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“Orange is the New Black”: The Pornstache Problem

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September 27, 2013

Note: Spoilers ahead

I’m going to first give “Orange is the New Black” credit where it’s due. This show has had extremely positive reviews with a main female cast, highlighting different walks of life, and showing genuine personality traits the audience can relate to. It’s centered around Piper Chapman, a woman who is doing time for carrying a suitcase of drug money 10 years before. Throughout her time in a women’s prison, she meets a wide variety of characters each with their own storylines. Though it’s one of the most refreshing and progressive shows of our time, it draws attention from reproductive justice followers.

The most highly publicized character, Sophia Bursett, is a male to female transgender character. The writers do a pretty amazing job of emphasizing the harsh realities of the current prison system. Sophia is originally denied hormone treatment and shows how prisons are not fully equipped to provide substantial health services to all of their inmates. The National Center for Transgender Equality cites that 17% of all inmates who are transgender were denied hormone treatment. Sophia luckily has reached a part of her transition where she can be placed in an all women facility. Many inmates who are not at that stage are assigned to prisons according to their sex assigned at birth, which leads to frequent sexual harassment and abuse from other inmates.

Another character on the show, Daya Diaz, who has had a tough life, is cast as the overly sexualized latina woman and develops a “romance” with correctional officer, John Bennet. The problem with this is the erasure of actual violence between staff and inmates. Masking the realities of violent and coercive sexual relationships between guards and inmates, their relationship makes me feel uncomfortable because it doesn’t reflect the reality of most sexual relationships between inmates and staff in prison. Then, Bennet gets Daya pregnant and there’s a scene where Red, the prison mate cook, and Daya’s mother, create a plan to accuse George “Pornstache” Mendez of raping Daya, so she can keep her baby.

Multiple studies cite how being pregnant in prison can be an unjust and terrible experience. Women who are pregnant in prison are often denied access to an abortion, lack pre-natal services, are forced to give birth in shackles, don’t get their partner there for support, and often have their newborn immediately taken away from them. It’s understandable why Red wanted to create a plan to have Daya keep her baby, but the extreme tactics to do so were extremely problematic. Daya having sex with Pornstache and then claiming it was rape perpetuates stereotypes that women lie about sexual assault and can be extremely troubling.

Finally, we have George “Pornstache” Mendez, the creep of the crop. He’s just shady and sketch altogether. His interactions with the women in the facility is beyond terrible. The threat of sexual violence or harassment is a burdening thought most have walking into prison. The age-old dropping the soap bit is uncomfortable, but is a poke-fun at the harsh realities of sexual violence in the prison system. Pornstache’s character frequently has coerced sex with inmates who are addicts and this threat of violence keeps the inmates in line. In another episode, Piper accidentally steals a screwdriver from their workshop class and Pornstache demands a body search for the tool. He feels up all of the inmates and inappropriately searches Piper’s body. This is a clear example of power dynamics and mistreatment in the prison system targeting the bodies of women.

The show has its moments of brilliance and flaws, but it still is an entertaining genuine show with a loveable cast of characters you can relate to. The show does do an amazing job at highlighting the harsh realities of the prison system, but it also perpetuates other problems. From a lack of health services for inmates who are transgender, a vulnerability to sexual harassment if assigned to your birth sex prison, the erasure of sexual violence between guards and inmates, the lack of services and mistreatment towards pregnant inmates, and sexually abusive prison guards, the show touches on many points that will have our reproductive justice activists sporting orange.

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