Thursday, October 16, 2014

Orange is the New Black as a Risky Act of Consciousness-Raising

Michaele L. Ferguson
University of Colorado

By blurring the lines between entertainment and political advocacy, Orange is the New Black expresses a novel and risky form of mass political consciousness-raising. It simultaneously educates, outrages, and diverts its audience. In so doing, it has tremendous potential to generate empathy for the poor and the incarcerated among the complacent American middle-class, but it also risks undermining critique of our justice system through its use of melodrama and marketing. Whatever its ultimate impact on our culture, it is worth understanding how Orange simultaneously operates as entertainment and political incitement.

I contend that Orange engages in a kind of consciousness-raising through entertainment that is indirectly political. It focuses on stories about individuals, peppered with brief discussions of political issues: along the way the viewer is educated in questions about sentencing and prison justice, but the show does not make these issues the overt object of the action. It raises consciousness in a subtle fashion, without just telling us what to believe.

Precisely because its politics are so subtle, Orange has the radical potential to illuminate how our justice system works and the ways in which women prisoners are particularly disadvantaged within it. Yet this potential to raise awareness and even to mobilize viewers to take action is simultaneously undermined in four ways.

1) The Netflix series deploys melodrama in a way that keeps the storytelling light and satisfies viewers’ desire for justice, but may also keep viewers from reflecting on the actual injustices of the prison system. Consider this in contrast to what we see in a series like The Wire. Where The Wire is primarily dark and aims at portraying realistic characters and situations, Orange often exaggerates scenarios in a way that seems designed to satisfy viewers’ desires for some kind of justice in a prison world that is (in reality) unrelentingly unjust. The Wire’s deployment of the tragic form, I believe, makes it very difficult for viewers to treat it as mere entertainment, and to disengage from the political questions it brings to the forefront. The use of melodramatic forms in Orange, however, while perhaps it makes the show easier for a broader audience to enjoy, may also risk obscuring the real injustices of the prison system that the show serves to highlight.

Orange couches consciousness-raising in the more entertaining and palatable forms of hot lesbian prison sex, humor, and melodramatic justice in which bad people ultimately suffer for their misdeeds. While based on a memoir, the Netflix series takes creative license with reality in ways that may obscure or at least deflect serious attention from the injustices of the prison system.

2) My second worry about the potential effectiveness of Orange’s political consciousness-raising has to do with how Netflix blurs the lines between entertainment, marketing and political advocacy. When political advocacy is presented as marketing for entertainment, I worry that audiences may experience this either as confusing (i.e., they may not experience the political issues as issues), or as a turn-off (i.e., they may see the advocacy as self-interested rather than the result of more noble motivations).

For example, consider the “paid op-ed” that Netflix produced for The New York Times around the time Season 2 was released. Entitled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work,” this op-ed presents a visually appealing graphic representation of the status of women in the American prison system, interspersed with video and audio interviews with women who are serving or have served time. It is an incredible act of political pedagogy: it educates readers about the specific issues faced by women in the justice system; it raises awareness about many of the injustices faced by women both leading up to, in, and after prison; and it offers a solution in the form of the Hawaii Women’s Community Correctional Center, which treats women prisoners as in need of sanctuary and a place to heal during their time in incarceration. At the very end, it provides some links to “additional resources,” including to some activist and service organizations addressing women prisoners in particular.

I find this ad intriguing because of how it blurs the lines between politics and marketing. Netflix may benefit reputationally from being seen as a corporation that is not merely making money from the show, but is advocating for the kind of women the show portrays. But I think the blurring of the lines here raises questions of motive that are difficult to dismiss. Is the Netflix leadership truly in favor of prison reform (in which case, why does this appear to be the only such effort at consciousness-raising sponsored by Netflix)? Does it hurt the cause of justice reform to have it associated with a media company that is profiting off of a fictional and melodramatic portrayal of the issues? Or does it help to have the corporate money to reach a broader audience with the political message?

3) Either way, neither the series nor the op-eds provides us with a viable model of what political action to change the system would look like. The op-ed references the women’s prison in Hawaii as a role model for other prisons, yet it does not give readers any sense of how this model could be taken up elsewhere. The resources listed at the end of the op-ed give readers a chance to learn more about the topics mentioned and to find ways to take action, but the organizations listed are lumped together with no additional information to distinguish between them, or to explain why they were included. There is no suggested political action to take, and no information given to encourage readers to find out more about the organizations listed. It is unclear how a reader would even get to more information about the Hawaii prison, the one that is upheld as a role model for reform.

Matters are even worse in the series itself. Those who have political convictions about justice are mocked in Season 2 with its hunger strike. The hunger strikers cannot agree on a meaningful platform, and ultimately their conviction weakens in the face of a mediocre pizza. Sister Ingalls encourages them to leave the movement saying, “Go ahead, girls. Take a break from your values” (Season 2, Episode 11: "Take a Break from Your Values"). The hunger strike serves primarily as comic relief – no one takes it seriously, least of all the prison staff.

So even as the marketing and the series urge us to see the injustices of the system, they offer no clear path to create change. In a culture in which the general population is largely depoliticized, and which often treats political activism as futile, self-aggrandizing, or na├»ve, this is an opportunity missed. What’s more, the deployment of consciousness-raising as a form of marketing reinforces the cynical view that political actors have hidden agendas.

4) Finally, because Netflix has chosen to release an entire season all at once, annually, the show enjoys only a brief media spotlight. Women in prison get a big boost of attention in June, which subsides by the end of July when many viewers have finished binge-watching. This limits the impact that Netflix’s advertising campaign, and news articles about the show can have in terms of raising awareness and keeping the issue of prison justice in the forefront of media attention. Except for the occasional award show or guest appearance on a talk show, there is no real occasion to bring up Orange in the media until we are approaching the release of the next season. The spotlight on prison reform is intermittent, as a consequence. Again, I worry that this means that sustained attention on reform is unlikely to result from the show.



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