Dissecting Race and Gender on Orange Is the New Black (Audio)

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July 16 2014 11:56 AM
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Race and Gender on Orange Is the New Black

Willa Paskin and Zerlina Maxwell talk Season 2.

OITNB 1.
Orange Is the New Black Season 2.

Photo by Jessica Miglio/Netflix

As a member of Slate Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive podcasts—including our newly launched series about Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black. Over the next couple of weeks, Slate television critic Willa Paskin will be talking with experts to explore the show’s second season through the lens of economics, race, LGBTQ issues, and more!

In Conversation No. 3, Willa chats with political analyst and writer Zerlina Maxwell about challenging racial and gender stereotypes, talking “black” and performing blackness, and the very real possibility that Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” might not have been a hit with the Litchfield inmates. Maxwell has written for many places, including Mic.com and Ebony.

This podcast contains major spoilers, so listen after you watch the Season 2 finale.

Miss out on the first two conversations? 

In Conversation No. 1, Willa chats with NPR’s Adam Davidson about how prison economies really work, whether Vee is the ultimate capitalist, and if the Litchfield would ever carry name-brand candy bars. Listen here.

In conversation No. 2, Willa chats with love and sex advice columnist Dan Savage about long-distance relationships in prison, the mechanics of lesbian sex, and what advice he would have given to characters on Orange Is the New Black. Listen here.

Here's the transcript of the podcast:

Willa Paskin: Hello and welcome to a Slate Plus podcast about Orange is the New Black. I’m Willa Paskin, Slate’s TV critic, and in the last few weeks, I’ve discussed various aspects of the show with some excellent and learned experts. This week, I’m joined by the excellent Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and writer from many places, including Mic.com and Ebony. Hi Zerlina.

Zerlina Maxwell: Hi, hey how are you?

Paskin: Thanks so much for joining me!

Maxwell: Thanks for having me!

Paskin: So we’re going to talk about the show and the show’s relationship to race in a kind of freewheeling way I hope. And I wanted to start by asking you about a piece that you wrote, Nine ways that Orange is the New Black Shatters Racial and Gender Stereotypes.

The premise of the piece, or my sense, was that you thought that a lot of the sort of un-fleshed out aspects of the show and characters had gotten more developed in season two, and one of your examples I thought was great was Blanca, who in the first season just screams and seems crazy, and then this season has calmed down and says some really insightful things about love.

Maxwell: Right, she’s just a normal person!

Paskin: Totally. And it made me think that you liked this season better.

Maxwell: Yeah, yeah. I felt that by the end of season one, I sort of “got” what they were trying to do, cause in the first three episodes when it’s very Piper-centric, right? She’s going in, in the beginning of season one, I was like, “I don’t like this show, I don’t like this girl, I don’t care, she’s a jerk, why is everybody telling me to keep watching?”

Three episodes in, I don’t like this show! I don’t like it. But I kept going. It became more and more clear, and even more so in season two, that the people who write the show are in on it, right? And the lens in which we’re looking in on it and are introduced to Blanca are through Piper’s eyes, right? So she’s seeing Blanca as sort of this ranting, crazy person. Obviously they help that out by making her hair all crazy, but again, right, you don’t know how much Pantene Pro-V is available inside of a prison—

Paskin: Not very much.

Maxwell: Right, so everyone on the show is pretty disheveled, but she was extremely disheveled and ranting, but I think she did that on purpose, Blanca. Sort of like performing crazy, so that people would leave her alone so she could hide and talk to her boyfriend.

Paskin: One of the best things I read about it this season was that someone who had actually been in prison sort of fact-checking it, and it was this amazing piece because it was about how everything in the show was totally wrong, then she reveals she’s a Wiccan and she basically convinced everyone to leave her alone by like playing up the fact that she was a Wiccan and they got really freaked out about her. And I was like that sounds like nothing so much as an Orange is the New Black storyline.

Maxwell: I feel like that. I mean, you do whatever you need to do to survive while you’re on the inside. I mean, so many different characters have said the same thing in sort of different ways, right? For Blanca, that means “I get to sext my boyfriend from inside prison and if I act a little crazy people will leave me alone and I’m safer to sext in private, then I’m going to do that because it’s what makes me happy.”

Paskin: What do you think of Piper now?

Maxwell: I started out really, really hating her. I was like UGH, I know this girl. It’s also like that too, you feel like you have reference points for her, I feel like I’ve met people like Piper.

Paskin: Do you mean sort of like self-involved and unaware of that?

Maxwell: Yeah, I mean I live in Brooklyn, and I mean I was the only black person in my school until high school, so I’ve been “otherized.” College was the same way, I went to Tufts [University] and that’s not super diverse. So I know so many Pipers, I know so many folks who are well-meaning in some ways.

I mean, she’s not a malicious person, but she has blind spots. So it becomes so evident, even to her—and I think that’s why I like her more in season two, she’s aware of her blind spot. As people of color marginalize people, women, we’re just asking that you’re like, “You know, I’m aware white privilege exists.”

Paskin: Right, you’re aware of what you don’t know what you benefit from.

Maxwell: And I think that’s how Piper has evolved to the point where I can be like, you know, I actually do like her. For example, in season two, one of the plotlines is the furlough. I’m pissed off that she got the furlough, but then again her grandmother is dying, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Paskin: Also, everyone should get furlough when their grandmother is dying. It’s not fair that just she gets furlough.

Maxwell: Right, it was more that the system is unfair, and yes, she is privileged, she was correct in that stupid speech—

Paskin: Did you think that speech was stupid?

Maxwell: Well, the first time I saw it I was like ugh, oh my god they’re like preaching to us. But then, the second time I watched it through, I actually thought it was pretty funny. But it was true. She’s acknowledging that white privilege exists and that she benefits from it, but you’re still mad that she benefits from it.

But at least she’s aware of it, because there are so many folks who wanna say, “No no no, that doesn’t exist, that’s 1955, whatever, get over it.” And it’s important that people now are like “No, it’s unfair and maybe I did get some unearned benefits, that doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard.”

Paskin: I thought that actually the payout of that plotline where Healey’s like “Are you kidding, you have to go.” And everyone is like “We’re all really mad at you but we’re going to be more mad at you if you don’t go.”

Maxwell: And I think Piper is an interesting thing because I think even though she’s white, I think that of all the people in the prison, I probably relate to Piper the most, or have the most similarly-lived experience to Piper, even though we’re different races, because of our economic privilege.

So I think that in that moment, I can understand her willingness to say, “No, I want to give it back. It’s not fair, I want to give it back.” But then, like you said, that’s insulting because so many people their fathers, and I think Poussey talks about when she didn’t get furlough when her father died. And it’s an important thing, you can’t just give it back.

Paskin: And also giving it back—

Maxwell: For what? Nobody gets to go now.

Paskin: It’s such an unfair system that it’s not like you can hand it off to someone.

Maxwell: No, nobody’s going to get it.

Paskin: It’s interesting that speech, and also Crazy Eyes or Susanne’s mom’s speech at that sleepover, I think the writers—and this doesn’t really surprise me—they have a really good handle, or are very cognizant of those moments feel to me like they are timing out in speaking to us.

Maxwell: Oh, no I thought they were talking directly to us at a lot of moments. Black Cindy example is another one where I feel like she was performing blackness, and I know people like that that are in one moment quoting Nietzsche and the next moment being like super black, or whatever “black” means, and that doesn’t mean that she’s one or the other, which is why this show works, because people are complicated and not just one thing. I mean I talk like Black Cindy sometimes, and I also talk like Piper sometimes. I mean, that’s cool because it makes it more believable.

Paskin: And it’s another thing knowing how to read the people that you’re around.

Maxwell: Exactly.

Paskin: And to be the person—

Maxwell: Well, we code switch, I mean we do that all the time, and I think Black Cindy particularly.

Paskin: Black Cindy, I thought, didn’t do so much code switching as she had all this fake energy, she would be the joker. She would make herself silly and over the top and then there was a real person there who was just that was her way of coping.

Maxwell: Right, and do you ever wonder if the people that you see in the real world who are performing stereotypes, or whoever you see on the subway on the way to work, and you’re like “Oh, those kids…” or whatever, maybe they’re performing too, and maybe they’re just real people underneath as well? And most likely they are.

Paskin: One thing, and this is not related to Orange is the New Black, but teenagers in general, teenagers are always performing, and especially when they’re in groups and on the subway, it doesn’t matter what race they are, teenagers on the subway are basically so annoying because they’re together and they just want to be… not even trouble, they just want to laugh as loud as they can and show how much fun they’re having.

Maxwell: I think that we have to remember that underneath whatever you think people are is another person, and I think the show does a good job in making us rethink how we perceive people just based on how they look, or where they come from. And it’s cliché, but it’s also… we don’t do that, we don’t question our preconceived notions of the guy with the neck tattoo. You see a guy with a neck tattoo, and you think automatically he’s this way or he’s that way. And then it turns out he’s talking baby talk.

Paskin: So you’re talking about Maria’s boyfriend, babydaddy, who has come to prison to visit her, and we see all these scenes of him being totally mute with the baby and she’s just talking at him and then maybe that penultimate episode, she gives him that speech about how you really have to talk to your kids because it’s how they learn and there is such a disadvantage if you don’t talk. And then the next episode he’s sweetly talking to his daughter, who apparently he has loved this whole time and we’ve just projected that he was bitter and mad and angry.

So you wrote about that scene in your piece as well. To me, that scene was like very cute but kind of set off my bullshit alarm on the season, because I think there are these two competing strands in the show, which are there is this huge genuinely human impulse, like you just said, they want you to not judge people by what they seem, which is great thing to be up to, it’s hard to be mad at it, even though I thought a lot of the dramatic stuff this season kind of fell apart because nobody could be genuinely unsympathetic, except maybe Vee. It’s prison, like there are bad people the. Everyone we know, we love them all except for Vee.

Maxwell: The reason that I like that is that you aren’t expecting it. So throughout the whole season, he was in it enough and silent and neck-tattooed that you’re like why doesn’t he talk?

Paskin: And kind of glowering, too. Not giving her anything, sort of mean.

Maxwell: And to the point where you noticed it. At first, you were like “All right, he’s not talking, that’s weird,” and then the next time you’re like “He’s still not talking, that’s weird. He still looks upset about something.” And then when she was transferred, he was still sort of like ugh, and you’re like “This guy, what’s wrong with him?” And then at the end and they were just like “HAHA.”

I like stuff like that because it challenges your preconceived notions of when I see someone on the street, they have a neck tattoo and they are a certain height, you’re like, “OK, are they going to lurch for me? I’m going to do this or this is how I’m going to escape.” As a woman, obviously, you’re always thinking that, but I think that it’s important that we challenge ourselves. I found that that was very subtle.

I don’t even know that many other people have mentioned it to me or even noticed it, but it was one of the things that I noticed, along with the Black Cindy thing, which actually was the two examples I was like I need to write an article about how they’re sort of challenging our stereotypes.

Paskin: OK, I have one that I thought was bad. I thought the “sStay” sing-along was bad. I do not believe that a prison full of women of color feel the way, I thought it was the wrong age, I thought it was a little old. I mean, if it’s like a Fugees song, I believe that. If it’s “No Scrubs,” I believe that, but I don’t believe “Stay” for one second.

Maxwell: I sort of could imagine the writers are a certain age, so for me it was not that the character scene singing, that scene was the writers. That’s how I viewed the scene, I’m old enough to remember that song and I was like oh, you know. But also I feel like the writers are my age too. It was clear, it was a very specific cultural reference, and not only… you have to be over 30 to get.

Paskin: Right, totally.

Maxwell: And so maybe that was just a reward for people who are in their age demographic.

Paskin: Totally, and that is also one of those moments that is like oh, prison is like summer camp, like you’re doing a sing along about—

Maxwell: I would say, there are moments where it was silly. Piper even says, “Oh, it’s like camp!” Or it was Soso who says, “Oh, it’s like camp1” Wait until she’s there for a little longer, right? I mean she lost a little bit of that naivety—

Paskin: Soso?

Maxwell: Yeah, but still not quite enough. I think they really need to explore that further.

Paskin: I feel they set her up as this Piper-like character who was even more annoying, we don’t have to like more because she’s not the main character. Then she had the whole not wanting to shower thing and we realize she had pain, and then they didn’t flesh that out.

Maxwell: Right, they didn’t. I want to know what she did to get in there, I want to know why it was so difficult to contact Occupy people.

Paskin: I always just thought she had done something like chained herself to a tree.

Maxwell: Yeah, I got that sense. In that scene she talks about your parents pick you up from jail. This is not jail, this is prison. There are not many shows like this, and there haven’t been many shows like this, certainly that two black women in a really complicated and beautiful friendship, a villain like Vee, she can be on the list with all of the top other villain, you know Gus Fring or whomever else, and she’s a black woman but it doesn’t matter. I mean they wrote the character and it wasn’t supposed to be black necessarily.

I think that’s really cool. And so pulling out the things that I find valuable, because this is a unique moment when we can have this conversation because we have all of this material to work with. Normally, the shows are just not this nuanced and this interesting to talk about—

Paskin: Or they have like a black character.

Maxwell: Right. Like a black friend as someone who’s sort of not cast in the role of black friend in real life, but I’m sick of watching stories from the black friend. I’m sick of watching stories that are not about real people of color, or real women, I say “real” as like complicated, nuanced, like human—

Paskin: Recognizable.

Maxwell: Right. And so that’s why I think I try to pull out the things that I find valuable, even though it’s not perfect. Why would it be? It’s a TV show.

Paskin: I think pieces that are probably pretty strongly anti this show, I think they come out more from like the context of the show being so praised. Like if the show wasn’t as popular and wasn’t so praised, I don’t know that people would be compelled to write. In terms of the number of women of color and ages and sizes on the cast, it’s kind of unprecedented.

Maxwell: It’s completely unprecedented! We have a cast of all different colors, all different sizes, all different ages and all different backgrounds, all different sexualities. Gender performance is also something on the show that’s sort of played with. It’s great material to be like watch this and let’s just talk about it. And those conversations are super important, because otherwise you’re never going to be able to see this story on the news or hear a story from somebody up the block that’s a different culture than you and really understand them if you haven’t been exposed to it

So if we can do that by television and pop culture first, and then allow people to have these conversations, because it’s actually something that’s more nuanced than we normally get, we’re never really going to make progress on this whole race thing.

Paskin: The critiques of the show that have been like the fact that it is that Piper is working as this Trojan horse makes this show unpalatable generally. Some of the critiques of it have been this is still like a story about a white woman, and all of these, even if they’re nuanced black characters, are still kind of just going along for the ride. She’s still the point of view, and that kind of undermines everything else about it.

Maxwell: I didn’t feel that way about season two. It’s the way that the show evolves episode by episode that allows it to not be just Piper’s lens. Yeah, the world sucks. Nobody would watch the show if it was a black girl going to prison, if the main character was a black girl from the Bronx going to prison. Nobody’s watching that.

Paskin: Maybe they will now.

Maxwell: Maybe they will now though, and that’s unfortunate, but like look, I live in the world. I wish a lot of things were different. They aren’t. The world that we live in is what it is. So I think that the show is still very valuable in terms of entertainment value, it’s funny, but also giving us people to care about and allowing us to talk about these complicated things after we’re done watching it and we’re being entertained.

I interviewed all the black women cast members, and all of them are active with the real Piper and the Women’s Prison Association because of their work on the show, and then they talk about that in interviews. I think that’s important also, because then it allows viewers to be like wait, oh, there is real work that I can do because I’m entertained by this show, and especially since season two was based on the conditions in the prison being, based on the real conditions in the prison where it’s filmed. So that is insane. Cause when you’re watching it, you’re like what the heck, oh, this is actually real, happening right now.

I just think that the more Americans are forced to think about people in prison, because we just forget—the system puts them in there and we don’t even think about it—and most people have connections somehow to someone who has been incarcerated. We need to stop sort of tunnel-visioning our days and just doing our routines and just blocking out those folks who are in prison because eventually they get out, they become part of our society again. It’s not always extremely difficult, I just feel like we dehumanize them, and this show allows us to see those folks as ourselves.

It really is us, I’m not different than the people in prison, I just didn’t get caught if I ever did something illegal, right? People are people. Institutions are made up of human beings. When people are like I hate the Federal Government, I’m like yeah, and there’s people and families and all kinds of career folks that work for the federal government. It is an institution, but it’s also made up of people, which means that if it’s corrupt or unfair in some way, if you change the people inside or change their point of view, then you can do a lot to actually change the way the institution behaves.

 Now, that’s really difficult to do, but maybe it starts with a show about prison in order to change the way we think about prison so that people who get into that position to make policy decisions make different choices. It’s complicated, but we’ve seen that happen in other spaces.

I just think that it is a TV show, we’re entertained by it, or laughing, but also we’re thinking about the issues, and most shows don’t do that.

Paskin: Thank you so much, this was so fun.

Maxwell: Yeah, it was really fun. When you were like, “Come in and talk about Orange,” I was like that’s what I do all the time anyway, so sure!

Paskin: Well I’m glad that you got to so everyone could listen. Thanks so much!

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