I’m eager to talk with someone who has both read Piper Kerman’s memoir “Orange is the New Black” and seen the Netflix series based on it. I want to discuss the class and race implications of how the story was fictionalized – and in particular, one poor white character who is turned into the most outrageous “redneck” stereotypes.
Piper is an upper-middle-class white Smith College graduate who in her 30s served a year in federal prison for transporting money for an international drug cartel in her early 20s. Both the book and the TV series have a “moral of the story” that is anti-classist and anti-racist in a nice, vague, after-school-special way: though Piper and her elite friends and family expect that she will have nothing in common with the other inmates, surprise, surprise, it turns out that she and they are all human, with good hearts and human weaknesses, no matter their race or class. While reading the book and watching the first few episodes, I felt a glow of approval for how well the story is told and how much readers/viewers learn about the too-often-ignored topic of female prisoners. But then some doubts began to creep in, and I ended up (as I so often do) yelling at the TV screen about classism.
In her memoir, Piper creates low-key and often affectionate profiles of fellow inmates. The TV drama exaggerates these portrayals and adds inmates’ back stories, with lots of crime details and villainous ex-boyfriends, and also makes up fictional conflicts within the prison, including sex, betrayals, and other melodrama. Fair enough – it’s television, and the high drama makes it more entertaining; what else would we expect?
Most of Piper’s actual prison friends are also fairly sympathetic characters in the Netflix version. But there is one exception. While the choice of who to demonize outrages me, it doesn’t surprise me. Piper gives the nickname “Pennsatucky” to a lifelong-poor rural Christian with missing teeth. Her personality in the book and the show are diametric opposites. Before I give away any spoilers, let me put the contrast into the context of cultural classism.
One of the groups that it is most socially acceptable to stereotype, mock and despise in US culture today is the rural poor white people sometimes called “rednecks” or “hillbillies,” insulted as “white trash.” If you doubt how bad this prejudice is, check out these vicious comments under a web post about redneck reality TV.
Try substituting a term for any ethnic group, gender, religion or disability for “redneck” in those comments – how would readers react to such hatefulness? Many people who would bite their tongues and stifle such hostile language about other social groups seem to feel free to spew vitriol and even violent intentions towards “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” members of evangelical Christian churches and poor white people in general.
So (spoiler alert for Episode 9) when the television series makers need someone to instigate homophobic harassment against lesbian and bisexual prisoners, and even worse (spoiler alert for Episodes 12 and 13), when they need to create a cliffhanger at the end of Season One with someone threatening Piper’s life, guess who they turn to? Pennsatucky, of course.
In a jumble of sometimes contradictory stereotypes, Pennsatucky, played by Taryn Manning, is at various times a gifted faith healer who speaks in tongues, a homophobe, an anti-abortion zealot, a meth addict, mentally ill, and eventually a violent psychopath. The makers of the show clearly got their only images of rural poor white people directly from the movie “Deliverance.”
While a few villains also appear among the show’s portrayals of lesbians, African Americans, Latinas, men, and college-educated and solid-working-class white women, in each of those categories there are a variety of admirable or just quirky characters as well – a healthy mix. But all the other poor whites in the series are similarly dim-witted lank-hair white extremist Christians who collude with Pennsatucky’s evil deeds.
How can we make this stereotype socially unacceptable? What can we learn from the fairly successful historical efforts to stigmatize certain hate-language against African Americans, women and LGBT people?
One thing I know about how bigotry diminishes is that redneck-bashers need to hear over and over, from many people, how unacceptable their prejudice is. One step I can take is to post the link to this post on Metacritic. Is there a step you can take?
Joanne T says
Hi Betsy, I agree with you. I saw an interview with Jenji Kohan (previously of Weeds, who is also in charge of Orange) and got the impression that in general, she’s progressive. Clearly, like most of us, she has blind spots when it comes to class. I wonder if you could send your essay to her – if I’m right about her overall values, she might be receptive to your argument.
I’ve read the book, watched the series, and grew up in a blue collar family in a rural area. On top of that my training and background are in criminal law, but I no longer work in that field. I thought I would chime in on this topic.
Here are my thoughts.
(1) The book and series deal with the federal system. In the federal system you have a lot more people from the middle and upper middle classes than in the state system due to the types of offenses that exist in the federal system.
(2) As someone who grew up in an area with a lot of “Rednecks”, I am not going to jump in and defend them. I do not and will never consider them to be a group on par with african americans, homosexuals, religious minorities, women, or other protected classes that have faced very real and very unfortunate discrimination. I view them as a sub-culture among the working class.
(3) I don’t particularly think the Pennsatucky character is entirely classist or offensive. I don’t care for stereotyping because it is wrong, and it does paint a wrong and harmful picture about people that are different than we are. However, Pennsatucky is very representative of white females that are in jails and prisons, perhaps more than most of the other characters. She is a poor, rather uneducated young woman who clearly had drug problems.
(4) As for stereotyping in general, I don’t care for it. I particularly dislike that most of the time when a character is a rural working class person, they are portrayed as a redneck, hick, or hillbilly. It bothers me because doing that makes it just that much harder for those of us from a rural blue collar background to make it because most people now have the idea that almost everyone from that background is straight out of Honey Boo Boo.
It’s just indicative of the inherent hypocrisy of the entertainment industry. I enjoy the series because the characters and stories hold my interest, but the anti-poor stereotypes are banal and predictable. Perhaps certain members involved in the entertainment industry slur minorities in private but realize it’s taboo to do so in public, so they use “flyover” people as whipping boys, to insult in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated if they were minorities, since doing so won’t endanger their careers. Most people recognize the double standards very well.