Media Literacy Series Part II: What’s going on in ‘Orange Is The New Black’


Welcome to Part 2 of the Media Literacy blog series! Like I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, I challenge myself to think about what I’m watching, and relate these ideas back to my experience as a straight, able-bodied, Woman of Color at UNC.

In this post, we’re going to relate some media literacy skills to one of my absolute favorite shows, Orange Is The New Black (OITNB).

I am a huge fan of OITNB for many reasons. Obviously, the show is comprised of a superbly talented and diverse cast. In fact, I become so enthralled in the show that sometimes I have to step back and remind myself that OITNB is fiction —it should not be my go-to for facts about women’s prisons — the show is fiction with elements that have been dramatized for the sake of drama and entertainment. That being said, I absolutely loved this last season!

If you haven’t watched Season 3 yet, RELAX. This post contains NO SPOILERS for this season and is actually tailored for you. Read on if you want some cool tips for watching this season through a MEDIA LITERACY LENS:

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1. References to “White Culture”

This is something that usually goes unnamed; however, OITNB is not afraid of calling things what they are. Recognizing elements of white culture and whiteness is crucial to understanding privilege. In previous seasons, this included a glorious exchange about “white people politics” between Poussey and Taystee. Look for more of this in Season 3.

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2. Multidimensional Characters

Let’s be real. Season 1 episode 1 started off depicting a privileged, white woman as the center of focus of the show, and we slowly started getting introduced to other characters from her perspective, often in the form of stereotypes. Now the show is more about the amazing women. The creator of the show, Jenji Kohan, has explained that she needed to do this in order to attract an audience that may have otherwise not been interested in a show about strong women of color.

The writers have created very intricate storylines to show a range of experiences around being black, trans, queer, white, etc. in a way that resonates with so many people. The show pushes against common misunderstandings that people have about social identities they do not share. For example, first they casted Laverne Cox, a trans woman of color, as a trans woman of color. This does not happen often, which in itself says a lot about media portrayals. Second, the show shatters misconceptions about trans relationships by portraying her as having been in a loving heterosexual marriage.

OITNB shows how the women’s social identities have shifted, transformed, and made them who they are today, while simultaneously debunking racial and gender stereotypes. Their back stories also might catch you off guard because it’s not what you were expecting. Notice that feeling when it happens this season and ask yourself, “What was I expecting and why?”

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3. Cross-cultural/cross-racial relationships

You have the interpersonal relationships, of course (i.e., friendships, sexual relationships, etc.). But there is also the larger organizational (structure within the prison) and community level relationships. The prison itself is separated in terms of race, and it brings a lot of questions into mind:

  • What are the dynamics between and among racial groups?
  • Is separation by race good or bad?
  • What makes people feel more safe, comfortable, and accepted?

I ask these questions because on UNC’s campus, I’ve heard conversations about self-segregation. Have you ever heard someone ask, “Why are all the _____ people all hanging out together?” How often do we hear “white” in there? Not often. This show depicts some very interesting tensions, relationships, and conversations around race that mimic what people say in the real world and may provide some context (or at least a different perspective) about race relations. This might look like conversations about feeling safe and protected, highlighting moments of ignorance, or mimicking real-world conversations around stereotypes, for example. So, look forward to these conversations this season!

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These are just a few things to pay attention to when you spend your Winter Break watching OITNB. This does not mean you have to be a snob and get together with a bunch of academics to critique every line of the show. It can be as simple as watching the shows as you regularly do, recognizing patterns, quickly naming it in your head, and moving on. That simple act is enough to start thinking about identity, power, and privilege. Because by critically engaging with media, we can reshape conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. and take steps to creating lasting change.

 

Niranjani Radhakrishnan received her BSPH from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill in 2013. She is currently a Program Assistant for Health Promotion and Prevention Initiatives at Student Wellness. She is also in graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill pursuing two masters degrees: Health Behavior and City and Regional Planning with an emphasis in environmental justice, health equity, and spatial analysis using GIS. 

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