Martha Thomases: The Men of Orange
I ran out of energy over the holiday weekend. Instead of going on picnics or watching fireworks, making potato salad (which I loathe) or lying on the beach, I binge-watched Orange Is the New Black. I’m late to this party, and even with four days of inertia, not being able to leave my chair except to eat, sleep and throw toys for the cat, I only got halfway through the second (and current) season.
Why did I wait so long? The initial hype turned me off. I thought it was going to be played more broadly, and I didn’t want to see women in prison played broadly. My son told me I would like it and I still didn’t watch it.
But then I read this, an article that criticizes the show for not paying enough attention to men. That pissed me off enough so that I had to watch.
See, OITNB is based on a book written by a woman about her experiences in prison. The show, like the book, represents her point of view. It’s not a documentary about our prison system, which would be a much harsher series, and much more difficult to watch. It’s a story. A story with characters.
It’s the author’s perspective. If she didn’t perceive the men in her life at that time as fully-rounded characters, well, then that is her life and how she chose to portray it in her book. And, since she’s a producer on the program and has described the show as “96%” accurate, I’m assuming she signed off on the television versions as well.
Every work of art does not have to represent the universe. In fact, I would say that is almost impossible. Every work of commercial entertainment does not have to represent the universe. As a consumer, I would like to have the choice of a universe from which to choose. I would like to be able to get the perspectives of men and women, queers and straights, people of all colors and cultures and social classes.
When I want a creative fictional depiction of the male experience in prison, I can watch Oz: The Complete Seasons 1-6. You may notice that there are not many women featured, and yet I don’t recall complaints at the time. Because those complaints would have missed the point!
My pal and colleague Michael Davis started The Black Panel at the San Diego Comic Con as a place where people of color could talk about their own creativity, rather than simply gripe about the racism of corporate comics. Instead of kvetching that Spider-Man isn’t black, or that DC wouldn’t let African-American creators work on Superman, Davis urges people to make their own art, providing examples and role models on the dais. Watching OITNB excites me in the same way. It’s a show created by women, based on a book by a woman, with women in the majority of roles.
If you find yourself with time on your hands, a Netflix subscription and you haven’t yet done so, I highly recommend OITNB. The physical contrast to most commercial (and, let’s face it, indie) entertainment is startling. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many women on a program, with so many different body types and colors and ages. Some have bad skin. A few have really bad teeth. They have bad haircuts. They sag. Their clothes do not fit well.
The characters, all of them, are rich and complex and heartbreaking. Even those I don’t like, I want to see pull through. The actors really nail it (although I’m sure the scripts and the direction contribute, I think it is, ultimately, the actor here). After I watched a bunch of episodes, I went to see what else I could find about them. When I saw this, when the cast dressed up for an awards show, I could not believe how well everybody cleaned up. And how much I missed their fictional selves.
So, despite my initial resistance, I’m now a fan. Not enough of a fan to want this Orange Is the New Black Presents: The Cookbook, but a fan.