In 2008, the NAACP released a report called Out of Focus, Out of Sync, in which they critiqued what they called a “whiteout” of American TV, drawing attention to both the complete neglect of actors of color on television, and a severe lack of writers of color, too. As a somewhat serious television connoisseur, I’d argue that over the next five years nothing really changed much, save for the rise of Mindy Kaling and Damon Wayans, Jr.’s turns on both ABC’s Happy Endings and FOX’s The New Girl.
This barren media landscape changed for the better this summer with the arrival of Netflix’s third foray into original programming: Orange is the New Black. Ostensibly the story of a privileged white woman sent to a women’s prison called Litchfield Penitentiary for carrying a bag of cash in a drug deal a decade prior, OITNB expands what could have been a limited universe by constructing fully realized characters, ones which offer rare depictions of underrepresented groups: namely women of color, lesbians and the transgendered. In doing so, it pushes back on much of the scholarship surrounding typical media representations.
The NAACP’s “whiteout” is in no way reflected in the casting decisions of Netflix and OITNB. Of the top twenty billed actors, 8 of them are women of black or Hispanic ethnicity. This 40% ratio of non-white representation is heartening, but it also does a disservice to the rest of the cast. Any given episode of the show will feature a large supporting cast made up of black or Hispanic women, and in many of the episodes a majority of the cast is of color, be it extras or single appearances with small speaking roles.
This idea that just because women of color are being represented, that representation will be positive or holistic , is naïve given media’s history of portrayals of people of color. Piper Chapman, the main focus of the show, is a blonde, self-described WASP, and in many television shows the audience would be accustomed to following only her trials and tribulations. OITNB circumvents that by building B and C plots throughout each episode, each of which highlight the backstory of its many attendant characters. To me, one of the most compelling of compelling of these is the richly drawn character of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren.
In the very beginning of the series, Chapman is claimed as a “prison wife” by a woman the inmates call Crazy Eyes. The initial portrayal of Warren’s character by Uzo Aduba is an almost note-for-note performance of what Marlon Riggs’ 1987 documentary Ethnic Notions calls the “savage brute.” Much like how Reel Injun claims one common portrayal of Native Americans is that of the “noble savage,” Riggs’ construct of the Brute Negro is that of media portrayals of predatory, subhuman creatures who victimize white women. Warren is introduced as an unstable woman with off-kilter vision and Bantu braids, signifying both the fearsome and tribalistic characteristics implied by the Brute Negro stereotype. She calls Chapman “Dandelion,” and follows her around the prison campus, unrelenting in her pursuit.
Once Warren submits a request to the ward’s corrections officer to have Chapman as her cellmate, Chapman circumvents the request and moves into a different cell away from Warren. In retaliation, Warren urinates on the entrance to Chapman’s new cell, embodying the subhuman and predatory mannerisms of the Brute portrayal.
In early generations of television media, the character development of Crazy Eyes would have ended here, and she would have stayed a one-dimensional character; a continuation of underrepresentation in media. But Orange is the New Black takes the opportunity to sustain her story revealingvarious facets of her humanity: a glimpse into both her self-perception and her origin story, and development of interests outside pretty white women and inappropriate behavior. Warren is the adopted daughter of a seemingly well-to-do white couple who visit her often at the prison, and she is a huge fan of Shakespeare, taking the opportunity to share her Hamlet soliloquy with the Scared Straight teens that are brought to the prison.
Around the middle of the series, there’s a scene where Warren and Chapman are discussing the psych ward at Litchfield. Warren explains that she’s been to the psych ward multiple times during her sentence, illustrating her very real struggle with her mental illness, something that up until that point has just been viewed as a quirk by both the other characters within the show and by the viewer. During this very intimate conversation, Warren stops and asks, “Why does everyone call me Crazy Eyes?” That one question results in an outpouring of empathy from Chapman, and made me snap out of what had been very lazy media consumption up until then.
That scene got my attention, for the same reason that I felt compelled to write this blog post. I consider myself two things: a critical media scholar, and a compulsive media consumer. I realized that I’d spent most of the time spent viewing OITNB without a critical focus on character portrayals and stories told. I watched the entire series in one weekend, and realized I had gotten a little burnt out. This short, quiet scene between the two characters jolted me out my complacency and encouraged me to enjoy the rest of the series in a new light, and I was able to assess and appreciate the refreshing and honest stories being told.
Netflix’s approach to “television” isn’t truly that of television at all, and maybe that’s why this example so staunchly fights back against the notion of a media “whiteout” (the show’s creator and some of the writers are also non-white). It’s an invigorating notion of what media can become in this era of online consumption; one that leaves me hopeful about the stories that can continue being told.
— By Bailee Martin