This morning, The Atlantic published a piece by Noah Berlatsky about the “irresponsible portrayal of men” on Orange Is the New Black. Orange, a groundbreaking show with a wonderful and admirably diverse cast, is set inside a women’s prison, and the characters definitely reflect that setting. It’s a show created by a woman (Jenji Kohan), based on a memoir written by a woman (Piper Kerman). It’s a show that aims to tell women’s stories — and it succeeds masterfully — but Berlatsky’s complaint, naturally, is that the show “barely, and inadequately” represents men.
“This may seem like a silly complaint,” he writes before launching into a truly silly complaint. Berlatsky’s first, most basic argument for why Orange should include more men is the fact that real-life prisons are populated by far more men than women. This is very true and unfortunate, but that shouldn’t have much bearing on a show set inside a women’s prison. If HBO’s Oz were failing to adequately portray men, then by all means, let’s talk about it! But this isn’t Oz, nor is this a male-centric show. There is, without a doubt, a lot to discuss and debate when it comes to male prisons and prisoners, and the cultural attitudes surrounding them — particular black male inmates — but a piece on Orange Is the New Black is hardly the place to discuss it. It’s a subject that deserves a more nuanced and thoughtful take, not one haphazardly attached to a Netflix program about women.
Berlatsky also argues that the “problem is that the ways in which OITNB focuses on women rather than men seem to be linked to stereotypically gendered ideas about who can be a victim and who can’t.” The examples he gives — Piper’s encounter with male inmates in the Season 2 premiere, a few backstories — aren’t exactly evidence of this “problem.” He cites the “frightening sexual verbal advances towards Piper” but doesn’t mention any of the sexual verbal advances between the women in Litchfield. Sure, a male prisoner does a favor in exchange for Piper’s dirty underwear, but what about when Piper tries to trade Brook — an actual person — to Big Boo in exchange for a blanket?
The women on Orange Is the New Black are often painted with sympathy (as many of them should be!), but some are also awful and villainous people who committed crimes and are being punished for it. Some victimize others, some are victims, many are both. There is barely a mention of Vee, who is painted entirely as an evil villain, and absolutely no discussion about Natalie Figueroa, the greedy and corrupt assistant to the warden. Berlatsky also misunderstands many of the inmates’ backstories; to sum up Morello’s chilling and fucked-up story — a story in which she is a violent stalker — as a “tragic lack of love” does a disservice to the complexities of the character and the complexities of the writing.
For a piece about the men on Orange Is the New Black, it also fails to mention the men who appear regularly on Orange Is the New Black. Instead, there is some harping on the negative portrayal of just one male inmate who only appears in one episode. There is no mention of Bennett, the prison guard who gets an inmate pregnant yet is rarely vilified. Instead, and especially in the first season, all of their encounters are scored by twinkly, romantic music. He’s portrayed as sympathetic — at one screening I went to, he was introduced as the “sweetheart” of the show — and he doesn’t get punished even when he confesses to Caputo (who, by the way, had a fantastically interesting and largely relatable arc in Season 2).
Outside of the prison, there is Larry, who gets his cake and eats it too — Piper and Polly — and tons of men within the flashbacks, ranging from the victimized (Morello’s Christopher) to the corrupt (Vee’s police officer buddy who frames her nemesis) to the abusive (Gloria’s boyfriend) to the admirable (Poussey’s accepting father).
Still, these men aren’t the center of Orange Is the New Black for a reason. Orange Is the New Black is not only a decidedly female-focused show, but it’s interested in telling stories that aren’t already on television. We have already had shows about male inmates: the popular Oz took place in a male prison; the haunting and brutal Rectify is currently examining life after prison (with plenty of flashbacks to Daniel’s time behind bars). We have plenty of shows about men — to his credit, Berlansky does admit, “Men… are amply represented in the media, in major and minor rolls [sic]” — to the extent that they don’t need to be shoehorned into stories where they don’t belong (quite literally; male inmates do not belong in a women’s prison). If you’re truly craving media representation of men, flip through 30 channels on TV and you will find about 30 of them. Let Orange Is the New Black tell a different story for a change.