Last week Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic made a wholly misguided, and frankly puzzling argument about Orange Is the New Black. An argument that, in his own words, “may seem like a silly complaint.” To summarize the silliness, he felt the show does a great job in representing the diverse population of women in the prison system, creating complex and gratifying roles for varied women — black, Latina, elderly, lesbian, bisexual, trans — but leaves out a very, sorely underrepresented group. You bracing yourself? Because you probably already guessed which group of ladies Berlatsky thinks is getting the short end of the representation stick.
It’s men. He’d like to see more men on OITNB, the show about a women’s prison, based on one women’s real-life experience during her stay in a women’s penitentiary surrounded by women.
But no matter; let’s focus on how this is affecting the men tangentially connected to the women of Litchfield, or go a step further and blame a single Netflix show for not doing due justice in accurately representing the entire male prison population. It’s true that men are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of women (making up 93% of the prison population in 2011). But pause and consider that there have been numerous shows on television that focus exclusively on the male prison experience. From Prison Break to Oz, it has never been a realistic concern that we haven’t thoroughly explored what it’s looked like inside the lives and minds of male prisoners; the list of companion films is also sprawling. Isn’t the fact that there hasn’t yet been a show quite like OITNB a big enough alarm bell to step to the side, sit down and put on your listening cap?
If the Atlantic piece managed to do anything, it served to make another point very clear: when there is so little media devoted specifically and unapologetically to women, and women only, there is no need to involve the unnecessary voices of men at every step. Orange Is the New Black is so rightly hailed not only because of its masterful writing and entertainment factor, but because there are no other options to see a room full of (and solely comprised of) women laughing and dancing because their friend is getting released from prison? Let alone the rarity of seeing women do anything as a group on TV or in film.
There are so few television shows and movies devoted to women, that it’s necessary and essential to embrace smart and conscience-fueled media when it’s presented. Orange Is the New Black takes the stories of women from different sexual preferences, races and class backgrounds and gives them a voice in a system where they are often silenced. It’s not to say that the voices of men on the show are not valid, because men who work in the prison are shown at a variety of levels; from Healy and Caputo on the ethically struggling administrative side, to guards like Bennett, Pornstache and O’Neill who vary in their cruelty, to workers around the prison like Joel, to the husbands, brothers and boyfriends who come to visit. The toll that prison life has on men is touched on enough to show how it factors into the women’s lives. And that’s more than enough.
The focus is not on the men, because the show is not about the men. Caputo and Healy have a rough go of it attempting to manage Litchfield, but they are merely part of Piper’s overall story. They’re present because she and Jenji Kohan valued them essential enough to mention. Bennett gets airtime because he is the man that Daya loves; if she hadn’t deemed him worthy, then he would be just another guard making their lives harder every day. It’s almost perfect because some of these men — especially Healy, particularly Pornstache — think they’re at the center of the prison. Yet they’re forever — and meaningfully — side characters, there to move the story along if it needs a little extra conflict. They are far from invisible, as Berlatsky purports, but they’re definitely tangential.
And it extends far beyond OITNB, this need for a space for women to be represented without having men fully encroach on their media. Just as there can be shows about a women’s prison without representing the male population and all of its stories, there can be shows and movies about other facets and groups of women going about their lives without the constant input of men chiming in. It seems so tired and redundant at this point —three years after its premiere — to even mention Bridesmaids, but that’s the landscape where we’re still at with female-centric media. But think it over. A sharp, funny movie about a group of female friends who come together and have a gross-out, insane time, and it’s celebrated. There are only a few men involved, one wonderful and one heinous (another if you count Lillian’s fiancée Doug, who doesn’t even have lines), but it’s clear that the film could have run its course without the men at all.
Then there’s MTV’s Girl Code, which places female comedians front and center, with occasional contributions from men. But everyone knows that you turn the volume down when the guys appear, because they’re not going to say anything interesting besides “girls are like this…and dudes…are like this.” Riveting. For the girls, it’s a unique and important venue to gain ground as a comedian and find an audience while embracing a community that’s almost wholly female. What’s better than that?
Orange Is the New Black shouldn’t have to apologize for being about women, and we should continue to make media that mimics what the show is doing — creating engrossing, entertaining stories about women that don’t feel the need to make room for men. There’s plenty of space for that outside the walls of Litchfield.