Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Orange Is the New Grey

I haven't read Piper Kerman's memoir, which is pretty shameful for a budding memoirist, I know, but it must be fairly good because Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) says it is and the first series of the Netflix series based on it is highly compelling viewing. Also, it's about the best title for a memoir ever.

However, the second series, which we have just finished watching, a little late in the piece because I was put off by the betrayal in the first episode enough to switch off for a while, until my daughter and Rolling Stone between them convinced me to take another look, is, in my opinion - which is the only opinion I've got to give - not quite so compelling.

I know feminism (female empowerment) is about as complex and difficult as space travel to outer galaxies but... the version that OITNB favours of going all out to challenge the 'good-girl' stereotype by portraying women as bad-ass bitches, seems to me to be a little counter-productive and rather a lot far-fetched. This is a minimum security prison after all.

And the fact that the baddest of the bad-ass bitches is black doesn't help. She (V) gets her comeuppance at the end of the series and it's impossible not to cheer when she does, because she was so totally bad and terrifying - the actress should surely get an Emmy - until you realise you're cheering a black woman being knocked dead on the side of the road by a runaway prison van and it suddenly seems a bit rough, if not racist.

Do we have to be bitches to prize power from the bastards? Perhaps. But can we empower ourselves in this way? Is this female bad-assism at all realistic? We know men with power are almost invariably bastards, prepared to do anything to gain and keep power, but is this true of women? I don't know, nor does anybody else, because female power is barely tested.

But what I do know is that women who commit violent crimes against men are condemned as evil in a way that the men who commit violent crimes against women are not (think OJ Simpson and Oscar Pistorius) and that these women, such as the woman portrayed in the Monster film (a classic misogynistic title considering she doesn't torture anyone or kill any children), are invariably reacting to being terrorised and treated like dirt by men. The same is nowhere near true of the men who are violent towards women.

In a past life I wrote a doctoral thesis on battered women who kill their abusers and in the course of the research for that thesis uncovered a systematic sexism at work in the public response to male domestic violence and homicide against women such that the states in all common law countries - supposed to be the least sexist countries in the world - effectively frame and punish the women (who fight back) as vindictive bitches, and excuse the men - who eventually kill the women they abuse - as poor tormented (by women) souls.

It's a serious and systematic form of misogyny that, in my view, is not going to be helped by creating bad-ass women on screen.

That said, feminism is difficult, with many shades of grey, and having so many women of such ethnic, weight and age diversity on screen, whatever they are doing, is definitely a progress of sorts - particularly when they get to keep their clothes on.

So the jury is still out for Orange Is the New Black. I'll get back to you after I finish season three.


  1. Hey! This may be a bit of a curveball but what is your opinion on the Sandy Hook shootings? What is your opinion on whether or not violent video games are to blame?

    1. Not sure, Jeb, but they can't help. On the other hand, violent video games are practically global now and Sandy Hook-type shootings by young white guys with race and/or gender issues targeting school kids, are mostly confined to the US. So American gun culture clearly plays its part, as do racism, religion and sexism - imo.