Sexual Liberation Is for White Women, According to ‘Orange Is the New Black’

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Sexual Liberation Is for White Women, According to ‘Orange Is the New Black’

Justine Izah

The Netflix series has been praised by many as being "revolutionary" in its depictions of womanhood, but the show fails to offer its Black characters the sexual liberation that is typically only associated with white characters.

Justine Izah is a high school senior in Muncie, Indiana, and is one of Rewire’s youth voices.

Our society’s patriarchal gaze is rooted in the fulfillment of a man’s needs, whether emotional or physical, and completely overlooks or ignores a woman’s needs. There also is a certain stigmatization on women who opt for just as much attention as men. They’re called “needy” and “bossy,” while men demonstrating the same behavior or wants are described as being focused and in charge. However, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black flips the common narrative and instead focuses on the experiences of women who’ve seemingly rejected the expected traits that make a woman: submissive, quiet, and obedient.

It is ironic that a physical lockup of the women for their crimes allows a liberation of their bodies under other circumstances.

However, as revolutionary as OITNB is at showing the different lived experiences of women of many backgrounds with far less censorship than normal, the depiction of female sexuality is skewed toward whiteness and the Black and Latina characters are given less opportunity for sexual exploration, following in the tradition of the many shows that have come before it. OITNB fails to offer its Black characters the sexual liberation that is typically only associated with white characters. This is problematic because OITNB is perpetuating stereotypes in what is considered a safe environment (a “progressive” show) and these tropes are continuing to spread into the real world, as we’ve seen with two recent magazine covers featuring its characters.

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In the first three seasons of the show, the white inmates are given more sexual freedom while still being afforded all terms of fragility associated with white femininity. There’s a contradiction in the fact that fewer sexual encounters among the Black women on the show is considered acceptable by most viewers, while the white inmates do the exact opposite of what is considered “ladylike” and yet are perceived as the “good girls.”

Two of the main white characters, Piper Chapman and Galina “Red” Reznikov, in particular are treated as breakable objects. They are each given a pedestal of privilege of which they do not recognize or deny. Piper is often stuck in a cycle of self-pity and narcissism that allows her to dismiss the feelings of others while still remaining a favorite. And when Red—the redheaded Russian and “mom” to some of the white inmates—is booted from her position as head chef in the prison for smuggling, she eventually weasels her way back into the kitchen by the end of the third season. However, when Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox’s character, a Black trans woman) is physically attacked by way of transphobia, she is sent to solitary confinement while no action is taken to prevent this type of hate crime from occurring again. Unfortunately, the violent intersections of transphobia and racism come together to allow the victim to be punished like a perpetrator. And sadly, to the viewer, it almost comes as no surprise because of the often deadly treatment that transgender women of color face every day.

So far, in 2015, over ten transgender women of color have been brutally murdered. Investigations have been completely botched and victims have been misgendered after death, thus further denying their womanhood. The show has such a large audience and either is missing or denying this opportunity to educate its viewers on these issues by presenting an alternative narrative.

In general, the Black characters are treated as asexual mammies. In U.S. history, the mammy trope arrived during slavery when slave women were forced to take care of white babies while their own children were denied care. It continued well into the 1960s when Black women were maids and nannies for white children but did not have the time or money to raise their own children. Historically, Black women have always been bestowed the responsibility of taking care of other people’s children while simultaneously deemed not good enough to be treated like a human. The portrayal of mammies cannot be ignored because the desexualization of Black women and their apparent undying loyalty to the stabilization of white families sells (e.g. Madea, Big Momma, Aunt Jemima, and so on). The trope even has been used on our current first lady, Michelle Obama. Critics say she should give up her position as “Mom-in-Chief,” and start caring for all Americans. This while critics simultaneously deny her womanhood by calling her a man and “Moochelle.” Writer and television host Melissa Harris-Perry defended the first lady by stating that she “has buried mammy,” and that it is not technically the first lady’s job to take care of other people. The push for a mammy to solve everyone’s issues is still a stereotype that runs rampant. In season three of OITNB, viewers can even observe Taystee recognizing herself as the “mom” of her group.

Non-heterosexual relationships also are more common amongst white inmates in the show. There are many more lesbian relationships between white inmates than within the Black inmate population, and there are none in the Latina population.

There is historical context that comes to play when assigning sexual agency to characters, whether done consciously or not. Throughout history, Black female sexuality has been constantly suppressed in order to uplift white female sexuality as more demure and obedient. Black women and other minorities have been forced to hide their bodies and their hair—out of fear that it will distract the white man—repress their desire for sex, and take care of other people’s children while having their own snatched away. Minority women have had to endure being viewed as sexually insatiable animals on top of the exploitation that comes along with just being a person of color. So, it comes as no surprise when two white characters, Nicky Nichols and Big Boo, have a sex competition. If other races had participated, the competition would have been viewed as animalistic and uncivilized. For these two characters, it was seen as raunchy and as, “girls finally doing what guys do.” It is also no shock that when two Black characters, Taystee Jefferson and Poussey Washington, start to engage in any sexual activity, much less a homosexual relationship, it is ended before it starts. For three seasons, we have seen no sexual activity involving any Black characters that wasn’t placed in a flashback.

For many people within the Black community, the notion of a same-sex relationship between Black women only assures what others already assumed: It cements the idea that Black women possess more masculine qualities, provoking the use of slurs like “dyke” toward Black women in a systemically biased way. So, when observing Taystee’s rejection of Poussey’s advances, it is not surprising as it follows a narrative given throughout our history. Given the context of Black female sexuality, being perceived as gay by others or even by herself denies her Black womanhood.

The tropes cannot be ignored because, unfortunately, they are a reflection of reality. Black female sexuality is continuously suppressed, except for when it is exaggerated for the benefit of others’ sexual fulfillment. However, white female sexuality is allowed to develop because the white lesbian relationships that occur on the show continuously deny the existence of women of color who aren’t heterosexual. The relationships are a symbol of rebellion and fail to reflect that for some, being Latina and gay or Black and pansexual is what’s normal. White female lesbianism is not in the same category as white heterosexuality; however, it is still a common trope because it’s white and especially because the show’s main couple, Piper and Alex Vause, possess feminine qualities and are attractive by society’s standards.

Recently, several of the show’s stars have taken the cover of magazines. In the July issue of Essence magazine, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Vicky Jeudy, and Adrienne C. Moore donned the cover in all-orange ensembles. Their co-stars Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling appeared on the cover of a June Rolling Stone. While both publications give access to the stories of and inspirations for women breaking glass ceilings, in ways that frankly will have greater appeal to their respective audiences, it is difficult not to create a juxtaposition between the two. The Essence cover features the Black women as matronly figures; it isn’t explicitly sexual. However, the two white stars on the Rolling Stones cover are striking a sexy pose. Taken together, the covers exhibit expected expressions of sexuality for these two groups. I am led to believe that white women are allowed to be openly sexual, while Black women must present themselves as respectable to be acknowledged as humans at all.

Essence is a magazine created for Black people—Black women specifically. Yet, in order to even exist in our own spaces, Black women must present ourselves in ways that hope to garner respect from others because of the historical perception of Black women.

Orange Is the New Black constantly pushes the idea that for women, sex matters too. There’s a reoccurring idea that women need to know about their own bodies and there should be no shame in doing so. Sophia Burset even goes as far as to educate the other inmates on the anatomy of their sexual organs with a diagram. The open conversations about female anatomy and sex even educate the audience, as the exploration of one’s female body is often shunned. The show is about women and certainly keeps the storyline focused on their voices.

However, the show and its writers still operate on maintaining many of the racial tropes often found in movies and on television. The writers have further separated people of color and allowed them and queer sexualities to be treated as completely non-intersecting facets. For white women, OITNB may serve as a groundbreaking narrative that they “don’t need men,” and can, “get things done,” but for women of color, it does nothing but perpetuate stereotypes that carry over into how we are treated in real life. Character developments in season three may have allowed viewers to see the women of color on the show as real people and not just Piper’s friends or enemies; however, the show can and should do more to break down stereotypes and reject these white supremacist narratives. Otherwise, the show is really only revolutionary for white women, while women of color remain as background characters to further plotlines.