White Women & Orange is the New Black.

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This article contains spoilers for season six of Orange is the New Black.

After the deaths of two guards and the destruction of Litchfield Correctional Facility’s minimum security campus at the culmination of last season’s riot, “camp” has closed and our favourite inmates have been reassigned to new prisons in season six, which dropped on Netflix on Friday.

Some inmates, like Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Sophia (Laverne Cox), have made the short journey down the road to max, while other favourites such as Boo (Lea Delaria), Martiza (Diane Guerrero) and Janae (Vicky Jeudy) are seldom heard from, if at all, this season.

In their place are Piper’s latest foil, Madison (Amanda Fuller) who goes by the intentionally cringe-worthy nickname Badison, and two of the driving forces of this season’s main plotline, long-term incarcerated sisters Barb (Mackenzie Phillips) and Carol (Henny Russell), which fellow white inmates Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Morello (Yael Stone) and Frieda (Dale Soules) all become embroiled in.

This outsized focus on white characters is puzzling not only because most of them die at the conclusion of the season but also considering that OITNB’s claim to fame when it premiered in 2013 was its employment of the Trojan Horse trope. Drawing its name from the Greek myth, OITNB introduced homogenous audiences to the Nice White Lady decoy, Piper Chapman, then pivoted to the stories of poor and trans women of colour in prison. After criticism in recent years, season four particularly, that the show engaged in trauma porn featuring its transgender characters and characters of colour crafted by a predominantly white writers room, maybe it’s not so puzzling. Write what you know, right…?

After all, OITNB is based on real-life experiences of author and prison reform activist Piper Kerman, and this season acknowledges that by planting the seeds in Piper’s mind of the memoir that started it all, an epiphany which occurs while Piper’s fantasising about seeing her gynaecologist when she gets out in nine months, while she and Alex queue to see the prison doctor. “Dr Chin doesn’t take insurance but she has a full herbal tea bar in her waiting room,” she muses.

But Piper, always one to fall on her feet by virtue of her rich, white womaness, gets out a lot sooner than that. As in, by the final episode of this season, because even when she has someone with a vendetta against her striving to get her extra time, Piper lands on her feet on the outside, free to visit expensive gynos, “wear pretty bras” and, hopefully, engage in meaningful discourse about prison reform.

Yet somehow Piper’s preoccupation with her petty problems, amplified by the prison environment, is given equal credence to the insurmountable odds against Taystee (Danielle Brooks) in taking on the justice system after being set up to take the fall for the death of CO Piscatella (Brad William Henke) in the riot. Their differing circumstances are highlighted in a scene in the prison salon, where Piper is getting the gum Madison mashed into her hair cut out while Taystee prepares for court. “What is it about me that makes people want to fuck with me?” Piper laments to her.

“It’s ‘cause of what they see when they look at you,” Taystee humours Piper. “They see the shit they never had: money, education, opportunity. That’s why they’re never gonna stop fucking with you, ’cause of what you represent. But that’s only in here. People out there have been fucking with me my entire life. They see: a dangerous, ghetto, poor, Black girl that should be locked up in here forever. So if you want to trade places, I’m game.”

There have always been parallels between these two characters, from the swatch of Piper’s hair Taystee wears as a weave in season one, mirroring the above mentioned salon scene; to their shared involvement in the riot; to Piper’s lover Alex seeking absolution for informing on her in the past during their wedding, which Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), whose guilt over framing Taystee festers inside her, is a witness to. And given the media interest in Taystee following the riot, viewers might wonder whether she’s better positioned to be writing a prison memoir. (How many prison memoirs by women of colour are out there?) But Taystee doesn’t think so.

“I’m not special. I’m one of millions of people just like me,” she tells a reporter from ProPublica. “People behind bars and caught in the crossfire… You can’t put a whole system in prison so they[‘re] coming for me. But I’m coming for them. I’m gonna keep standing up for better inmate treatment in here, for my friend, Poussey Washington, because she can’t no more.”

In addition to the memoir, Piper is preoccupied with reinstating a kickball league to boost morale in the prison, not only for the well-being of the inmates but, in typical Piper fashion, because it will be a “positive note to send the reader off on”. She makes kickball—as with her tone-deaf Community Carers taskforce to dismantle “gang-related” activity in season four—her mission like Kim Kardashian made prison reform and the granting of clemency to non-violent offenders hers.

Given Piper’s history of activism (written with tongue firmly in cheek) and her subsequent appropriation of experiences not her own with her impending memoir, she may not be the abolitionist we need, but she’s certainly the one this show deserves. Just as, in the larger celebrity-as-king (or President, rather) hellscape it exists in, Kim Kardashian is the biggest hope for prison reform the U.S. has, agitating in May for the clemency of non-violent African American drug offender Alice Marie Johnson, who was released a week later after twenty years in prison.

Kim has said she’s interested in getting involved with other cases, helping to affect changes to the justice system “one person at a time”, through her connections with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the latter of whom is the poster girl for complicity in Trump’s America. Perhaps it’s her way of giving back some of the close-to-a billion dollars she and her family have made from appropriating black women’s features and putting them on white women’s bodies.

There are several other easter eggs, intentional or not, placed throughout the season that hint at white women’s complicity. Kim’s archnemesis Taylor Swift’s name is dropped a few times, while Madison’s continued foiling and suspicion of Piper could be viewed as a commentary on society’s hatred of Kim. Warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) spends an inordinate amount of time pondering the purchase a coat, which unintentionally invokes the image of Melania Trump and her “I really don’t care, do you” coat from earlier this year. Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover), having convinced prison officials in Ohio where she was shipped after the riot that she is, in fact, an MCC (since renamed PolyCon Corrections) executive and not a scammer named Amelia von Barlow, offers Sophia hush money in exchange for her signing a non-disclosure agreement and not testifying for Taystee.

Women like Sophia don’t have the luxury of martyring themselves for a greater cause; they will take whatever they can from wolves in white women’s clothing to get ahead in a system that’s corrupted against them, and Linda is well aware of that.

As always, it’s through these more nuanced portrayals of the cases of Sophia, Taystee and Daya (Dascha Polanco) that OITNB succeeds at portraying how hopeless the justice system is for prisoners. The majority of incarcerated women are automatically presumed guilty so are advised against taking their cases to trial and, if for some reason they do get out, they’re forced to watch their kids live in a group home, like Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez); live out their lives in poverty, unable to secure a job or vote; or succumb to recidivism, like Taystee. You’d think OITNB would learn from past missteps that these are the stories viewers want to see, not those of petty white bitches.

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

 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: [NPR] Orange Creator Jenji Kohan: Piper Was My Trojan Horse.

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

[Forbes] How 20-Year-Old Kylie Jenner Built a $900 Million Fortune in Less Than 3 Years.

Image via Metro.

 

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

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*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.

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*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…

My Favourite Articles That I Wrote in 2016.

2016, it’s fair to say, was a pretty shit year for humanity in general. For me personally, though, it was pretty good. I’ve published the most freelance work I ever have, and I’m writing this from New York City, where I’ve been seeing out the apocalypse (the Mayans were wrong: 2016 is the end of their calendar and, thus, the world) for the past two months. Here are some of my favourite things I’ve published this year.

“Beyoncé Makes Us Want to Be Better People” & “The Kardashians Are Better Than You”The Vocal.

Some of the most fun I’ve had writing was for The Vocal and I think these were two of my best pieces. I love writing about controversial issues and controversial women, and these two subjects certainly tick those boxes.

“Kim Kardashian: Our Modern-Day Monroe”, The Big Smoke.

Similarly, what’s more controversial than comparing perhaps the most reviled woman in contemporary culture with the iconic, though equally disdained, Marilyn Monroe?

“In Defence of Eva Marie”Calling Spots.

And in the wrestling world, who is more controversial than Total Divas star Eva Marie? I wrote in defence of her for Calling Spots magazine.

“Whorephobia & Misogyny in Wrestling: Still Real to Me, Dammit”, Harlot.

Short-lived feminist site Harlot let me write about what a travesty it was that woman wrestler Chyna wasn’t inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame. She died a month later.

“The State of Women’s Wrestling”SBS Zela.

Writing for SBS’s now-shuttered women’s sports site Zela was one of the defining moments in my career. A writer and editor I’ve long admired (but who I thought didn’t even know I existed!) recommended me to Zela editor Danielle Warby to cover the women’s wrestling renaissance. My favourite piece was an overview of the year in women’s wrestling up to that point in one of my last articles for the site.

“Nia Jax: Not Like Most Girls”, “Smack Talker! Daniel Bryan’s Tiresome Vocal Misogyny” &  “A Woman’s Place Should Be in the White House—And in the Cell”Intergender World Champs.

With Zela and Harlot shutting down, I was without a place to write about women’s wrestling for a time. Then along came Intergender World Champs, for which I’ve written an assortment of things.

“Why Celebrities Prefer Empowerment to Feminism”Daily Life.

I’d long been thinking about “women’s empowerment” and what it even means, and I got to write about it for my first piece for Daily Life, an outlet I’d been trying to crack for years.

“Trading in the Beauty Economy”feminartsy.

I’d been pushing words around in this piece for ages and feminartsy allowed me to publish it.

“The James Deen Allegations: How Porn Sets the Example for Responding to Sexual Assault”Archer.

My first piece for Archer was a look at the rape allegations against James Deen and what mainstream industries can learn from porn’s response to them.

“This is the Most Devastating & Political Season of Orange is the New Black Yet”Junkee.

Getting paid to write about things you enjoy doing is a pretty good gig.

“Women of The People VS. OJ Simpson, The Big Smoke.

Ditto.

“Why An Australian Woman Felt Compelled to Go Door-to-Door Campaigning for Hillary Clinton”Daily Life.

Though not my last published piece for 2016, what better way to cap off a tumultuous year than by writing about volunteering for Hillary Clinton?!

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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The female legacy of Ghostbusters[Kill Your Darlings]

Leslie Jones’ role in the reboot is a win for diversity but also a loss for diversity. [The Toast]

“All of Beyoncé’s career has been leading up to Lemonade, including often overlooked songs such as ‘Black Culture,’ ‘Grown Woman,’ and ‘Creole.’ ‘***Flawless’ and ‘Superpower’ are the preface to ‘Formation,’ ‘Jealous’ the prequel to the mid-sections of Lemonade. ‘Irreplaceable’ stands in the doorway filing its nails somewhere between ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ and ‘I Ain’t Sorry.’ ‘Freakum Dress’ is the PG-13 sister of ‘6 Inch.'” [Spark]

Taylor Swift’s feminist evolution. [Billboard]

Margot Robbie’s Vanity Fair cover story has sparked calls to stop getting middle aged men to write lecherous cover stories on famous women:

“Let’s allow women to write about women for a little while. Maybe then we can swap the prevalent illusions of femininity for realistic portraits of women as complex human characters.” [The Walrus]

Playing Pokemon Go as a black man. [Medium]

Women only watch wrestling for the hot guys, right? [Wrestling Sexism]

The rise of cripface on TV. [LA Times]

Why being an ally is no longer enough. [Marie Claire]

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Does Orange is the New Black buy into the “bury your gays” trope?

OITNB, conversely, uses Poussey’s death to illustrate exactly the issue that ‘Bury Your Gays’ seeks to highlight. Big, unchecked organisations can erase marginalised people without a second thought, and the grinding, faceless mechanisms of bureaucracy are capable of cruelties far beyond what any individual could commit. OITNB kills Poussey in order to tell this story.” [Vulture]

Masterchef and other cooking shows leave vegetarians and vegans out in the cold. [Kill Your Darlings]

“A man’s appetite can be hearty, but a woman with an appetite is always voracious: her hunger always overreaches, because it is not supposed to exist. If she wants food, she is a glutton. If she wants sex, she is a slut. If she wants emotional care-taking, she is a high-maintenance bitch or, worse, an ‘attention whore’: an amalgam of sex-hunger and care-hunger, greedy not only to be fucked and paid but, most unforgivably of all, to be noticed.” [Hazlitt]

Images via Buzzfeed, Netflix.

On the (Rest of the) Net.

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I wrote about the racial politics of Black Lives Matter, #ICantBreathe, #HandsUpDontShoot and #SayHerName inherent in Orange is the New Black‘s latest season (spoilers!). [Junkee]

And here’s how the show is shining light on the realities of women in prison, and when they’re released. [Elle]

Mother Jones did a video series and an accompanying article on what it’s really like to be a guard in a privatised prison.

I also wrote about whether Total Divas has a place in the women’s wrestling revolution. [Femmezuigiri]

And Sports Illustrated‘s deadnaming of Caitlyn Jenner was bigoted and invalidating to the trans community. [SBS Zela]

Jesse Williams made a stirring speech about racism in America at the BET Awards. [BET]

I spoke to Sonia Nair about working part time in a non-creative industry while trying to make writing work. [The Cusp]

Why isn’t Kanye West a gay icon? [MTVNews]

What porn and wrestling have in common: a lack of unions. [In These Times]

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes election fiction from the point of view of Melania Trump. [NYTimes]

Image via Netflix.

Despite the Name, It’s All About the Women on Masters of Sex.

This article was originally published on TheVine on 17th October, 2014.

I recently spent a weekend in August listening to international guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, wax lyrical about the “golden age of prestige TV” and its respective “antiheroes”. While we’ve been watching the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites for the past fifteen years it’s time for a new dawn of television where women are the focus, such as Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black and pretty much anything Shonda Rhimes puts her Midas touch to.

One such show that comes to mind is Masters of Sex, the second season finale of which aired on SBS last night. Masters might seem to focus on the man it’s named for, the steely, socially awkward OBGYN, Bill Masters, played by Michael Sheen, but who it’s really concerned with are the women in his life. These include the long-suffering wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), whose trajectory sees her struggle with the changing attitudes of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the woman her husband is having an affair with: research assistant in Masters’ study of human sexual response, Virginia Johnson, played expertly by Lizzy Caplan. Both Masters and Johnson justify their extramarital activities by being adamant that “it’s for the work”. While nary a facet of Masters isn’t shown to Virginia at some stage or another he recoils from Libby, runs his mother out of town, slut-shames former sex worker cum secretary Betty and Virginia at times, and I don’t think there’s been an instance in which he interacts with his two infant sons.  In a scene that echoes Breaking Bad’s “I’m the one who knocks!”, Bill rages at Libby when she confronts him about their money troubles that “I provide the roof!”

Audiences may struggle to reconcile the way Masters treats the women in his personal life with his important medical work, not unlike Don Draper, for example, in the “masculinity masterpieces”—as Nussbaum put it in her presentation at the Writers Festival—of yore.

Masters of Sex is a show that has almost unbelievably advanced attitudes towards sex for the time it’s set and the fictional Masters and Johnson are held up as paragons of progression. At work Masters masquerades as the good, bleeding-heart doctor stuck in the conservative ’50s, as seen when he refuses to perform gender assignment surgery on an intersex baby. Masters similarly declines a teenaged patient’s parents request for her to undergo a hysterectomy to curb her sexual appetite. Careful, Bill, your God complex is showing.

Like Orange is the New Black, a show that follows a wide range of incarcerated women’s lives using a middle-class white woman as the Trojan horse to gain entry into that world, Masters’ focus on a male doctor is a cipher to take a better look at Virginia, Libby et al. in a time when women were viewed as second class citizens. (Some would argue that nothing much as changed.)

Also like OITNB, perhaps this has to do with the fact that it is a created by women, not “prickly auteurs and the antiheroes they love”, to borrow yet another line from Nussbaum. A different Emily—this time Emily Tatti, editor of online literary journal Ricochet—tweeted that “You can tell it’s written by women, you just don’t get female characters like that in other shows!”

Showrunner Michelle Ashford explains Masters of Sex’s portrayal of women thusly:

“[In season one] three of our episodes were directed by women, our staff was half women, my producing partner is a woman. A lot of the people that have interviewed us say, ‘Wow, this whole show is run by women.’ We look at each other and think, ‘We didn’t design it that way.’ And that’s actually pretty great.”

The capable, relatable women who are received by audiences as such outnumber the titular Masters. Where Breaking Bad’s Skyler White was eviscerated by armchair commentators for expressing concern over her husband’s drug dealing and the actress that played her subsequently wrote a New York Times op-ed about it, Libby’s “problem that has no name”, for example, is portrayed as empathetic. And Virginia might get around but she is never characterised as wanton to the audience. Other such “strong female characters”, to use the clichéd term, that aren’t so much likeable as they are realistic portrayals of women in the world include How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating, Hannah Horvath of Girls, and any number of the women on Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and OITNB.

Masters of Sex is busy ushering in this new era of television that sees antiheroes shift ever so slightly out of the frame and the women who love them—or, in many instances, merely tolerate them—have their time in the spotlight.

Elsewhere: [NPR] Orange Creator Jenji Kohan: “Piper Was My Trojan Horse.”

[HuffPo] Masters of Sex Creator Michelle Ashford: “I Had Every Horrible Job Imaginable.”

[NYTimes] I Have a Character Issue.

[Amazon] The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

[New Statesman] I Hate Strong Female Characters.

[Buzzfeed] Not Here to Make Friends.