Why Representation on TV Matters

Laverne Cox and CeCe McDonald were the guests on Democracy Now on Feb. 19, 2014. This is how Amy Goodman introduced the program and the two women. As background for this post, I’m going to quote the entire introduction.

After serving 19 months in prison, the African-American transgender activist CeCe McDonald is free. She was arrested after using deadly force to protect herself from a group of people who attacked her on the streets of Minneapolis. Her case helped turn a national spotlight on the violence and discrimination faced by transgender women of color. In 2011, McDonald and two friends were walking past a Minneapolis bar when they were reportedly accosted with homophobic, transphobic and racist slurs. McDonald was hit with a bar glass that cut open her face, requiring 11 stitches. A brawl ensued, and one of the people who had confronted McDonald and her friends, 47-year-old Dean Schmitz, was killed. Facing up to 80 years in prison for his death, McDonald took a plea deal that sentenced her to 41 months. In the eyes of her supporters, CeCe McDonald was jailed for defending herself against the bigotry and violence that transgender people so often face and that is so rarely punished. At the time of the attack, the murder rate for gay and transgender people in this country was at an all-time high. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs documented 30 hate-related murders of LGBT people in 2011; 40 percent of the victims were transgender women of color. Transgender teens have higher rates of homelessness, and nearly half of all African-American transgender people — 47 percent — have been incarcerated at some point.

McDonald joins us on her first trip to New York City. We are also joined by one of her supporters, Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, producer and activist who stars in the popular Netflix show, “Orange is the New Black.” She plays Sophia Burset, a transgender woman in prison for using credit card fraud to finance her transition. She is producing a documentary about McDonald called “Free CeCe.” We also speak to Alisha Williams, staff attorney with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

“I very easily could have been CeCe,” Laverne Cox says. “Many times I’ve walked down the street of New York, and I’ve experienced harassment. I was kicked once on the street, and very easily that could have escalated into a situation that CeCe faced, and it’s a situation that too many transwomen of color face all over this country. The act of merely walking down the street is often a contested act, not only from the citizenry, but also from the police.”

Laverne Cox has been everywhere lately. She gave the keynote address to 2014 National Conference for LGBT Equality: Creating Change. Cox has also appeared on The Katie Couric Show. After the much criticized questions in the Katie Couric interview, Cox gave Salon this interview: The post-Katie Couric shift: Laverne Cox tells Salon why the media’s so clueless. (Related to bad interviews, this Democracy Now episode also talked about @JanetMock and her interview with Piers Morgan.)

Can a TV show change the world?

Laverne Cox has been an actress since 2000, but Orange is the New Black has given her an unexpected platform and visibility. OITNB has given transgender people in general an unexpected platform and visibility. Justice for transgender people, for trans women of color, is now a topic of conversation all across the country.

It isn’t so much about Laverne Cox, as that she’s suddenly been given this moment because of OITNB. She’s been given visibility, and she’s making good use of it.

Cox seized the opportunity to promote change, up the stakes in her activism, and be a voice to whom the media will listen. She’s wonderfully suited to be a leader and public voice for the trans community. She’s brainy, she’s articulate, and she’s charismatic.

You may say that change would come eventually, that demands for justice and equality from the transgender community would eventually be heard, but I think it would have been a longer time coming. It would have been a harder struggle.

A TV show about women in prison with a sympathetic and likeable transgender woman’s story as part of the ensemble has made change possible sooner. It has given activists like Laverne Cox an opportunity to be heard by a wide audience.

Giving representation to marginalized or minority parts of society on TV shows can change the world. What we see on TV matters. It matters to real people.

Watch This: Orange is the New Black Season 2 Teaser

It’s a mere 30 second teaser, but it came with the announcement that all 13 episodes of season 2 of Orange is the New Black will be released on June 6 on Netflix.

I’m ready right now.

Trailer: House of Cards, season 2

If you have Netflix and haven’t watched the first season of House of Cards I recommend you watch it. It’s excellent in every possible way storytelling and acting can be excellent. The first season won 3 Emmy awards.

Season 2 will be released February 14, 2014. Here’s the trailer from Netflix.

Among the many featured actors in the series are Kevin Spacey, Michael Gill, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara. Kevin Spacey carries the lead as the ruthlessly ambitious Francis Underwood.

Season 2 Casting News for Orange is the New Black – Updated

The latest from Netflix about season 2 of Orange is the New Black is that Lorraine Toussaint was added to the cast as a prisoner named Vee. Lorraine Toussaint was a regular on Body of Proof, Friday Night Lights and Saving Grace, but I love her most of all from Any Day Now. Any Day Now was set in 1960’s Birmingham, Alabama during the height of the civil rights movement. If you haven’t seen it you should look it up and watch it.

Danielle Brooks

Netflix also announced that Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee will be a regular. Danielle Brooks is fresh out of Julliard. Her career is off to a solid gold start with OITNB and Taystee.

Taryn Manning

Taryn Manning is promoted to being a cast regular as well. The announcement is a bit of a spoiler alert, since it means that Piper didn’t do as much damage to Pennsatucky at the end of Season 1 as we might have thought.

Update 2/1/2014

The news about casting for season 2 announced recently is that Lori Petty from Tank Girl has a part in Orange is the New Black. The name of her character and what part she’ll play in the show isn’t explained yet.

Social Justice Issues in Orange is the New Black

I just can’t shut up about this series. There’s a lot in it to think about. Social justice, for example.

Orange is the New Black begins each episode with a changing array of mouths and eyes. These are presumably real female prisoners. Here’s what you notice after a while.

Very few of those eyes are blue. Jenji Kohan is showing us this as a fact: very few blue-eyed people end up in prison.

eyes from OITNB
Eyes from the opening credits of Orange is the New Black

The opening credits aren’t the only place where we must think about racial justice. When blonde and white Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, arrives at the prison to surrender herself, a guard assumes she’s a visitor, not a future inmate.

When we look at a white person, we don’t see a future jailbird. Put a little color in a person’s skin and suddenly they are a criminal. Have you seen this video?

Jenji Kohan isn’t quite that obvious in Orange is the New Black, but the evidence is there.

In the prison society in Orange is the New Black, the inmates have divided themselves into “tribes.” These tribes are based on race. Yes, there is a tribe of white people. But the women of color far outnumber them.

The prison officials encourage this system of tribes and allow one person from each tribe to be elected to a council of women who are promised some input into how things are run.

Race isn’t the only issue in the hierarchy of inmates. There are class-based hierarchies within the tribes.

There’s a scene between a white guard played by Lauren Lapkus and the main character, Piper. The guard says that she could be where Piper is – she just never got caught for her bad decisions.

When Piper’s mom visits her in prison, she laments the fact that Piper took a plea bargain and didn’t go to trial. Why? Because people who look like Piper are never convicted in a trial.

On Piper’s first day in prison, she meets the prison counselor Jim Healy, wonderfully portrayed by Michael Harney. He suggests to her that there is no logic in how long sentences are. Someone who committed a minor crime might get 4 years, while someone who committed a more serious crime might get 9 months. He doesn’t say this is based on race, but studies that compare sentences based on race point to statistics like this.

Corruption within the prison system itself is portrayed by Pablo Schreiber as Mendez, the guard, and Alysia Reiner as Figueroa. These people are as crooked as the inmates.

Orange is the New Black tells a great story with characters we love. Still, there’s a lot going on under the surface that bears thinking about and talking about. America’s system of justice is under the microscope in this series.

Have you thought about the justice or injustice of what we see about women in prison as you watch this series? Please share your thoughts.

See Also: Orange is the New Black: A Winner from Netflix and Name Your Favorite Supporting Character from Orange is the New Black.

Name Your Favorite Supporting Character from Orange is the New Black

I already posted a general review Orange is the New Black in Orange is the New Black: A Winner from Netflix. In that review I asked the question, Can you give an entire cast an Emmy for best supporting actress?

Let’s talk about the supporting actresses in this series. There are so many and they are all so good at telling their character’s particular story. Who’s your favorite?
Orange is the New Black cast

Talking Favorites

It’s hard to choose. Every choice is outstanding. I liked Miss Claudette and Sophia and Nicky and Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett and Yoga. And Red – Red is a scene stealer. I liked Kathryn Kates in her tiny but perfect part as Larry’s mother. So many good choices.

But I’m asking you to choose, so choose I must.

I’m going with Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren played by Uzo Aduba.

Uzo Adube
Uzo Aduba

Crazy Eyes is a multiplicity: bit off the rails, a bit violent, a bit wiser than Solomon, a bit of a poet, and smart, smart smart. Uzo Aduba gives her a certain charm and warmth that I found delightful. She also nailed the requisite crazy looking eyes when needed. Her physicality in this role made Crazy Eyes believable and real.

A favorite episode with her is when Crazy Eyes hears there might be an “acting opportunity” in the prison (a contingent of juvenile delinquents are coming and inmates are asked to talk to them), she marches in and announces, “I want to play a role. Like Desdemona or Ophelia or Claire Huxtable.” She’s smart and funny. When the juvenile delinquents appear, Crazy Eyes does a brilliant reading of some lines from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus.

Who did you like the most? Why?

Orange is the New Black: A Winner from Netflix

I just finished the last episode of season 1 of Orange is the New Black. It’s a women in prison comedy/drama. My thought as I watched the last few seconds of the stunning season conclusion was, “Please let there be 1000 more episodes of this show.” It’s that good. It’s been renewed for another 13 episodes in season 2, so that only leaves 987 that I’ll be wanting. The first season of 13 episodes runs from September to December in the story of one year in prison, so 3 seasons of equal pacing might be more realistic to expect.

Taylor Schilling
Taylor Schilling gets stripped searched in episode 1

Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original, created by Jenji Kohan of Weeds. I loved Weeds and I love Orange is the New Black. Apparently I am a huge Jenji Kohan fangirl. Kohan takes characters who are flawed, vulnerable, maybe a little off, often of questionable moral inclinations and she makes me care about them. Her characters aren’t Hannibal Lector, but they aren’t Mother Teresa either. They fall somewhere in between those two extremes, in a place where most of humanity struggles to get through the day.

Orange is the New Black stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman. The series is based on the book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. Piper Kerman and her TV self Piper Chapman are blonde, pretty, perfect WASPs who should be successes in life, and who don’t expect to find themselves figuring out how to survive in a prison.

OITNB poster

Other well-known actors appearing in the series include Jason Biggs as Larry Bloom, Piper’s fiancee. Laura Prepon is Alex Vause, Piper’s lover from a decade ago. Alex was a drug smuggler and the reason Piper is in prison all these years later. And, oh yeah, Alex is in the same prison. Kate Mulgrew is Red, an inmate who runs the kitchen in the prison. Pablo Shreiber is a corrupt and cruel guard. Michael Harney plays the prison counselor. Natasha Lyonne is one of the inmates.

OITNB cast
Image via Netflix

This is a big cast, the names I mentioned above are ones you may recognize. I feel like I should list the name of every single cast member because every performance is outstanding. Michelle Hurst, Taryn Manning, Samira Wiley, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Dascha Polanco, Matt McGorry – I didn’t mean to start listing them, but I can’t help it. And there are more names that should be applauded. Every character in this ensemble has a story, makes a real contribution, and every actor in the ensemble produces brilliant work. The acting is true, believable, powerful and at least 85% of the reason the series is so good. The other 15% goes to great writing. My math must be a little off, because I think there should be some percentage given for directing and costuming and set design and that Regina Spektor song at the beginning of every episode. Well, okay, I’ll say that the acting is at least 50% of the reason why this series is so good.

Can you give an entire cast an Emmy for best supporting actress?

A Few Mild Spoilers

Orange is the New Black is both a comedy and a punch-in-the-gut drama. There are a few laugh out loud moments and some running gags that will make you smile. A favorite running gag was the woman who was crying on the phone next to Piper each time she made a phone call. One scene where everyone in the cafeteria stood up and started dry humping everything in sight had me rolling on the floor.

There were moments of cruelty, fear, pain, and brokenness. There were moments of insight. There were moments of love. There are thieves, drug dealers and murderers – and those are just the people in charge of running the prison. There is fornication, masterbation, revenge, overdosing, insanity, sanity, rage, delusion and denial, pragmatism and surprising beauty. Storylines include race politics, religious politics, prison politics, uses for screwdrivers, Shakespearean recitations, and good hair. In short, this series has multitudes to offer and a cast that is capable of delivering it.

Our pretty blonde WASP princess heroine is afraid of everyone at first but soon finds that the women in prison are just like her. She finds people to respect and admire, and to like, which surprises her a bit. Taylor Schilling goes all out in this part. You can be sure there’s plenty of drama and tension involving in getting from fear to admiration.

There is love and relationship drama. With sex. Within the first 30 seconds of episode 1 we see Piper having lesbian shower sex with Alex and straight bathtub sex with Larry. Seems these two super clean moments were flashbacks to happier times as Piper takes her first prison shower, which wasn’t nearly as much fun.

Flashbacks are used often to reveal more about the characters. We see into their childhoods, meet the parents (or lack of parents), see the abuse or the quest for drugs, and learn about the crimes that brought each one to the prison.

One thing I liked about the flashbacks was that the actors could look more like we normally see them. In the prison garb, with no makeup, horrible hair, and possibly awful prosthetic teeth it was a little hard to match up actors faces with the images on imdb.com for the cast. (I do have a tendency to look at cast bios and photos while watching a show.) It took me nearly all 13 episodes to figure out that Taryn Manning was the person playing the crazed Jesus-freak character. That was partly because I could never catch her character’s name and partly because she looked so crazy-scary in the role. Damn, was she good, too.

Laura Prepon never looked bad. Not once. She had blonde hair in Are you There, Chelsea?. She’s been a redhead in some shows. She has black hair here and big black glasses. Her hair never seems to be stringy or wild and she doesn’t need makeup to be stunning. Which partly explains why Piper can’t stay away from her and we have the lovers triangle of Piper, Larry, and Alex through most of season 1. Larry, so straight and normal out there waiting in the real world – Alex, so gorgeous as she offers up her very warm body right here inside the walls. What’s a girl gonna do? I cast my vote for team Alex, drug smuggler though she is. Alex seems to love Piper with a beautiful eternal flame that makes poor Larry’s conditional acceptance pretty lame by comparison. If you’ve read the book and know how this all turns out, don’t rain on my team Alex parade, okay?

Netflix and Original Series

Netflix released House of Cards with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as its first original series. It was superb and I look forward to a second season of that series. Their second attempt Hemlock Grove was so bad I couldn’t watch it. They were 1 for 1 when this series came out, so I was unsure which way it was going to go.

Netflix struck gold once again with Jenji Kohan and Orange is the New Black. More like this please, Netflix.

Your turn. What do you think about Orange is the New Black?

Image Credits: Netflix.

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