I Am Cait Might Just Change How We See Reality TV.

This article originally appeared on Spook Magazine.

Yesterday marked the long-awaited premiere of Catilyn Jenner’s reality show I Am Cait, the latest addition to the Kardashian ckonglomerate.

Some might say that the last thing we need is another reality show, and from the Kardashian-Jenners, no less. But this isn’t just any reality show: this is the first time we’re seeing Caitlyn Jenner on television as her true self.

Serious news headlines and tabloid magazine covers alike have traded in the transition of Caitlyn Jenner since she told Diane Sawyer in a late April interview seen around the world that she identified as a woman and her early June Vanity Fair cover in which she asked to be called Caitlyn and to be addressed using female pronouns. Reality TV is the next frontier that Caitlyn Jenner and, by extension, transgender awareness will attempt to tackle.

Reality TV is no stranger to dabbling in issues network and/or scripted TV won’t touch. Laverne Cox is best known as prison inmate Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, but one of her first television roles was as herself on the VH1 reality competition series I Want to Work for Diddy, a far cry from the transgender sex worker roles she was relegated to on Law & Order. Closer to home, The Voice and My Kitchen Rules have featured contestants with disabilities, while reality TV as a whole has been more accepting of (or at least providing a platform for) this demographic. The same could be said for people of colour (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love & Hip Hop), people of sexual orientations and genders other than straight and cis (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The Prancing Elite Project, Brave New Girls, America’s Next Top Model), the plight of refugees (the returning Go Back to Where You Came From, airing tonight on SBS) and people living below the poverty line (the ill-fated Struggle Street). Not all of these portrayals are positive, to be sure, but Margaret Cho once said, “something is better than nothing,” right?

To many people’s minds, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and its myriad spinoffs are the scourge of culture today. But it is one of the only reality series—and certainly the one with the most reach—to look in depth at gender transition. On a two-part episode of KUWTK entitled “About Bruce” that aired in May when she was going by her birth name and male pronouns, the Kardashian-Jenners’ were challenged by Caitlyn’s coming out. The episodes were prefixed with a statement from Caitlyn:

“Families of trans people often feel like they need to grieve the loss of the person that they thought they knew. My family’s feelings are included here in the hope that other families will know that they are not alone…”

Caitlyn’s transition and her family’s reactions were dealt with sensitively and honestly. In a revelation that will irritate Kardashian haters, two of the most reviled cast members Kim and Kourtney’s partner Scott Disick responded with acceptance and in a well adjusted way when they have more right than the naysayers on social media and around the water cooler to struggle with Caitlyn’s truth.

That acceptance extends to I Am Cait. The first episode focuses on Caitlyn’s mother and sisters meeting her for the first time. Mum Esther continues to use male pronouns and her birth name to address Caitlyn, which can be grating, but seeing Caitlyn’s family’s conflict normalises her transition. Even the gender expert they brought in to counsel the family slipped up: “I meant he then. Pronouns are very important.”

After the first twenty minutes I was hard pressed to see the bumbling and disrespected patriarch of the Kardashian cklan I’ve watched for eight years. Caitlyn draws comparisons to this as well, saying “Bruce was never this much fun” and marvelling over the enjoyment of getting her hair done with her sisters and Kylie versus talking about sports. The more we watch, the more understanding Caitlyn as a woman—and thus, other trans people—becomes the norm. And that’s why I Am Cait isn’t just your stock standard E! fare. Despite Kim, Kylie and even Kanye’s appearances on the inaugural episode, Caitlyn takes pains to highlight the plight of trans people who don’t have the privilege and support she does, visiting the family of a trans teen who committed suicide. “I feel a responsibility here because I have a voice and there are so many trans people out there who do not have a voice,” she says. It’s part “exploitat[ion]”—as all reality shows are to some extent—of Caitlyn’s position as a bastion of American heroism and part “PSA”.

In her interview with Diane Sawyer and, more recently, accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY’s, Caitlyn further drew attention to the high rates of discrimination and crime trans women—particularly trans women of colour—experience. Just last week the eleventh trans woman, not including those who are misgendered or go unreported, was murdered this year in the United States.

In “About Bruce”, Caitlyn says she “can’t die and not experience her,” and in the opening scenes of I Am Cait, its star films a message on her webcam after a sleepless night. “We don’t want people dying over this, murdered. What a responsibility I have toward this community…” As I Am Cait heads into its eight-episode first season, all eyes will be on whether it continues to uphold this duty.

Elsewhere: [The Conversation] The Voice, & the Body: Contesting with Disability on Reality TV.

[Daily Life] My Kitchen Rules: Does Reality TV Do a Better Job of Depicting People with Disability?

[This Ain’t Livin’] The Only Place to See Disabled People on TV: Reality Shows.

[Kill Your Darlings] Shame & Stigma on Struggle Street.

[Margaret Cho] Harajuku Girls.

[Time] Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait Uses Top Transgender Consultants. 

[Frontiers Media] Janet Mock Co-Anchors MSNBC Show & Talks Trans Murders & #BlackLivesMatter.

Australian TV & the Lack of Racial Diversity.

This article originally appeared on Spook Magazine.

America has experienced a racial revolution in the past twelve months both in their communities as unarmed black people are shot and killed by police and on their TV screens. The apparent “big trend” of “ethnic casting”, as Nellie Andreeva called it in a controversial March article for Deadline, can be seen all over some of the U.S.’s biggest hits, including Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat and Jane the Virgin, but is bounds away from holding a mirror to the actual racial makeup of the country, which is much more diverse.

Still, Hollywood is doing a hell of a lot better in making their TV screens reflect their population than Australia. It seems the bulk of our local content is reality, and the majority of that is home renovation shows: the equivalent to watching paint dry, literally. Or watching other people watch paint dry, as with Gogglebox. There are some diamonds in the rough, like Love Child (featuring Most Popular New Talent and Most Outstanding Newcomer Logie winner Miranda Tapsell), House Husbands (with the Lebanese-Australian Firass Dirani) and Winners & Losers (which tackles taboo subjects such as domestic violence and euthanasia), but on the whole Australian TV is a wasteland of haphazard time slots and shows getting pulled off the air all together.

Take, for example, the abovementioned How to Get Away with Murder and Empire. Both enjoyed unprecedented success in the U.S. upon their debuts in September 2014 and January this year, respectively. Being a product of Shondaland, the popularity of the Viola Davis-helmed HTGAWM was a no brainer, even outdoing crown jewel Scandal in its debut. (The current season of Scandal, which just finished in the U.S., is yet to air here.) Empire seemingly came out of nowhere, proving audiences want quality melodrama regardless of who happens to be performing it.

However, in Australia both shows have been given the run around. HTGAWM was performing strongly at the start of the year, however has been replaced by Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and pushed back later and later upon each scheduled return, the most recent of which was Monday 1st June, a move from Tuesday nights. And who knows what happened to Empire? (A quick look at Ten’s website indicates the finale aired in early May.) This is why I don’t own a TV.

So what am I doing writing a piece about TV, you may ask? Then again, you may not. According to a 2009 study, less than 5 million Australians are watching TV regularly. In the six years since, we’ve seen a rise in multi-screen viewing: streaming on computers, tablets and phones; next-day catch up on that network’s website or via DVR; and waiting for the whole series to be released on DVD, Netflix or iTunes so we can binge watch. It’s no wonder Australia is a nation of pirates: when we can’t even get the shows of our American comrades until months (or even years, as with The Mindy Project on Seven, which is now airing episodes that first screened two years ago. Come on!) later, we’re left with slim options of obtaining them.

And where are the other runaway, diverse successes I mentioned at the top of this piece on Aussie TV? Airing on cable, of course. Which does nothing to debunk our pirate status. That quality TV is so hard to get in this country on a reliable, accessible, cheap and/or free platform is one of the failings of modern Australia. That and, you know, our stance on refugees.

On the other hand, the reason why such generic fodder as Married at First Sight has succeeded here may be because we’re a nation of lackadaisical, she’ll-be-right-mates. How many of Married’s viewers tuned in after a long day’s work or school for a geezer and a laugh at these pathetic guinea pigs than were actually passionate about they were consuming? We’re so used to the unbearable sameness on TV served up by a select few apparent “tastemakers” that it’s easy to forget there’s myriad other cultures out there that we’re missing out on in our pop culture. Why should Indian culture, for example, be relegated to Bollywood stereotypes instead of in prime time with something like, again, The Mindy Project? And even then, Mindy is hardly a paragon of progression.

There’s no argument to be made for the over the top soapiness of HTGAWM, Empire and the like being a factor in our reluctance to give them a go: the recently axed Revenge performed much better in Australia than on ABC in the U.S. A lot like Australia’s soaps of choice, Neighbours and Home & Away, it also seldom featured a person of colour.

It’s an embarrassment when people from other countries visit here and realise people who look like them are living their Australian lives, but rarely see representations of themselves in our media. American writer Roxane Gay was in Oz for a series of talks in March and made some astute observations about our lack of diversity, especially in advertisements.

Diversity is not a trend; it’s life. It’s about time Australian TV took a page out of U.S. networks’ books and make it one in an effort to show and normalise diversity.

Related: Domestic Violence, Sex Work, Abortion, Women Proposing to Men, Marriage Equality, Euthanasia… Who Knew Winners & Losers Would Be So Progressive?!

Three Problems With Married at First Sight.

Elsewhere: [Deadline] Pilots 2015: The Year of Ethnic Castings.

[Mumbrella] Viewers Turn Away from TV in 2009.

[Techly] Aussies Watching Less TV Live But Embracing the Multi-Screen Lounge Room.

[Junkee] The U.S. Ambassador to Australia is Embarrassed by Your Pirating of Game of Thrones.

[Bitch] I Love The Mindy Project—But the Show Has Diversity Problems.

[Junkee] A Collection of Roxane Gay’s Delightfully Bemused Tweets About Australia.

[HuffPost] Shonda Rhimes Says She Isn’t “Diversifying” Television, She’s “Normalising” It—There’s a Difference. 

Why Chyna Should Be Inducted Into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.

Chyna-1

This article was originally published on Harlot.

For World Wrestling Entertainment fans, the end of March/beginning of April is perhaps the most exciting time. WrestleMania is around the corner (this year’s event at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas is set to be one of the biggest ever, with an estimated 100,000 in attendance) and with it comes the annual Hall of Fame Ceremony honouring those who’ve made outstanding contributions to the world of professional wrestling. Some past inductees include Hulk Hogan (whose name has been removed since last year’s racism scandal), Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka (whose name has also been removed since he was charged last year with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter for the death of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino in 1983) and, in the celebrity wing, Donald Trump (whose name should certainly be removed for being a reprehensible human being).

One name you won’t see in the Hall of Fame any time soon is that of Joanie Laurer, better known as late ’90s/early ’00s women’s wrestling pioneer Chyna.

Laurer, with her androgynous look, debuted in World Wrestling Entertainment in 1997 as a bodyguard for her then-partner, Triple H. Using her imposing stature, she proved she could go head to head with any male wrestler and did, winning the Intercontinental Championship, the first and only woman to ever do so, in 1999. Laurer’s other milestones include being the first-ever female entrant into the Royal Rumble and the King of the Ring tournament.

Laurer’s rise to fame coincided with the most hyper-sexualised time in professional wrestling, the Attitude Era. Women such as Sable paraded ringside in hand print pasties, a character named The Godfather (a Hall of Fame inductee this year) made his way to the ring in a pimp suit and followed by his “ho train”, and the WWE’s partnership with Playboy magazine began with Sable posing for the magazine in April and September, 1999.

Two covers from Laurer proceeded in 2000 and 2001, resulting in one of the highest-selling Playboys of all time. Laurer departed WWE soon after amidst contract disputes and personal issues while a WWE Diva (the company’s outdated term for a female wrestler) didn’t grace the pages of Playboy again until Torrie Wilson in 2003 followed by no less than six Divas getting their kit off for the publication up until 2008.

Though she never posed for Playboy during her time in WWE (but has done nude modelling elsewhere), Sunny was perhaps one of the most beloved Divas (and the one who arguably spawned the term) and was acknowledged as such when she was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.

Sunny made headlines recently when she auctioned off her Hall of Fame ring on eBay. The successful buyer, Vivid Entertainment boss Steve Hirsch, offered Sunny $100,000 and a starring role in one of Vivid’s videos for the ring. Sunny made her adult film debut in Sunny Side Up: In Through the Backdoor in January this year.

Now perhaps better known to non-wrestling fans as an adult performer like Sunny, in 2004 Laurer and her then-partner, fellow wrestler X-Pac (real name Sean Waltman), made an explicit home video that was sold through Red Light District Video entitled One Night in China, which Laurer then parlayed into a 2009 sequel, Another Night in China, as well as several other adult films.

Triple H, who is poised to one day run WWE with his now-wife Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of WWE’s owner Vince McMahon, discussed the incompatibilities between Laurer’s past and a possible Hall of Fame induction on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast early last year:

“I’ve got an eight-year-old kid and my eight-year-old kid sees the Hall of Fame and my eight-year-old kid goes on the internet to look at, you know, ‘there’s Chyna, I’ve never heard of her. I’m eight years old, I’ve never heard of her, so I go put that in, and I punch it up,’ and what comes up? And I’m not criticising anybody, I’m not criticising lifestyle choices. Everybody has their reasons and I don’t know what they were and I don’t care to know. It’s not a morality thing or anything else. It’s just the fact of what it is. And that’s a difficult choice. The Hall of Fame is a funny thing in that it is not as simple as, this guy had a really good career, a legendary career, he should go in the Hall of Fame. Yeah… but we can’t because of this reason. We can’t because of this legal instance.”

So, in a largely performative ceremony with arbitrary guidelines for induction (see Trump and, inexplicably, Drew Carey in the celebrity wing), Laurer’s name will not grace the Hall of Fame any time soon despite doing more for women’s wrestling than arguably anyone.

The groundswell surrounding Laurer’s omission has been brewing for a few years now which coincides with a renaissance of sorts for women’s wrestling (co opted by WWE with its #DivasRevolution marketing campaign). With women like Asuka (formerly Kana) bringing moves from Japan to a mainstream American audience in WWE’s NXT brand and Sasha Banks and Bayley putting on matches of the year, women’s wrestling has seldom been more talked about.

Now that WWE has entered the “PG-Era” in which it’s beholden to corporate sponsors and advertisers having a porn star in its Hall of Fame just won’t do. This is a far cry from the bra and panties matches (where the loser is the first woman to get stripped down to her lingerie) and bikini contests heyday of the Attitude Era. The noughties brought Diva Searches, trading on female performers’ looks over their athletic attributes, and the abovementioned Playboy covers. Total Divas, the current E! reality show focussing on the lives of eight WWE employees, could also be seen to be using its stars’ femininity to sell a product, albeit in a more PG fashion.

Laurer and Sunny may be some of the more notable wrestlers who’ve crossed over into adult entertainment but they’re not the only ones. Beulah McGillicutty, Candice Michelle and Ashley Massaro (who was allegedly implicated in the Bella Models escort ring in 2008) have all experienced varying degrees of success in sex work. Male wrestler and Attitude Era staple Gangrel enjoyed a stint as a porn director, World Championship Wrestling’s Buff Bagwell is working as a gigolo and Joey Ryan is being sponsored by YouPorn for his sexual in ring antics. Despite all having appeared in WWE at one time or another these wrestlers no longer have direct associations with the company at the time of writing.

WWE may think it’s above its majority female former stars who’ve made their own way in sex work but it wasn’t too long ago that WWE traded on the very sexuality it’s now trying to suppress. Laurer’s high-profile blackballing from the industry shows that when these women attempt to find pleasure in their sexualities and use it for their own gain, they’re shamed for it.

Laurer made reference to this in a series of tweets that have since been deleted in which she allegedly said, “me doing porn only affects me. It was my choice to do it. Other wrestlers have done far worse and Vince welcomes them back with open arms and a friendly smile.” (I attempted to reach out to Laurer to elaborate but she didn’t return my request for comment.)

Laurer could perhaps be referring to incidences such as the 2007 double murder-suicide committed by Chris Benoit against his wife and son, Jimmy Snuka, or the myriad men who’ve behaved far worse than Laurer but are still deemed what HOF-worthy. Interestingly, WWE is yet to comment on Sunny’s selling of her ring and subsequent foray into porn and as of this writing, she still remains in the Hall of Fame. Considering Hogan’s erasure from WWE history was likely more to do with his racist comments than the fact that they were said during an illegally filmed and obtained sex tape, if Sunny is to be taken out of the Hall of Fame it might be more closely aligned with a recent Twitter tirade in which she used the word “nigg*” and hashtagged #AllLivesMatter. Then again, Confederate-flag waving group The Freebirds will be inducted this year, while Trump’s name remains despite reprehensible things he’s said about communities of colour.

To be clear, I don’t think Sunny nor any other woman with a sex work past should be removed from or prevented from being inducted into the Hall of Fame but I do wonder where the accountability and consistency from WWE is. If Sunny, Hogan et al. are any indication, Laurer’s exclusion could come down to the top brass’ proclivities on any given day.

More likely, though, is that Laurer has become more infamous for what she’s done outside of WWE than her achievements during her short time inside it and that isn’t acceptable. WWE made her therefore it will be responsible for breaking her. Throw sex into the mix, and you’ve got one of the most threatening things a woman can be: in charge of a sexuality that doesn’t necessarily jibe with one WWE deems acceptable.

Related: Are Divas Finally Being Given a Chance? 

World Wrestling Entertainment Will Never #GiveDivasAChance As Long As It Prioritises Bad Men.

Elsewhere: [WWE] WWE.com’s Top 25 Matches of 2015.

[Wrestling News World] Chyna Explains the “Personal Reasons” That Caused Her to Leave WWE in 2001.

Image source unknown.

A Handmaid’s Place.

A Woman's Place

*The following contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly episode six, “A Woman’s Place”.

The Handmaid’s Tale has often been described as the future for women if politicians such as Donald Trump and Mike Pence get their way. The sixth episode of the Hulu adaptation shows us, through the backstories of Commander Fred Waterford and Serena Joy Waterford, how easily current society could slip into a dystopia like Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale indulges, though not as much as other prestige television shows, in humanising slightly the villains of the story, the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and particularly Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who enjoyed a career as a “domestic feminist”, writing books about how women neglected their homely duties for professional ambition (that’s the pot calling the kettle black there, isn’t it Serena?), resulting in a low birth rate. She enthusiastically describes to Fred an idea for a book about “fertility as a national resource; reproduction as a moral imperative.” Through contrasting, present-day scenes, we see how Serena Joy helped implement Gilead, a civilization in which she and all women no longer have agency.

The crux of the episode is on a Mexican diplomat’s meeting with Commander Waterford and the other gatekeepers of Gilead. Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara), whom our heroine Offred (Elisabeth Moss) initially overlooks in favour of one of her male aides, internalising the stifling patriarchy of Gilead and, indeed, contemporary culture that dictates that women are not usually the ones in power, asks Serena Joy how she feels about being instrumental in bringing about “a society in which women can no longer read your book. Or anything else.” Serena Joy replies by rattling off a list of achievements Gilead’s made in its young life, such as reducing carbon emissions by 78% in three years.

In this way, it’s hard not to sympathise with flashback Fred and Serena, or at least their concern about the environment and the human race hurtling towards extinction. The Handmaid’s Tale offers a glimpse into the motivations of the religious, politicians, and conservatives who probably, like Fred and Serena Joy, think “we’re saving them. We’re doing god’s work.” So we never end up becoming complacent and siding with them, though, this episode—entitled “A Woman’s Place”—is sure to inject flat out statements about just that. “We put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition we let them forget their real purpose,” one of the Commander’s colleagues tells him after Serena is prohibited from presenting her ideas to the forefathers of Gilead. “We won’t let that happen again.”

However it’s the underlying themes and motifs of “A Woman’s Place” that are far more interesting than the statements that are designed to shock, especially because they’re so prescient to present-day society.

The Handmaids’ infantalisation is front and centre this episode, with Mrs. Castillo asking about Offred’s former name and the Commander, speaking for Offred, explaining that Handmaids choose to take on their patronymic alias. Then, at a ball celebrating the arrival of Mrs. Castillo and Gilead’s impending trade agreement with Mexico, Serena Joy lauds “the devotion of a group of girls” for their sacrifice, yet another theme of the episode. The obvious coercion of the Handmaids, paired with the stripping of their bodily autonomy, their birth names (which calls to mind the exchange of the father’s name to the husband’s upon marriage) and the parade of the children of Gilead birthed by them then ripped from their arms, is a chilling parallel to slavery.

This conclusion is much easier to come to with the Hulu adaptation than Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, in which she drew from the slavery, segregation, internment and genocide to cast people of colour and other religions out of Gilead, where they have been shipped “back” to their countries of origin. Only white people reside in Atwood’s Gilead, a likely result of the regime’s religious and white supremacist ideologies. But a television adaptation with as lofty, prestigious goals as The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t get away with such blatant whitewashing in 2017. The boycotting of films such as Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall for eliminating non-white characters indicates that The Handmaid’s Tale would be met with bad press and lose a significant following if it adhered to the source material. And while the inclusion of non-white Handmaids, Marthas, sex- and (presumably, though we never see them) colony-workers, and the handful of peripheral non-white Wives and Commanders, reflect the show’s viewership and thereby make the comparisons to real-world racist atrocities all the more triggering, The Handmaid’s Tale has rightly drawn criticism for centring the experiences of white Handmaids like Offred at the expense of characters such as Moira (Samira Wiley).

There is also a clear correlation between talk of the Handmaids’ sacrifice and similar rhetoric expressed by real-world government. Australian viewers will remember former Treasurer Peter Costello’s 2004 remarks upon an ageing population and decreased birth rate that women should have “one [child] for mum, one for dad, and one for the country”, just as Gilead, Mexico (where in Mrs. Castillo’s hometown there have been no live births in six years, prompting her to trade for Handmaids) and presumably other countries in this dystopic fiction are seeking to bolster their populations. When Mrs. Castillo implores Offred to sympathise with the fact that her country is dying and Offred replies, “My country is already dead,” this is but one of the ways Gilead is hurting the majority of its citizens while professing to help them. 

Despite what some of the cast and crew initially said about The Handmaid’s Tale not being a feminist story, “A Woman’s Place” is perhaps the most obvious episode of the 11-instalment first season to prove that what’s going on in Gilead is, indeed, urgently so.

Related: Orange is the New Black Season Five Attempts To Right Last Season’s Wrongs.

Elsewhere: [SBS On Demand] The Handmaid’s Tale is Streaming Now: Here’s Why You Should Watch it.

[The Undefeated] In Handmaid’s Tale, A Postracial, Patriarchal Hellscape.

[Vulture] In Its First Season, The Handmaid’s Tale’s Greatest Failing is How it Handles Race.

[io9] The Biggest Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is How It Ignores Race.

[Vulture] Elisabeth Moss Isn’t Convinced The Handmaid’s Tale is Feminist.

Image via Vice.

Orange is the New Black: Sacrificing One for the Good of the Many.

Orange-Is-The-New-Black-season-5-896976

*This article contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black season five.

While the three-day riot that threads through season five of Orange is the New Black brings Litchfield together, if only for a time, in an attempt to agitate for better conditions, it’s the sacrifice of several individual inmates that are the most pivotal moments.

Last season was remembered for the shocking and devastating death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) at the hands of an untrained guard that mirrored the real-life death of Eric Garner and was the catalyst for the aforementioned Litchfield riot. When warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) fails to #SayHerName is a press conference absolving the guard who killed Poussey, CO Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), Taystee is livid, but takes the opportunity the riot presents to get justice for her best friend.

Demonstrating her level head and mind for business, Taystee negotiates with authorities, including a somewhat sympathetic representative from the Governor’s office, former warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), and Caputo, tasking the inmates with devising a list of ten demands in exchange for the release of their hostages, a mixed bag of guards that served as Litchfield’s tormentors last season. However, in an example of dissention in the ranks and the individual concerns of prisoners that will come to a head again in later episodes, the arrest of Bayley for the death of Poussey is voted ninth on the list of Litchfield’s priorities, below Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and tampons in commissary.

While the provision of some of these items is a gesture of goodwill from the Governor’s office, it is season five’s first glaring example of sacrificing one for the many. In case this wasn’t obvious, OITNB makes it so by having Piper (Taylor Schilling) bring up the trolley problem, an ethical thought experiment that asks if a train or trolley was heading towards a group of five people tied to the tracks, would you pull the lever to divert it to another track to which only one person was tied, or would you do nothing and let five people die instead of one? Unfortunately for Daya (Dascha Polanco), who ended up shooting CO Humphrey (Michael Torpey) in the cliffhanger from last season, she is the one whom Taystee, Piper and co. direct the trolley towards in an effort to continue negotiations.

While Daya might have been the sacrificial lamb to save the flock, her surrender sets in motion several other inmates acting in their own immediate best interests instead of what could make life inside easier for hundreds—and possibly hundreds of thousands, if the fictional Piper goes on to advocate for prison reform as her real life counterpart Piper Kerman, whose memoir the show is based on, has—of other women in prison. Daya, a surrogate daughter to Gloria (Selenis Leyva), and especially so now that Daya’s mother, Aledia (Elizabeth Rodriguez), has been released, no doubt reminds Gloria of her biological children, who come into focus this season. Benito, Gloria’s son, needs brain surgery after getting beaten up. Desperate to see him when he wakes up, or in case he never does, Gloria hatches a plan to take the hostages for herself and release them in exchange for furlow. Despite this being an empty promise made by Caputo, who is in no position to make deals as one of the hostages, and the head of MCC, who isn’t even involved in negotiations as the riot is under the Governor’s jurisdiction now, Gloria is guided by her singular need to see her child.

It is a similar castle in the sky that inspires Maria (Jessica Pimentel) to muscle in on Gloria’s bright idea after she finds out that the paperwork concerning the extra time CO Piscatella allegedly added to her sentence last season was likely never completed. Governed by the hope that she might be able to see her baby daughter, whom she gave birth to in prison in season one, sooner than she thought, Maria employs the natural hustle on display in her season four backstory and snatches the guards right out from under her friends’ noses, who took over guarding the… erm… guards when Maria decided she wanted to stay out of the riot that she was ostensibly the initial leader of.

The motherhood that binds Daya, Gloria and Maria together is reminiscent of the themes of season three, which was promoted as being about motherhood, opening with a Mother’s Day fete, the episode in which Maria’s partner Yadriel tells her he doesn’t want to bring their daughter to see her in prison any longer. Episode 11 is particularly heavy-handed its exploration of motherhood, exchanging OITNB’s proverbial flashbacks for glimpses into the present-day lives of Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) daughter, whom her mother raised as her own, and Ouija’s (Rosal Colon) son, who recognises his mother in the background of one of Flaritza’s (the amalgamation of Maritza [Diane Guerrero] and Flaca’s [Jackie Cruz] names) YouTube makeup tutorials. We see this again when Piper, Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and Leanne’s (Emma Myles) mums show up at Litchfield to see if their daughters are safe amidst news of the riot. Whether intentional or not, OITNB positions these women as having nobler intentions for wanting the riot to end because they’re mothers, rather than the arguably more benevolent motivations of Taystee and co. This is particularly evident in Maria and Gloria’s exchange in the TV room, where Gloria tells Maria her designs on breaking out the guards, in the same episode.

The fact that Daya, Gloria and Maria are all women of colour isn’t insignificant, and their own marginalisation perhaps prevents them from seeing a bigger picture that the real-life Piper, as mentioned above, has the privilege of.

With the season finale seemingly splitting up the Litchfield prisoners and moving them to other facilities, it remains to be seen whether Taystee’s, whom we last see in the bunker with an assortment of other prisoners, efforts were all for nothing. At least Maria got to hug her daughter before she’s presumably relocated to another prison further away with the time she believed wasn’t added to her sentence put back on.

Related: Orange is the New Black Season Five Attempts to Right Last Season’s Wrongs.

The Perception of Power on Orange is the New Black.

Physical & Mental Health on Orange is the New Black.

Orange is the New Black‘s Morello’s Fractured Relationship with Romance.

Elsewhere: [Junkee] This is the Most Devastating & Political Season of Orange is the New Black Yet.

Image via Express.

Orange is the New Black Season Five Attempts to Right Last Year’s Wrongs.

oitnb season 5 bunker

*This article contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black season five.

Last month on the New York Times podcast Still Processing, hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris criticised the Netflix show Dear White People, asserting that “it’s a bunch of bumper stickers and tweets” in a twenty-two minute comedy that amounts to “an IRL exchange about how to be black”.

“This show does not really appear to be about the experience of what it is like to be black and in college, it appears to be an education for how [white people are] supposed to understand what it’s like to be black in college,” Wortham says. “In case you don’t know how to feel about saying the n-word in a rap song we’re going to tell you and we’re going to do it in a way that you can just retweet this line… This is how you know how to talk about this issue [and] to be a good ally. It feels very prescriptive.”

So with Wortham and Morris’ words ringing in my ears, I approached the fifth season of Orange is the New Black, which dropped on Netflix over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, with trepidation. Though I was initially complimentary of last year’s outing which mirrored many of the real life atrocities inflicted upon black bodies, a predominantly white writers room that created racist trauma porn and failed to add anything to the discourse highlighted the importance of listening to people of colour when making and consuming TV about and for them.

Many of these issues echoed throughout the first several episodes, with hot-button topics such as gaslighting, mass shootings, poor working conditions in nail salons and acquired brain injuries being condensed into witty one-liners not out of place on a progressive Twitter feed and regurgitated by peripheral characters to prove they, or at least the show, are woke.

During one such moment, disgraced celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown), who managed to become entangled in the riot prior to her early release last season, convinces Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), DeMarco (Lin Tucci) and the Nazi skinheads, Brandy (Asia Kate Dillon) and Helen (Francesca Curran), that a supply drop is coming for her on the roof. With Judy’s arms tied to a plank resembling a crucifixion to prevent her escape and headscarves disguising Brandy and Helen, a news helicopter distorts their ill-conceived quest for snacks in a situation in which food is quickly running out into terrorism. The irony of Nazis being mistaken for Islamist terrorists is echoes the “fucking media’s”—which OITNB is sure to have Brandy parrot in case we missed it—tendency to explain away terrorism committed by white people as mental illness or the actions of a lone wolf, and our quickness to dub every crime committed by a brown person as terrorism, rendering nothing terrorism.

If a social justice movement doesn’t have a resistance, does it even exist? When one of the riot’s initial instigators, Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), takes last season’s tormentors, the guards, hostage, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) seeks refuge in the yard rather than be a part of the sexualised torture and humiliation they are subjected to. Several of her fellow inmates follow, desperate for a political counter culture rather than getting to the root of the hell they’re already in: a minority woman’s death by state-sanctioned violence due to institutionalised racism and the prison industrial complex. For a devastating look at the relationship between the two, one should watch the documentary 13th, also on Netflix.

OITNB indulges in the humanisation of villains, most recently seen on shows such as the upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale, which has often served to help audiences understand characters such as Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), Pennsatucky (Tarryn Manning) and Leanne’s (Emma Myles) motivations and journeys to prison. This time it’s CO Piscatella (Brad William Henke), who murdered an inmate in a former prison by burning him to death in a shower for raping and beating his former lover, calling to mind the death of Darren Rainey, who died in prison in 2012 under similar circumstances, and Linda (Beth Dover), head of purchasing at MCC, the company that owns Litchfield.

Trapped inside Litchfield during the riot, Linda poses as inmate Amelia von Barlow, the Counterfeit Cunt of Connecticut, to hide her true identity, which perhaps speaks to her fetishisation of women in prison, a troubling ideology for someone who controls the flow of essential items to them. Linda realises the injustice she helped enforced when faced with it herself, particularly when eating prison slop. Linda is a cipher for privileged, predominantly white viewers who might think the camaraderie and shenanigans that take place in Litchfield would be fun to experience for a while.

Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Jenae (Vicky Jeudy), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and the memory of Poussey (Samira Wiley, who appears in an all-too-short flashback to her first meeting with Taystee) are always on hand to remind us both just how hellish being in prison actually is, especially for women of colour, and the purpose of the riot. “Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor, brown people. Our fight is with the folks who hold our demands in their hands,” she announces to the news vans covering the riot in the arresting closing scene of episode five. Taystee successfully negotiates with authorities to provide the prison with a list of ten demands as voted on by the inmates. Some are frivolous (Flaming Hot Cheetos stocked in commissary) and some harken back to the injustices of last season, such as inadequate healthcare and personal hygiene supplies, but this storyline at times helps OITNB return to the strengths of its first few seasons, melding the tragic with the comedic and prioritising tender storytelling for which Brooks and Aduba deserve all the awards.

Though it ultimately fails to capture the magic of its heyday, OITNB seems to be learning from its past mistakes and the mistakes of other shows, such as Dear White People and UnREAL. As Jenna Wortham reiterates, “Most of these shows are very conscious of the fact that white people are going to be watching for clues for how to understand blackness.”

Related: The Perception of Power on Orange is the New Black.

Physical & Mental Health on Orange is the New Black.

Orange is the New Black‘s Morello’s Fractured Relationship with Romance.

Elsewhere: [Junkee] This is the Most Devastating & Political Season of Orange is the New Black Yet.

[SBS Guide] White Writers Telling Black Stories.

[Wear Your Voice] Orange is the New Black is Trauma Porn Written for White People.

[Teen Vogue] Donald Trump is Gaslighting America.

[New York Times] The Price of Nice Nails.

[Fusion] Inmate Darren Rainey Was Boiled Alive in a Shower by Prison Guards…

Watching Gossip Girl Makes Me Feel Bad About Myself.

gossip girl serena crying

This article was originally published on Birdee on 23rd October, 2013. 

In preparation for an upcoming trip to New York City, I decided to immerse myself in pop culture related to the Big Apple, one morsel of which was Gossip Girl.

I was a fan of the show before it went off the air this time last year, but upon rewatching it, GG just wasn’t the same. Maybe it’s because I binge-watched and therefore didn’t have the distance of weeks between episodes and months between seasons; or just because I’m older, wiser and more in tune with my feminism; but GG ain’t like it used to be. In fact, Serena et al. and the swanky and “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite” actually made me feel bad about myself.

Now, I have pretty high self-esteem and positive body image for someone who went through adolescence in the internet age – when porn became ubiquitous, texting and social media reigned supreme and magazine cover girls were increasingly airbrushed to within an inch of their lives – so I can only imagine how it affects other young people.

When the first season premiered in 2007, I was still a teen and finding my place in the world. Initially, I aspired to have Serena’s luscious locks (albeit in brunette) and designer duds and gallivant around the big city. But as the series grew more debauched and increasingly focused on materialism and status, I unknowingly became susceptible to GG making me feel inadequate – it even contributed to the early stages of a quarter life crisis (from which I’m still not sure I’ve recovered)!

The enviable wardrobes and statement jewellery of Blair and Serena, the glamorous New York parties and cunning schemes were juxtaposed against my mundane existence working at Coles and studying in a country town. I’d never have Serena’s gravity-defying breasts or even Georgina’s slightly more attainable eye makeup; forget invitations to hobnob with celebrities at Upper East Side events.

I don’t think the manifestation of these feelings of inadequacy is accidental. We all know the purpose of advertising is to make us feel like we won’t be good enough until we’ve purchased this item, after which all of your worries (and wrinkles!) will be magically erased. GG is a show renowned for its product placement: VitaminWater, Android smart phones, Bing’s search engine, not to mention the legion of celebrities and fashion designers hawking their latest projects.

It goes beyond this, though, with the showrunners punishing certain (female) characters for their transgressions: Jenny was banished from New York for questionably consenting to first-time sex with reprehensible Chuck, who’d tried to date rape her in the first episode. Blair was slut shamed and ostracised for deigning to sleep with someone who wasn’t her boyfriend, is denied love from Chuck for seasons, is equated to a commodity to be traded for a hotel, loses a pregnancy because she can’t chose between two men, and even her own mother questions her sexuality. Serena’s character is dismissed as eye candy and lacks any defining personality traits – apart from being an ‘It girl’ about town. Gossip Girl’s characters and plotline, while dramatic, are not inspiring or empowering.

Sure, it’s just fiction. Often the TV medium is about escapism, and after a hard day at work, school or just a weekend veg-out session, not everyone wants to turn on the TV or open their laptops and be confronted with more intellectualism. Sometimes we just want to lose ourselves in the fantasy.

But it can only be a good thing that some new TV shows have made an effort to better represent the general population and depict women with interests, issues and body types that real people can relate to – think Girls, Orange is the New Black etc.

From now on, I’ll be spending more of my TV time on content that makes me feel good.

Image source unknown.