Writer Doesn't Understand Why Show About Women's Prison Has So Few Men


Orange Is the New Black, the prison dramedy based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, is a very good show. When you consider its focus on women —particularly those who are trans or non-white or have been made voiceless by the punitive system — you might even call it groundbreaking. But in spite of all that, one male fan (who happens to be a writer at the Atlantic) is unhappy with the underrepresentation of a very specific group. Why, he asks, can’t a show about an all-women correctional facility do more to represent the inmates who are men?

In his piece “Orange Is the New Black’s Irresponsible Portrayal of Men,” Noah Berlatsky writes:

While media is full of men, real-life prisons are even more so. Men are incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate of women. In 2012, there were 109,000 women in prison. That’s a high number—but it’s dwarfed by a male prison population that in 2012 reached just over 1,462,000. In 2011, men made up about 93 percent of prisoners.

It’s always a good thing when people discuss the United State’s appalling prison statistics. The disgustingly high number of men who are victimized by the criminal justice system is a number we should bring up over and over again, or at least until the statistics get a hell of a lot lower. But what does all this have to do with Orange Is the New Black, a show about women in prison, a place where — as Berlatsky notes — 109,000 women in the U.S. are condemned to reside?

Here’s the beef, in the author’s own words:

Of course, Orange is the New Black is under no obligation to accurately represent prison demographics, and just because they’re a minority in prison doesn’t mean that women’s stories there aren’t important. 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 series isn’t inaccurately representing prison demographics. They’re just focusing on a demographic that the author, despite his insistence otherwise, doesn’t feel is deserving of representation — or at least not this much.

There are tiny dashes of sense in Berlatsky’s argument. He rightly notes the way that we as a society struggle or refuse to see men as victims and how “part of the reason we see our violent, abusive prison system as acceptable is because we have trouble seeing violence against young, black men as violence.”

Unfortunately, he couches these valid points in a completely bizarre criticism of Orange Is the New Black, complaining that while “the few male prisoners who are shown on OITNB are presented in almost aggressively stereotypical ways,” the female inmates:

are treated very differently. They may be violent and may be queer, but they are, for the most part, presented as sympathetic. This seems like a feminist move, on the surface. But the inability to extend that sympathy to male inmates, raises a disturbing possibility: that the show is condescending to women while reinforcing old and destructive attitudes about men.

Orange Is the New Black gives female inmates more well-rounded characters not to be condescending, but because it’s a show about women. It’s based on a memoir written by a woman. Its cast, thanks to its setting in a women’s prison, is almost entirely made up of women. (And saying that all of the female characters are more sympathetic than the males makes me wonder how closely Berlatsky watched the show.)

There have been countless critically acclaimed series where men have been allowed to be flawed, dynamic and three dimensional primary characters, while women are stuck on the boring sidelines. Orange Is the New Black is the antidote to that, one of a very few shows that allow female characters to exist in the forefront. Can we PLEASE just have this one thing?

If the answer is “No” and you still want a prison show about men, well, wish granted. It’s called Oz and it ran on HBO for six seasons.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin