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Shabnam Javdani Headshot

Re-Wiring Orange is the New Black

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ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK SEASON 2
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Put on your jumpsuits, ladies, and take a sip of your Equali-tinis. Crime is now an equal opportunity venture, and we're getting our seat at the bar.

This is one message depicted by Netflix's immensely popular series on women in prison. Orange is, indeed, the new black.

But while the show has a following that extends beyond its viewership -- President Obama worked it into his remarks at last month's White House Correspondents dinner -- it is missing an opportunity to promote gender equality that extends beyond the small screen.

It's true that the series and its creators have received critical acclaim and awards by social justice organizations supporting women's rights. And with good reason. Incarcerated women have been largely invisible to the masses despite the fact that women's crime has been on the rise, according to Department of Justice data. OITNB is arguably the widest-reaching platform on this topic.

And this is exactly why is it so important to understand the show's social function.

You may say: it's only entertainment! But consider these facts: California, home to the entertainment capital of the world, would be ranked third in incarceration rates if it were a country. The United States holds the number one position, incarcerating twice as many women as other countries -- more than Russia and South Africa. Incarcerated women are among our poorest citizens. More likely than not, they have been sexually abused or raped. They do not have equal access to education, employment, and economic resources, a recent Pew Research Center study reveals.

And like it or not, studies have shown that entertainment plays a powerful role in perpetuating gender inequality. Some shows are explicitly escapist, while others aim to provide a window into reality. Both forms are valid. The danger lies in art that allows the audience to believe it is holding up a mirror to oppression when it is actually a fantasy designed to assuage guilt and inhibit social progress.

As fans of the show, are we content to revel in the drama and internalize the message that prison can be a vehicle for self-discovery and liberation? To celebrate the diversity of its cast? To believe that we have a window into the plight of incarcerated women? To exclaim that #yesallwomen -- even those in prison -- finally have a voice!? This is fantasy with a dangerous social function -- to promote a false sense of progress and keep us on our couches.

Therein lies the sour twist. The show may ultimately perpetuate the illusion of women's empowerment and make us very comfortable with women's incarceration. Why? Because it remains silent on the issue of social power and uncritical of evidence that criminal justice policies are casting a wider net and bringing more women to prison in the first place, as suggested by one of my co-authored studies -- all the while allowing viewers to feel they are part of a movement.

That is not my definition of equality. I want to watch a show that criticizes our reliance on incarceration, not one that depicts a jumpsuit as an item every woman needs in her closet. That helps viewers see how an unequal social playing field can set women up for failure, not one that highlights women's faulty individual choices. There is excellent precedent for OITNB to provide a more critical stance on social justice and ask more of its loyal fans: The Wire.

The acclaimed Baltimore-based show intricately demonstrated the social binds that systematically limited opportunities for its characters -- without sacrificing entertainment value. How did it succeed in doing so? It made the war on drugs its star -- an imperfect character that developed in complexity as the show progressed. It then broke down the war on drugs into the concrete social institutions that functioned to maintain it -- schools, unions, laws, and the press.

Its story lines illuminated how its imperfect human characters did not operate in a social vacuum devoid of context. Rather, the beauty of the show was in its realism: the juxtaposition of the human struggle embedded in a social terrain in which people often had limited opportunity and had to choose between the lesser of two evils. Put simply, The Wire did not equate legal justice with social justice. It accomplished the opposite -- and made viewers uncomfortable in the way progressive art is uniquely positioned to do.

Why not ask OITNB to do the same -- to make us uncomfortable? Instead of celebrating its diversity, let's ask it trouble the over-criminalization of Black and Latina women. To make gender inequality its star and depict the social institutions that function to maintain it -- including the criminal justice system's response before, during, and after incarceration. To reveal that even though we do not make the rules, we have to live by the consequences of breaking them.

So let's put down our cocktails and ask for more. The eagerly anticipated second season has arrived. Let's hope real gender equality is right behind it. We are still waiting -- behind cages both real and socially constructed.

Shabnam Javdani is an assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.