Platinum Age of Television?
I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about how we’re in the Golden Age of Television by now. Even those who aren't fans of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Rectify etc have to admit that these shows, whether they are thoughtful period pieces, complex looks at humanity, or experiments with narrative structure, have allowed new show creators to be bolder and braver in storytelling. Two shows that seemingly have little in common (one is set in a present day upstate womens’ federal prison, the other in 1950’s London’s East End) represent the exciting, new, dare I say, Platinum Era of Television.
From the weird little mind of Weeds creator Jenji Kohan comes the new water-cooler Netflix show, Orange is the New Black. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoirs about her experiences in prison, the show is part comedy, part drama, and refreshingly honest. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) meets an eclectic cast of characters as she navigates 15 months in a federal penitentiary while doting fiance Larry Bloom(the typecast Jason Biggs) tries to support her. This not a review of the show; for that, I’d recommend Todd Van DerWeff at the AV Club or Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker. Spoilers abound, read at your own discretion.
What sets this show apart from other breakout dramas in recent TV history is the depiction of womanhood the show (perhaps inadvertently) has created. The prisoners offer several different depictions of femininity and the entire premise could be seen as an extended metaphor for what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society. As Piper (and by extension, the audience) is introduced to the rigid lines that separate guards from inmates or blacks from whites from Hispanics, she starts to get an idea of what power and agency really mean.
There is a wealth of diversity; racial, body, and sexual, which makes the show feel groundbreaking. Casting an actual transgender actress to play a transgender character (Sophia) feels revolutionary, even though it really shouldn't be.* The inmates in the prison come from a variety of backgrounds, although disproportionately (sadly, accurately) from a lower socioeconomic class. I could talk about the inmates all day (and have). The show isn't without problems though- it uses a white upper class woman as the protagonist,** and the inmates have a sense of “otherness” to them when they are first introduced. Depictions of some inmates veer on stereotype, but they are given a rich enough history to keep it from being jarring (example: Red).
What I want to talk more about are the characters in positions of authority; the assistant warden, the counselors, and the correctional officers. They all represent different threats to equality. There is Caputo, a prison counselor who lets Piper make an illegal call to Larry and then subsequently masturbates in his office. He comes off as mostly harmless, but is still creepy and objectifies both inmates and correctional officers. Correctional officer Bennett seems to be the only nice guy around, until he gets inmate Diaz pregnant (the show’s only misstep, a minor one) and then his less nice side is revealed. We initially believe he lost his leg during combat in Afghanistan, but later find out it was because of a skeezy hot tub/ infection situation. He might just be a nice guy of OKCupid.
Even female assistant warden Figueroa is steeped in this hyper-masculine culture, and comes off as being a tough, in charge bitch. I’m all for strong, confident women (even unlikable ones), but Figueroa isn't just playing the game to get ahead. She clearly believes in the authenticity of the system in place. She says about Sophia’s choice to transition from male to female, “It’s like winning the lottery and giving the ticket back”. If that’s not being a guardian of the patriarchy, I don’t know what is. For a real life example, check out Chicks on the Right, two conservative women bloggers who attempt to re-brand “feminism” but instead spew more misogynistic ideas.
And of course, we can spend hours debating which character is a bigger threat to the inmates (and represents a worse threat to women): Healy or Mendez. Mendez is the more obvious choice. He is despicable from the first minute we meet him. He is crass, rude, and clearly misogynistic. He has no qualms about smuggling drugs into the prison, groping inmates during security checks, or trading sexual favors for drugs. Even the other prison staff acknowledge that he is just the worst. Mendez is your friendly neighborhood sexual predator, who probably thinks she was ‘asking for it’ because she was drinking and wearing a low cut top. People like Mendez exist in real life, or at least channel him. See: Steubenville. He is the worst product of an unequal gender power structure, one that has been corrupted thoroughly.
On the other hand, there is counselor Healy. A man who seems well-meaning, and who initially takes a liking to our protagonist. However, as soon as Healy realizes that Piper isn’t who he wants her to be and that she isn't going to be his submissive prison pal, he starts to get upset. He appoints her to WAC against her wishes or desires because he would rather deal with her than the other inmates. Once he suspects her of being in a lesbian relationship, he basically goes off the rails. He throws her into solitary confinement for provocatively dancing (aka no reason) and tells her that she “needed a timeout to think about [her] behavior” and that she “should be thanking [him]”, presumably for protecting her from Vause. He then leaves her there when she has the nerve to stand up to him. Healy is Todd Akin, the rape expert. Healy is Ken Cuccinelli, who has passed Virginia’s anti-choice bills. Healy is basically the Republican party’s view of women. He is concerned about Piper’s sexual choices and her morality, but not for her well-being or her life. When she is being threatened by Dagget who has a weapon, he literally turns on his heel and walks away. Healy represents the insidious reinforcement of the status quo.
Larry, one of the characters outside of the prison, starts off the show as the nice, supportive fiance but then uses Piper’s plight to further his own career in a rather inconsiderate and cringe worthy way- on a public access radio show (This American Life, perhaps?) After finding out that Piper had sex with Alex, a frustrated Larry asks whether girlfriend is gay now. Her psuedohipster brother replies, “I’m going to go ahead and guess that your need to label everything is an issue”. Larry has put Piper in this box, or more appropriately put her on a pedestal. She’s his manic dream pixie girl, she who undertakes juice cleanses, and eats granola, and does yoga. He struggles with her past, and chooses to believe Healy about Piper’s trysts with Alex (which was untrue at that time).
In a delicious twist of irony, none of the male characters on this show pass the reverse Bechdel test. Conversations between two male characters are rare, and when they do occur, usually focus on Piper, the inmates, or women in general. Even though the men (and assistant warden Figueroa) who run the prison all depict facets of the patriarchal world in which we live, they are still given complexity and nuance. For example, Mendez displays a surprisingly progressive view about Sophia when he says “I live in the present, not in the past”. Of course, that’s the response to the question, “don’t tell me you’d hit that?” So, still a little bit sexist. Even Healy’s extreme reaction to being emasculated is explained, but not excused, by his relationship with his presumably mail-order wife.
Critics have claimed the show is a great representation of the prison system, but I think the show often takes it a step further by illuminating the unfairness of the male dominated society in which we live. There is another approach in combating gender equality, and that is emphasizing the importance of social capital and equal treatment. BBC’s breakout hit, Call the Midwife, does just that. Like OITNB, Call the Midwife is also based on a memoir, that of British midwife Jennifer Worth. Set in 1950’s London’s impoverished east end, the show is at once riveting and glacial, a balance that BBC shows seem to achieve very well. The audience stand-in is Jenny Lee, a newly certified midwife who joins the Nonnatus House. She is initially horrified by the conditions of the homes she visits, but learns to accept her new situation with dignity.
Like OITNB, Call the Midwife develops secondary characters well, so we never see them as being mere plot developments or story devices. Issues of child prostitution, poverty, sexual abuse, and even incest, are dealt with deft and grace. Early on in the season, Jenny and Father Joe are discussing the case of a teenage prostitute who is being forced to give up her child. Jenny claims to know poverty, because she works in the east end. Father Joe replies, “No my dear, you don’t. Poverty isn't bad housing, dirty clothing, families of 10. It’s never having been loved, or even respected. Not knowing the difference between love and abuse, a kiss that wasn’t a down payment on a blow”. Even now in 2013 ‘post-racial Obama’s America’ this philosophy would be considered radical . The idea of social capital- the value of social networks and the relationships available to an individual- has been emphasized in the public health sphere for decades, but is now seeping into the general population.
Call the Midwife is more than a bunch of nurses delivering babies; it underlines the importance of access to universal health care. One of the patients, Brenda McEntee, is pregnant for the fifth time, after suffering through four previous stillborn births. She has rickets, a condition caused by a Vitamin D deficiency. It’s easily preventable, but causes severe retardation of bone development. Before the implementation of the National Health Service in Britain, Brenda’s pregnancy would have meant another fetal loss since her pelvis is not properly developed for childbirth. Now, however, she is admitted to a hospital for a Cesarean-section and is able to hold her living, breathing baby in her arms for the first time. This show tugs at the heartstrings, and does come off a little emotionally manipulative but it is never preachy or patronizing.
That’s what I mean about the Platinum Age. Not only are there more quality shows being produced than ever, there are more mediums and channels that are receptive to this kind of original programming. I generally have nothing against mass produced network shows, but there is a real opportunity not just to tell a great story, but effect change. Maybe not on a policy level, but at least in the way people see the world. And after all, that’s what Great Art is supposed to do.
*Fun OITNB trivia- The actor who played a pre-transition Sophia is actress Lavene Cox’s twin brother
** In an interview with Fresh Air, Jenji Kohan explains why she chose Piper as the main point of view:
“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.”
*** Unless it has Charlie Sheen in it or is the Big Bang Theory. For some reason, I have gone from liking that show to loathing its very existence. It’s become offensive to me now.