Orange is the New Black is under no obligation to accurately represent prison demographics, and just because they're a minority in prison doesn't mean that women's stories there aren't important. The problem is that the ways in which OITNB focuses on women rather than men seem to be linked to stereotypically gendered ideas about who can be a victim and who can't.
This would've been a lot better if it was a compare and contrast piece about OITNB and Oz, and explored the level of empathy that Oz's writers tried to solicit for it's characters vs. the level of empathy Kohan tries to solicit from viewers.
Women have long represented a modest share of the overall prison population. In 1980, about 13,000 women were incarcerated in federal and state prisons combined representing 4% of the total prison population. Since that time, the rate of growth of women in prison has exceeded the rate of increase for men, rising 646% from 1980 to 2010, compared to a 419% increase for men. As a result, in 2010 there were 112,000 women in state and federal prison and 205,000 women overall in prison or jail; women now constitute 7% of the prison population.
As was the case with men, a substantial portion of the overall increase in women in prison was produced by “get tough” initiatives focused on harsher sentencing policies and lengthening time served in prison. Women were particularly affected by the policies of the “war on drugs.” Since women have always represented a small share of persons committing violent crimes, their numbers in prison would not have grown as dramatically had it not been for changes in drug enforcement policies and practices. As law enforcement increased targeting of drug law violators and as sentences for drug offenses became more severe, drug offenders came to represent a rapidly growing share of the incarcerated population, with the proportion of women in prison for drug crimes exceeding that of men. In 1986, 12% of women in state prison were serving time for a drug offense compared to 8% of men. Over time, these proportions increased, and as of 2009, 25.7% of women in prison were serving time for drug offenses, as were 17.2% of men.
In addition, the advent of mandatory sentencing policies for many drug offenses at times imposed a particularly harsh burden on women offenders, with one aspect of this sometimes described as the “girlfriend” problem. That is, since the only means of avoiding a mandatory penalty is generally to cooperate with the prosecution by providing information on higher-ups in the drug trade, women who have a partner who is a drug seller may be aiding that seller, but have relatively little information to trade in exchange for a more lenient sentence. In contrast, the “boyfriend” drug seller is likely to be in a better position to offer information, and so may receive less prison time for his offense than does the less culpable woman.
But despite its path-breaking representation of minority women, the show remains trapped by gender preconceptions that aren't path-breaking at all. OITNB is so eager to sympathize with broken-hearted women and their individual sadnesses that it has no time to consider the institutional machinery of injustice that, in this case, has little directly to do with either individuals or women. It's hard to see how such a distorted view of incarceration helps prisoners of any gender.
One criticism of something like Glory is that a film about the oppression of black people chooses to focus on a white character. That's not to say everything about Glory is bad (I like Glory), but it's a legitimate question to ask why the main victims of the oppression the film is ostensibly about are not center stage.
I think you can say something similar here. The main victims of incarceration are minority men first, not women. Why then is this show — the most critically central popular art dealing with our massive imprisonment problem at the moment— focused on folks who aren't the main victims? What is it about these people that makes them the lens through which we want to view this particular issue?
That’s basically the implied part of what I was saying. That people who are under-represented in media have to learn to empathise with characters who are significantly different than themselves if they’re to follow pop culture at all. Conversely, people who are over-represented in media don’t, and can respond really badly when asked to do so, without realising that’s what everyone else has to do every time they turn on the TV.
What about the much-maligned white male? We should certainly recognize that it's been too easy for that group to be targeted for contempt and defamation—indeed, that there is no other identifiable ethnic and gender group that can be targeted in this way without arousing protest and outrage.
Wouldn't it make more sense to say that certain minority masculinities are demonized, rather than saying that masculinity is hated in itself?
And I also feel that some--by no means all!--very passionate and sincerely determined-to-change-the-world-for-the-better young people lose sight of the forest for the trees, becoming so entrenched in their respective (fundamentally academic) schools of thought regarding gender relations that they start viewing the entire world through a, for lack of a better term, Lens of Sexism. Their passion subsumes their empathy, which leads to a a lack of critical perspective regarding their own observations and a tendency to view anyone not speaking precisely their language as feminazis, misogynsts, neckbeards, dudebros, what have you.
My feeling is we can't expect our own concerns and causes to receive an empathetic hearing if we don't show empathy as well for women and feminism and recognize the justice of many of their criticisms and complaints. We can likewise reasonably demand that people resist the easy temptation to heap scorn and abuse on white men as a whole, or the "men's movement," based on the actions and convictions of a relatively small and unrepresentative sector of them.
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