bennett aren’t exactly doing much for their races or gender.) This pushes Daya into a choice: caring for the baby herself, or giving it to Pornstache’s Mom, who as played by Mary Steenburgen fairly reeks of wealth and white privilege. The show is careful to establish that she’s duplicitous and likely to raise another Pornstache, but nonetheless Daya’s mom Aleida pushes Daya to pull a Madame Butterfly and give away the baby, which she eventually does. Yet after a flashback where we see a young Daya enjoying summer camp with a white-woman counselor, then Aleida’s jealousy, then Daya backtracking and criticizing the white lady, Aleida puts the kibosh on the deal, lying to Pornstache’s mother that the baby died in childbirth. In fact, Cesar picks up the baby, only to get his house raided by “some white guy” and the DEA (did Bennett drop the dime?); Cesar throws down one agent while Heisman-gripping Daya’s 3-day old baby, but eventually he sets the baby down, and now this child will wind up in foster care after three seasons of buildup. The message can’t help but sound like 100 years of Hollywood westerns and related films: miscegenation is always destructive. Compared to some of those old films, the whites are hardly sympathetic here, and so in this case it may read as indictment of whites, Latinos, and/or both; in any event the battle lines feel all too Montague-Capulet.

And that’s nothing compared to the kitchen intrigue, where the ousted Red (who’s not red but white) calls white Norma a traitor for sticking with the Latinas who now run the kitchen. Is the kitchen really such a great place for Latinas, or anyone? Flaca bounces the first chance she gets, and eventually the lead chef, Gloria Mendoza, quits, throwing her apron at Red. But Red must now manage a corporatized, flavor-less kitchen, and in reaction she asserts her white privilege in a way that is probably unthinkable for any of the shows Latinas or blacks – she calls the entire dining room to attention, she manipulates Officer Healy time and again, she remonstrates our lead blacks for eating her organically grown corn – and gets away with it. This latter scene really shows a stark contrast with Season 2, as Cindy reminds her black friends that acting over-black (bringing up slavery, black oppression) is what got them in trouble while Vee was there. As a viewer, I’m thinking, well yes, but you guys also had a lot more screen time.

Pause now to acknowledge the one extended inter-racial plotline of the season that has nothing to do with white people, which concerns Gloria and Sophia (black, transgender) accusing the other one’s son of being a worse influence on their own son. Neither kid seems even as well-adjusted as, say, high-school white-trash Pennsatucky once was. The Sophia-Gloria story ends in mutually assured destruction – Sophia is remanded to solitary for her own protection, and Gloria loses a bit of her soul. This is the darkest story of the season in more ways than one.

Again and again this season, the non-whites go to the whites for help, or advice, or counseling. Half the characters try to get a rabbi to approve their kosher meals, including Flaca, who doesn’t know that her face tattoo is a deal-breaker. Black Cindy converts to Judaism – and man, does she ever. Gesticulating to Red is one thing; what really animates the black women this season is their desire for a white celebrity chef to take over take their kitchen. Sophia goes to Sister Ingalls after her hate assault, calling her “my only friend” even though Ingalls doesn’t do a whole lot. Crazy-Eyes’s hit erotic stories cause half the inmates to fetishize a white guard who she redubs Rodcocker. When a white inmate comes on to Crazy-Eyes in a clever reversal of her puppy-dogging Piper in Season 1, Crazy-Eyes goes to Lorna for sexual advice. When Daya asks Piper if life is really better with money, Piper doesn’t seem all that helpful other than to let us know that she (Piper) grew up in a mansion with five bathrooms. Soso asks Healy for help, but far prefers the help she gets from (black) Birdie, who’s a lot less into prescribing drugs; Healy’s advice leads to Soso’s attempted suicide. (The only main character who doesn’t seek advice from whites, Aleida, is really this season’s Vee; make of that what you will.) These racialized storylines remind one of Obi-Wan’s line in the original Star Wars: “who’s the more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?” Basically, Flaca, Crazy-Eyes, Daya, Soso, Sophia, Gloria, and all the other non-whites are learning not to seek wisdom from whites, to get along on their own, to manage their inner demons and try to be happy with that. Which would probably be a good message for a TV show, if it wasn’t presented alongside…

In Season 3, white women characters are the only ones that the show permits to plan actual criminal activity, whether it’s Piper recruiting Alex, and then Stella, as her stinky-panty business partner, Leanne and Angie planning Angie’s escape, Lorna shaking down pen-pals (perhaps that’s not really capital-c criminal), Pennsatucky and Coates’ extracurricular van activities, or Big Boo and Pennsatucky pulling a “girl with the dragon tattoo” (in Boo’s phrasing) of revenge-raping Coates. Now, you could make a case that this all ultimately functions as an indictment of white (im)morality, though based on 100 years of Hollywood prison stories, it kind of feels like the ones getting away with more are also the ones we viewers are going to like for being more clever. Isn’t the show asking us to cheer for Piper as people did when Sansa finally took charge with her Disney-evil black coat at the end of Game of Thrones‘ season 4? Most of the stories listed here redound to our feeling more sympathetic for the whites involved, especially previous show villains Big Boo and Pennsatucky, who refuse to go through with the rape, but then wind up throwing Ramos (close to literally) under the bus.

It’s true that during this season the show 86’d two whites that we had had good reason to like – Bennett and Nicky. They replaced them with white women (the only new inmates we come to know) who are much more ambiguously drawn, Stella and Lolly. Each of them prove a foil, or sparring partner, for the two characters pictured on Rolling Stone’s cover, Piper and Alex. This might have been more interesting were it not for the fact that the first three episodes of Piper and Alex’s scenes looked like they could have been written by 12-year-old boys (much like the Game of Thrones scenes in Dorne, as Dave Schilling astutely put it here); their anodyne lesbian make-out scenes seem directly drawn from the sorts of 1970s sexploitation women’s-prison movies that Piper openly criticizes. And in terms of who dies in Alex’s flashback, that also feels kinda 40-years-ago. Lolly and Alex go back and forth about which of them is working as a spy, while Piper and Stella (and Lorna and Vince, come to think of it) get to express the sort of tongue-twirling passion that we don’t see from the show’s non-white characters. So yes, the show can say these whites are pathetic, but they also have a certain agency. They’re seen as human and they’re just plain seen, in a way that the show doesn’t see, say Black Woman #4 from Taystee’s group and Latina #4 from the kitchen.

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Birdie, a new strong black woman, asks white Healy if he’s racist or misogynist or both, and after this impertinent question she is dismissed from prison and show. Healy has his own race issues – why did he ever pay for a Russian bride anyway (she corrects him: she’s Ukrainian), if not because that was the cheapest option of the white countries? After a session with Soso that he thought had gone well (he’d actually driven her to suicide), Healy tries to joke with his wife that being Russian, she’s almost half-Asian herself. Yet as pathetic as the show draws Healy, we still care for him. We see him crying at the white wedding (so to speak; but come on, look at it) of Lorna and Vince, and we feel sympathy for Healy to a degree that’s never asked of us when it comes to the few black guards. Likewise Caputo, who eventually lets a couple of white corporate stooges (Danny and Fig) talk him into becoming a white stooge himself. (Just before that reveal, one of his employees hails him as “the white Cesar Chavez.”) Caputo actually becomes the unlikely star of this season, and perhaps its author, considering that last season ended with Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” this season ends with Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and Caputo, in flashbacks, is playing in the sort of mullet-strewn 80s band that wishes it were Blue Oyster Cult or Foreigner. So perhaps we should see Caputo’s long road to Suit as a sort of clever tragedy, like the endings of other movies (why spoil them here?), and an indictment of white privilege, but with all the sympathetic screen time he gets, it also feels like a slight apology for, and maybe even justification of, that same privilege.

The show’s white savior comes (yes, in quotation marks) in the form of Norma, who, in a clever shout-out to the actress’s (Annie Golden) debut film, Hair (1979), turns out to have lived most of her adult years in a white hippie cult movement. A certain strain of (white) feminism has called for silence, and indeed the Cult of Norma has mostly fetishized this sort of thing, finding salvation in Norma’s mute grace. Leanne, Norma’s warped version of Paul, is revealed to have come from uber-white Amish stock, and perhaps this is part of why she comes into repeated conflict with the only two nonwhite members of the cult, Soso and Poussey, who feel Leanne has twisted the Cult of Norma beyond recognition. As Leanne’s bestie Angie returns to prison (would a black escaped convict really have been so frictionlessly re-apprehended?), the cult breaks up, Leanne having gone too far even for Norma. This might have been the show’s clearest Ain’t-Whites-Crazy? plotline were it not for the season finale, where Norma leads her flock, and indeed much of the prison population, outside the fence and into the Red Sea “Freedom Lake” (as they call it).

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Yet the cast lake plunge isn’t literal freedom from Litchfield (no one tries?), but more freedom to resolve their grievances. Poussey and Soso appear to solve their season-long problems by discovering each other (did Poussey need to see Soso’s attempted suicide up close to glean that she was half-white? before that, she’d celebrated her as Asian), and they in turn hug and are accepted by the black women. Gloria and Flaca, and then Daya and Aleida, also come to forgiveness (don’t do it Daya!). But racial coding in this scene is weird (starting with Poussey telling Taystee not to be a black stereotype): Norma doesn’t part the waters (well, she sits on the dock and Sees Red – get it?) or enter the waters with the whites and blacks and Latinas, and thus she can and does reconcile with Red, who also doesn’t get wet. In the context of reflections on the recent incident in McKinney, Texas (which obviously the show didn’t know about), it’s odd to think about any older whites not sharing water with blacks. (The only inmates we know missing this scene are also the young white attractive ones: Piper, Alex, Stella, Lorna. What’s up with that?) Again, this may read as Whites-Be-Crazy, but it also could be read more simply as Whites-Be. The genius of OITNB is that more than almost any show, it never feels particularly plot-driven, but instead just seems to organically happen. And that’s amazing and a reason to keep watching. But do we have to have a show where this much white privilege without comeuppance just happens? Or…perhaps everyone, white, Latina, Asian and black, are learning not to blame anyone else for their problems, that their worst enemy is really themselves, and that they can do better just to float. Perhaps.

In Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin’s book about screen diversity, America on Film, they write that “When it goes unmentioned, whiteness is positioned as a default category, the center or the assumed norm on which everything is based.” Elsewhere they write “the dominance of whiteness goes unchallenged” when it’s “naturalize[d] as a universal state of representation.” This is certainly true of whitey-white shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men, but has Orange is the New Black already done enough work in this department in previous seasons? Perhaps the show’s previous focus on blacks and Latinas has earned it the right to say (to paraphrase Shakespeare): look at what fools these white mortals be. Maybe. We don’t think of, say, Coen Brothers movies as white-privileging, because their whites are so pathetic. But in the end, the whites were the ones with the screen time, and that has to be recognized as a sort of regrettable privilege all by itself.

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