The Men of Orange is the New Black

So there’s an article from The Atlantic going around about how under- and misrepresented the poor, poor men are in a show about a women’s prison. The bulk of it is mostly about how the show frames women as victims of misguided love to make their backstories more dramatic and sympathetic than those of the male prisoners. He complains that these male prisoners, of which we see a whole three with speaking roles, are depicted in positively stereotypical ways that give us no room to see them as victims too.

His only example of how horribly male prisoners are represented… is the single male prisoner with any real characterization at all. Darius McRae (who I might point out the author hinged this whole argument on and could not be bothered to look up his name) is a black man in prison presumably because he is also a hitman. He and two other white male prisoners are given speaking roles in the airplane scene of season two’s premiere. As opposed the white guys, whose very stereotypical depiction has them discussing what one can and cannot see in a bird’s eye view of the Midwest, McRae introduces himself by suggesting to Piper that she can ride his dick to Chicago.

I don’t dispute that this scene and his subsequent one later where he demands Piper’s dirty panties in exchange for relaying a message to Alex makes him look every bit the “super-predator” he refers to himself as. When Piper learns that he is a hitman, however, she is relieved. Perhaps naively, knowing that his offense was not sexual assault as she had guessed from the context clues, she is no longer concerned about sharing the commons with him. Perhaps this is because of the understanding we’re supposed to have about him, that his threats are mostly just male domination posturing. Obviously, being a hitman and being a rapist are hardly exclusive, but Piper no longer feels actually threatened by McRae. He’s not the big black boogieman to her anymore. He’s just another guy in the box who, in a world where she’s learned that no one does anything for free, settled for her four-day-old drawers in exchange for doing a task that had the potential to get him in trouble.

If we had more than two scenes with him, perhaps we could have found that behind the creeper antics, McRae was really just as lost a soul as everyone else on the show. But alas, just like the first episode of season one, most of the inmates were in their Scared Straight program characters to keep the fresh meat in line. And just as soon as she’s met all these freaky new friends in Chicago, Piper is whisked back to New York. While we are made to be more sympathetic to the women of Litchfield Penitentiary, it’s because we’re given more time with them.

One might also note that we don’t get sympathetic backstories for any of Piper’s new cellmates either. So in that respect, McRae was given perfectly equal treatment. Is his portrayal racist? I can definitely see the argument for that alone. But there’s no difference between his being shown as a victim than Joyce, Aracelli, or Mazell’s. They are all about equal in importance to the story. They’re each supporting characters who aren’t given enough screentime to merit exploring any deeper than what’s important as relates to Piper. McRae’s being a man has nothing to do with his being depicted unsympathetically.

Furthermore, the contention that almost every character on the show who we are supposed to sympathize with becuase they sought love and were denied is also patently absurd. To be quite honest, that he notes Rosa Cisneros as an exception to this idea that love is the key ingredient in “most” of the inmates downfall stories already discredits his perception. I mean, did he somehow miss the whole point of the “kiss before, kiss after” curse? If we’re judging the fault of love in these women’s lives by Taystee’s Stockholm syndrome or Suzanne’s thirst for acceptance, which is a broad ass way to look at it, then yeah, a good many of them could be declared victims of love. I expect quite a few men, even (but especially) super-predator hitmen, could be written as having fallen through the cracks because someone didn’t love them enough or they wanted acceptance so badly as to do the wrong thing to get it.

But “most” is still a pretty big word to me in the context of this argument. He made the point that Vee is obviously not a victim of love’s folly, as much as we’ve seen yet. I would also argue that Miss Claudette committed murder out of righteous vengeance, not any particular love for the girl she acted for. Her actual arrest was for human trafficking, which sounds way lovey dovey, yes? Red? Unconfirmed, but strongly hinted to be just Business As Usual. Pennsatucky? Poor impulse control in response to anger. Black Cindy? Unconfirmed, but probably either stealing or drug-related charges based on her backstory. Her mother seemed to love her, despite her behavior, and there weren’t any love interests in her backstory. Poussey just sold marijuana. Tricia was arrested for stealing. No tragic tales of love gone wrong there. Yoga Jones? Nope, sorry. Just accidentally shot a kid instead of a deer. Gloria? Food stamp fraud. I mean, I guess you could argue it was love for her children, but she was trying to get away from the man in her life. Brook? Arrested for protest by living in a fucking tree. Lisa Simpson shit. She and that tree were totally the most star-crossed of lovers. Sophia? Love for herself as she should be maybe.

Love is not the thing that makes these women relatable and it’s not that they were seeking love and paid the price that makes them “victims”. In fact, “victims” aren’t even what I’d consider most of these women. No, the reason why we sympathize with these women is because they made mistakes, perfectly human mistakes, and now they are paying for them. They committed crimes, but they did so for reasons that we’re made to understand. Some of them were stupid and selfish, like robbing banks for the thrill of it. Or they were self-indulgent like stealing iPads. Some of them had traumas they could only suppress with illicit drugs. Others still did things for love. But we understand these feelings because they are all part of the human condition, and for once we have a show where we’re getting to see women being human instead of just props to bolster a man’s story.

But let’s be perfectly real here. If we’re gonna whine about tertiary male supporting roles being two-dimensional and stereotypical, you could really do a lot worse than Orange is the New Black. If there is one thing this show does well, it’s pack a lot of characterization into a very small space.

His assessment of Sam Healy (whose name he misspelled despite it being not only on Healy’s desk nameplate, behind which most of his scenes are shot, but also on his goddamn shirt) was itself two-dimensional compared to the character. While he mentions Healy’s antagonistic obsession with lesbianism and disillusionment with his job, he completely disregards other facets of Healy that make him relatable too.

For one thing, Healy also wants acceptance. From the beginning, he tries to find this in Piper, but Piper won’t cooperate. While she would like to accept his help without hesitation, she can sometimes sense his ulterior motives and knows to be wary of him. Add to the situation that it does her few favors to be seen as too cozy with the administration from a survivalist perspective and it becomes clear that Piper cannot fully give in to Healy’s help. For the same reason, none of the other inmates are willing to let him get any closer than as benefits them in a quantifiable way. This rejection from the women at work is mirrored at home, where his Ukrainian mail-order bride rebukes him and speaks her native tongue just to exclude him as much as possible. This sort of dynamic at home is self-inflicted, in that he paid a woman to marry him. Of course she’s only going to want to give him as much as she’s obligated to in return.

We’re shown other scenes with Healy trying very hard to be friendly and relate to others. There’s the painfully awkward scene where goes to see Caputo play and he drunkenly lays on the praise too thick. Or when he tries to make headway with Red by asking her help in learning Russian (only to find that Red does not want to be friends, she’s merely conducting trade as always). It’s only late in the second season, when she finds herself out of a following, that he finds in Pennsetucky someone willing to trade him the chance to actually counsel without always demanding free cookies or administrative favors in return.

To me, Healy’s rage at Piper’s dancing with Alex is not really about his lesbian fixation or, as Piper’s suggests, because he desires her sexually. I think it is merely that he thought that she was the one person in his life who wasn’t trying to completely shut him out and it angered him to see what he felt indicated that he wasted his time on her. She was not only disregarding his advice about lesbians, but with the absolutely worst person she could be lesbians with.

Just as Larry says in his radio show appearance, he couldn’t stand the idea of Piper being with someone who could relate to her situation better. The specific word Larry used was “betrayal”. Healy felt betrayed by this display and so he told Piper’s boyfriend to hurt her back.

And hell, let’s talk about Larry, who’s name I had to look up because I usually just think of him as Jason Biggs, card-carrying member of the Sockable Face Club. To be honest, I think Larry’s a dick. I like seeing him onscreen even less than Pornstache. But he’s still a complex character with his own motivations.

Larry’s one of those guys who thinks he’s really nice and has good intentions, but he’s really only out for himself. Obviously Piper’s incarceration affects him, but he comes across very often as oblivious to the fact that Piper is the one who the experience really belongs to. Granted, he has his own perspective, but he consistently thinks of Piper’s sentence in terms of what it means to him. Her reality is an abstract to him. This might be why he’s struggling as a writer, to be frank. He can’t get his head out of his own ass.

To the point, when it’s pointed out to him that he could write about the experience of having a girlfriend in prison for profit, he leaps at the opportunity. And not only that, but he does so more or less regardless of Piper’s wishes on the matter. He “asks” her if he should, but it’s clear he already plans to. So his request isn’t so much asking her as it is a notice so she can get used to the idea of her story being told to the nation. The disregard he had for the details he dropped too indicates that though he claims to love Piper, he’s either an idiot or a selfish dickbag. He doesn’t think about what the consequences for Piper might be if he tells the world that she’s afraid to sleep at night because she worries her bunkmate might kill her or that the woman who wanted to make Piper her wife was crazy. It just doesn’t occur to him. All that matters is that he got on NPR.

Despite his inattention, though, he’s insecure in his “love” for her though. I think a large part of this is that he’s not terribly attractive and he knows he’s fucking lucky to have a girlfriend like Piper. He knows she could jump ship at any moment for someone hotter, smarter, and/or more successful. I don’t know that he appreciates Piper beyond the social prestige she affords him, but he knows he’s got something good that by all rights he doesn’t deserve.

What’s interesting though is that he doesn’t even consider that he could lose her in an all-women’s prison, despite her past lesbianism, because he never considered the relationship she and Alex had as “real”. There’s the fact that Piper is mad at Alex anyway, but like a lot of guys, he only ever considered their relationship as a 20-something bi-curious phase used to tease guys in bars with. Piper was with him now, in their 30’s, and they were heterosexual grown-ups. That Piper and Alex actually loved each other then never even crossed his mind until Mr. Healy calls to tell him that Piper has moved back to Lesbania.

Even then he can’t make a decision about what to do because he knows his relationship to Piper is what’s making him interesting and marketable as a writer at present. It’s after actually speaking to Alex that he finally decides to break it off with Piper.

After which, he proceeds to fuck her best friend, Polly.

Okay, he actually (selflessly?) spent a lot of time helping Polly around the house since her husband, Pete, was being an A+ guy and fucked off to Alaska after his son was born. Being that they’d both been left alone without their respective partners, Larry and Polly took comfort in each other. I really, really want to think that Larry genuinely likes babysitting and domesticity and all that, and that he’s not just fucking Polly because she represents everything about the life he was supposed to make with Piper. I really want to this to be the case, but his egocentricity thus far leaves me wary of hoping too hard or not rooting for him even if it’s true.

I’ll be real: there’s not a lot I like about Larry, but I will say this for him. The one interesting thing he does from time to time is point out when Piper is forgetting that she’s not the center of the universe. There are other characters who do this better, mind, but the argument is complicated when Larry does it. While we know that Nicki is right to point out that Piper saying the bright side of Red’s slocking is the cancellation of her transfer is a shitty, self-centered thing to say, we don’t immediately know that Larry is right to call her on thinking herself the sun and him the moon in the solar system of her life. Where other inmates will point it out because Piper’s showing a lack of consideration for someone else, Larry invariably does it because she’s not showing consideration for him. So when this argument comes up between them, it’s not strictly a matter of Piper being insensitive. In that case, it’s satisfying to watch because justice is being served, but is not a complicated argument. We know Nicki is right and Piper is wrong. when it’s Piper vs. Larry, it’s two people who are the protagonists of their own lives disagreeing about on whose story it is at a time and which of them is supposed to be playing the supporting role.

That kind of moral complexity is also a large part of CO John Bennett’s role in the show. He seems like a actually nice guy, not this Nice Guy bullshit Larry’s selling. A legitimately nice guy. What’s great about him is that his niceness is what’s gotten him into such trouble. He was nice to Dayanara. Too nice. And now she’s pregnant and he could not only be fired, but go to jail if anyone finds out (which they will). He obviously has a lot more to lose than she does if they don’t carefully navigate their situation. But what’s more than that, it seems to me that he’s less concerned about losing his job and going to jail as he is about the consequences thereof: that there won’t be anyone to raise his child if both he and Daya are in prison. Isn’t that the nicest shit you ever heard?

He’s great to see because so often he is genuinely not out to be a dick or take advantage of people, and yet this gets him in trouble. Doing what he perceives as the right thing gets him in trouble. This is an idea that is mirrored in CO Fischer’s story, where she too wants to do what is right and is fired for bucking the system. But where Fischer argues for what’s right to be the rule, Bennett just does what he feels is right and later has to deal with the consequential moral puzzles that arise from it. But we almost always cheer for him, no matter what he does, because while he’s in the wrong in a black and white sense, we understand that he’s usually right in the way we care about in that moment. And if he isn’t, we understand why he makes the mistakes he does. For the same reason everyone else on this show makes mistakes.

But let me tell you about some proshit minor male characterization. Yadriel, Maria Ruiz’s boyfriend, has a whole story in just three scenes. We see him in his first scene, visiting with Maria’s baby. He’s a gangbangery thuggish looking fellow, complete with tear drop tattoo. He doesn’t speak much, only answering her questions with monosyllabic phrases. He seems completely uninterested, but Maria is happy to see him. She reveals that he just “doesn’t like to talk much”. In his second scene, she reveals that she is being sent to another prison further away. He and her baby won’t be able to visit as often. She tells him, nearly begs him, to talk to her baby more so that she won’t have difficulty learning to speak when she gets older. In his third scene, we see him and the baby once more, and he’s far more talkative. He tells Maria, via babytalk to their child, about all the books they’ve read.

An entire, male-centered story arc in three scenes. Not only that, but he’s caring for a baby and taking responsibility for her developmental well-being. How’s that for breaking stereotypes about tattooed minority gangsters?

The men on this show, even though they have third-level roles, are still very well developed for the screen time they get. And you know what else? Orange is the New Black even covers the complaint about whether men can be victims or not.

In an effort to explain Daya’s pregnancy in a way that absolves Bennett, she and several of the older women conspire to have her seduce CO George Mendez, nicknamed Pornstache among the inmates, and have him caught having sex with her in a closet. They are successful, but due to PR covering up, he is only suspended. He leaves his job lamenting that he won’t be able to see the woman he loves.

At first, Bennett is upset that Daya has done this, not only because she had sex with another man, but because he has gotten to know Mendez and sees him as more than just a dickhead with authority. (A fact Daya knows since it was his musing to her about Mendez’s insecurities that gave her the key to seducing him.) Bennett and Mendez are by no means best friends, but the idea of ruining his life just to cover up Daya’s pregnancy, at that time, crosses the line for him.

Interestingly, late in the second season, Daya and Bennett have both changed their minds. When Mendez is allowed to return to work, they debate telling the administration about her pregnancy, but disagree on who to say is the father. Daya now is the one who feels it is wrong to frame an innocent man for fraternization and wants to come clean. Bennett, on the other hand, feels that not only did Mendez do the crime that he would be going to jail for, but also was smuggling drugs into the prison and is an asshole besides. Bennett’s hypocrisy aside, he feels by all rights Mendez deserves to be in prison.

Pornstache raises all sorts of interesting questions about guilt and innocence. He’s a terrible person and yet, had Daya not gone out of her way to get him to fuck her, he would not have gone to prison. But he certainly deserves to do so. He abuses his power as a CO regularly, was smuggling drugs into the prison, and actually did do the crime for which is was imprisoned, if not for the reason. Moreover, while we never actually see him as a prisoner, but exactly like ALL the women on this show, he has made mistakes, very grave ones, and is paying for them. You could probably fit “CO Mendez got me pregnant,” into 8 seconds if you wanted to make it perfectly “uncomplicated and undramatic”, but then we wouldn’t have any reason to see him as a victim.

His fate is in the hands of two people who have very much to gain from his imprisonment, and nothing but guilt of knowing that had they not taken advantage of his vulnerability he would be free to continue being a dickhead. But it’s not merely a matter of hating Mendez but agreeing with either Daya or Bennett’s morality.

Even Mendez has his redeeming qualities. There’s the scene where he drunkenly reveals to Bennett in the bar that he really just wants the inmates to ask him how his day was and show some concern for him. That they don’t is why he treats them poorly. This doesn’t excuse his abuse of his power, but it does explain it to some degree. Like Healy, Mendez also wants to be accepted, but his tough guy attitude, misogyny, and power-tripping keep the inmates at a distance and he acts this way in response. It’s a vicious cycle, Bennett. This was the scene where he’s supposed to have shown the most depth, according the the behind-the-scenes material, but I disagree.

More interesting to me are the times when he actually sides with the inmates over his colleagues. This happens, thus far, on two occasions.

First, when Healy flips the fuck out over Piper dancing with Alex. When Healy orders Piper to SHU, and she objects that he can’t do that, Mendez pipes up to point out that she is right. Healy is abusing his authority in sentencing her to solitary for dancing, no matter how provocatively. Mendez doesn’t defend Piper any further, but he does reign in his usual dicketry to try and calm her down before she gets herself in even deeper shit.

Later on, after Mendez has returned to work, Caputo has pressured Bennett to step up his own game in response to his complaints about Mendez’s rehiring. He attempts this by yelling really loudly, startling inmates, and writing citations more liberally, but he’s not taken very seriously by the inmates. Red even responds to receiving a disciplinary citation by telling him that he’ll make a great father and giving him a patronizing little stroke under the chin, reasserting her own authority.

He reaches his boiling point when he finds a cigarette butt (the source of all the recent administration drama) outside the dormitory and loses his shit. He starts yelling at the inmates and declares a surprise search, which is really just him throwing all their shit on the floor and yelling some more. Mendez watches this in shock for a moment before rushing over to calm Bennett down and get him out of the dorms. On their way out, Mendez even apologizes to the inmates for the disturbance.

Why does he do these things? In Bennett’s case, he thinks they are friends and he was probably looking out for him on that level. In Piper’s, maybe it was just that she was providing free erotic dancing and Healy ruined it. In either, it indicates some other motivation than to keep the inmates on their toes because that’s exactly what other CO’s freaking the fuck out over practically nothing does. Why does he go out of his way to diffuse these situations? I, for one, am deeply intrigued.

So it would seem that even the most apparently two-dimensional character on the fucking show, despite all his testosterone, has some depth.

I don’t think the problem here is that men are under-represented or even that there aren’t enough prison shows depicting male prisoners in a sympathetic light. I mean, if Oz or Prison Break don’t do it for you, use your penis to write another show. No, I think the real problem is just that men aren’t used to having to look to second- and third-tier supporting characters to see themselves reflected back. And they’re not used to those characters being shown in the ways women often see them. They’re used to the guys like them being right in the main cast and getting most of the screen time. It’s a brave new world when the male characters are there to service a female-centered plot.

But seriously, if you can’t see how good even the male characters on this show are, maybe you need to pay better attention.

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