Representation in Television

It is no surprise that representation of race on television is lacking. Up to and including 2010, there were nearly 1,000 actors and actresses nominated for Emmys in the categories of Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress in Comedy and Drama, respectively. Only 53 of those actors were non-white. That is essentially saying that 94.7% of America is white, which is false. The 2010 Census says that only 72% of America identifies as white. Assuming that the census is correct, 28% of the American population is severely underrepresented on television.

The video below by Glozell Green, a prominent Youtuber, shows the importance of representation specifically through The Princess and the Frog.

Studies have shown that the self-esteem of white male children is increased based on the amount of television he watches, but television has been shown to decrease the self-esteem of white female children and African American children.

The Latino population is 13% of the American population, but represents only 3% of the population on television.

Women are more likely to be portrayed as “thin” to “very thin” than men on television. Their appearance is also more likely to be commented on. In television and movies, women are more likely to be shown doing “appearance related activities” such as shopping and grooming than men.


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It is important for characters to represent real life people. Photo: Gar Tate

All of this considered, it is important that television shows make an effort to accurately portray minorities and women. All of the misrepresentation has been shown to cause low self-esteem and increased eating disorders in girls.

Orange is the New Black has been praised for it’s portrayal of “real women” since it has a cast of varying races and body types. While the main character is a white women from an upper class background, the focus is not entirely on her. Piper has even been criticized as being “boring” and “a Trojan horse” for creator Jenji Kohan.

The diverse cast of Orange is the New Black. Original photo: jezebel.com

The show also presents characters that defy stereotypes and some that are stereotypical. It is important to realize that characters of a certain race cannot all be the same, but not all of them can break stereotypes. Stereotypes can be shockingly accurate sometimes. Taystee and Poussey’s relationship break stereotypes and show strong, independent black women as friends. Black Cindy is more stereotypical as presented as a sassy, loud-mouth hooligan.

The show does bring up Piper’s white privilege both in and out of the show. Jenji Kohan identifies white privilege when she was pitching the show to networks:

“In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”


Representation matters. What you put out on television validates the viewers. People tend to associate the images on television with beauty and perfection. Therefore, it is important to represent everyone because everyone is beautiful and perfect.

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Corruption in the American Prison System

In Orange is the New Black, several issues are brought to attention that are currently corrupting the American prison system. Piper Kerman and Jenji Kohan have included these topics in order to raise awareness of these issues. Obviously, some of these issues are dramatized on the show in order to make it more emotional or appealing, but they are still very real.


Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is common in prison unfortunately. Half of the sexual assaults are committed by guards and prison staff. Even if the inmates give consent, it is still technically statutory rape if committed with a guard. 10% of inmates suffer from sexual assault. Even if the sexual acts are consensual between inmates, it is still illegal and not allowed, but is often used to have a submissive partner be protected by the dominant partner.

In the show, multiple inmates are having sexual relations with each other like Piper and Alex. Some inmates even have consensual relations with prison guards like Daya and Bennett. The show doesn’t depict any rape between inmates, but does bring up the fact that sexual relations between an inmate and a guard is rape. These depictions show the vulnerability inmates feel while in prison. They just want love. They want someone to care for them. They want to know that someone understands what they are going through.


Elder Care

The elderly are the fastest growing population in prison due to the long sentences given to inmates in the past. While the population is growing, the care needed to provide proper medical attention to them is increasing. The price for caring for ailments such as dementia and cancer is well above the limit that is currently set aside for the inmates. It costs three times more to pay for elderly inmates. For when it gets too expensive to care for the elderly inmates, the prison system does compassionate release regardless of if the inmate has a place to live or if they will just be homeless. In some cases however, the inmate could stay in prison instead of receiving compassionate release and staying with loved ones during their final days.

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Orange is the New Black if the characters were played by an older cast. (Collage made by Gar Tate)

In Orange is the New Black, an inmate, Jimmy, suffers from dementia and is given compassionate release after diving from a stage onto the ground believing she was diving into a pool. She has no where to go and is essentially put on the streets where she will probably die. Another inmate, Rosa, suffers from cancer and is unable to receive the surgery that she needs to live due to the prison system refusing to pay for it.


Solitary

In prison, solitary confinement is often used to punish inmates. They are placed in a room by themselves to “think about what they’ve done.” They can be placed in there for any amount of time. This can have psychological, mental, and physical effects on people. It is not a safe practice. Protestors of this punishment is saying it is torture. In the show, several inmates are given solitary for very mundane reasons or just because the correctional officer doesn’t like them.


Budget Shortages

States have cut prison budgets severely in the past years, but the demand for money has not decreased. On July 31, 2007, 4,322 women inmates were housed in a correctional facility that was designed for 1,980 inmates. Overpopulation is a trouble for many populations. It has also been said that the prisons are highly understaffed. The federal correction system is functioning with 3,200 fewer guards than need.

In the show, they show budget shortages when it comes to lack of food and supplies. Instead of fixing the plumbing when sewage was rising from the shower drains, the prison system ignores it due to the high cost of fixing it. In the show, Natalie Figueroa, the executive assistant to the warden, embezzles money from the prison in the show which is an extreme case of corruption in prison.



The show does portray some of these issues in exaggerated or inaccurate ways which has angered some former inmates. It is important while watching this show to remember that this is someone’s life. Hundreds of thousands of women live this daily. Don’t be afraid to laugh at the jokes, but take it with a grain of salt. Do not take it as a perfect guide on how to survive women’s prison.


Obviously, just the depiction of these problems on the show is not solving any of the problems, but it is starting a discussion. The show is making these issues mainstream and opening people’s eyes. It is all about informing the masses. With knowledge, change can occur.

Orange is the New Black

There have been plenty of shows based on real life: Band of Brothers, Bones, Scandal, Necessary Roughness, M*A*S*H, and countless others. Most of these shows try just to entertain, but occasionally there is a show based on real life that tries to prove a point. Orange is the New Black is one of these shows. It tells a story based on real people while also expressing issues of the prison system, excelling in representation of television, and including the LGBTQ community. All of the real events that inspired this television sensation started in 1993.

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Taylor Schilling (left) and Piper Kerman (right). Credit: Huffington Post.

In 1993 at the age of 24, Piper Kerman carried more than 10,000 undeclared dollars into Paris for a West African drug lord. All of this would seem odd for an upper-class suburban woman from Northampton, Massachusetts, who majored in theatre at Smith College, but it wasn’t considering Kerman began a relationship with Catherine Cleary Wolters, an international drug trafficker, a year earlier. Kerman described Wolters as her girlfriend, but Wolters disagrees saying “[they] weren’t girlfriends… [They] were friends with benefits.” Kerman and Wolters traveled the world together, with Kerman running drug money only once, but they would later split. In 1998, Kerman was living in New York with her fiancé (now husband), Larry Smith, when she was indicted on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering by a federal court in Chicago. After pleading guilty, Kerman would serve 13 months of her 15-month sentence beginning on February 4, 2004, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury. In 2010, Kerman wrote and published Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison which was a memoir of her time in prison.

This book inspired the Netflix original seriesOrange is the New Black. After reading Kerman’s book, Jenji Kohan created the show whose entire first season was released on July 11, 2013. The show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), “a woman in her thirties who is sentenced to fifteen months in prison after being convicted of a decade-old crime of transporting money for her drug-dealing girlfriend.”

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Uzo Aduba, as “Crazy Eyes” (right). Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman (left). Original source.

The first season was an instant success and a crowd favorite, it also impressed the critics getting 12 Emmy nominations, winning three of them including Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series to Uzo Aduba for her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. The show also received praise for its portrayal of “real women” because of the diversity. The 13-episode second season was released on June 6, 2014, with the majority of the cast returning as well as an introduction of new characters, such as Yvonne “Vee” Parker portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint. Filming for season 3 has already begun with an expected release date in June 2015.

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Prepon (left) and Schilling (right). Credit: Vanity Fair.

Although based on a true story, the book and TV series take steps to embellish the story in order to make it more entertaining. In order to protect the privacy of the inmates in her memoir, Kerman uses pseudonyms for all of the inmates except for Sister Ardeth Platte and Alice Gerard, whose permission was given. The TV series took even more precautions to protect the privacy of the people involved in the production including Piper Kerman herself. The TV series used Kerman’s life as a basis for the story but took several liberties in the story telling process. In the memoir, Kerman and Wolters were only in the same prison for 5 weeks, while in the series, Chapman and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) stayed for months in the same prison. The Chapman-Vause relationship, in the TV series, escalates to a friends-with-benefits situation, while in real life that did not happen. Piper Kerman is involved in the TV series’s process as an executive consultant, and despite these changes to the true story, the series still attempts to give an accurate portrayal of what the female prison system in America is like. The TV series semi-accurately portrays the corruption in the American female prison system while also expressing the view of women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community in a manner that is hardly ever seen in American productions.


All background information on Piper Kerman that is not cited can be found in her book.