The level of diversity in the TV streaming industry has changed drastically since Netflix first aired Orange is the New Black in 2013. However, it is still difficult to think of another TV series that matches the unprecedented sprawl of its ambition to represented the underrepresented: women of color, lesbians, transgender individuals, older women. After season 1, its relatively privileged white protagonist Piper Chapman faded into the background, making way for her African-American and Latina inmates – the two demographic groups that are most likely to be victimized by the American prison-industrial complex – to share their stories. After the Latina actresses objected about being lumped together as part of the “Spanish Harlem”, the writers made important distinctions between the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Mexicans. After receiving criticism for the lack of diversity in its writer’s room in 2016, racial representation behind the camera improved significantly for season 6.
“See you later, motherfuckers!”: Mei Chang (Lori Tan Chinn) escaped unscathed during Season 5’s climactic prison riot.
Given these advances, it is highly unfortunate that the show continues to fall short when it comes to its few Asian-American characters. In a thorough article for Elements (Boston College’s undergraduate research journal), Clare Kim pointed out how the show’s two peripheral Asian characters – the seemingly asexual Chang and the hypersexualized Japanese-American Soso – reinforces familiar racial stereotypes. Neither character makes the transition to season 6, which follows the show’s core characters to a new maximum security prison after a three-day prison riot.
Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) is carried away to an unknown prison after the riot.
There are, naturally, two new minor Asian-American characters in the new prison to fill in the void. At first glance, they appear to be playing relatively inoffensive roles. Kana Hatakemaya plays Charlene Teng, an aggressive lackey for Carol Denning (the feared leader of the C-Block). Reema Sampat plays Shruti Chambal (the show’s first South-Asian inmate), who has similarly subservient inclinations: “She’ll do whatever it takes to fit in and protect herself, so she becomes a minion for her cell block’s head honcho.” In episode 12 (“Double Trouble”), however, both characters become sexually fetishized pawns in a deal between Madison (Carol’s right-hand woman) and corrupt Corrections Officer Hellman:
Corrupt prison guard Hellman makes his racialized sexual preferences crystal-clear.
Hellman: I’ll take your money. But uh, I also want something else [Mimes a blowjob].
Madison: [Chuckles]. It’s been a while since I choked on a chubby. That’s like riding a bike, no? A fat, leaking flesh-bike that rams into your tonsils. It’s all coming back to me now.
Hellman: Not you. Ugh. I want Mulan and Jasmine over there.
Madison: Someone’s got a thing for pan-Asian Disney princesses.
Hellman: The year I turned 13, my little sister used to watch that shit on a loop.
Madison: Interesting. Do you go one on each side, or is it more of an alternating suck?
Hellman: That’s my business. We got a deal or what?
Madison: I think I can arrange a little feast from the East. Just so you know, Teng is a competitive swimmer and Chambal is from Northern Maine. So we got a little Ariel and Elsa situation here if you ask me.
Hellman: You want your incident report, go get me my Oriental combo.
“I want Mulan and Jasmine over there.”
The show does not include Madison’s attempt to persuade Charlene and Shruti to collaborate with her, or the scene where the prison guard abuses his authority for sexual favors. Madison is only seen with Charlene and Shruti later on, where a change in power dynamics prompts her to call off the deal she made with Hellman:
Madison: Hey guys, I’m calling off the whole Hellman thing. That an X-nay on the BJ, got it?
Charlene: Tell that to my dick breath.
Shruti: Yeah, aftertaste is even worse.
Madison: How the fuck did you blow him already? It’s not even noon.
Shruti: I used to be a really big procrastinator. Then I read this book Eat the Frog.
Charlene: You read a book about sucking dick?
Shruti: It’s about procrastination. Says if you do your worst task first, the rest of the day is easy in comparison.
Madison: Shit. You didn’t see where Hellman went, did you?
Charlene: Nope. But I saw where he came. [Winks at Shruti].
Shruti: Yeah, you owe me some mouthwash, bitch.
“Tell that to my dick breath.”
Orange is the New Black’s dark and gritty universe is certainly no stranger to prison guards exploiting the female inmates (for sexual favors or otherwise) or heavily racialized language. In her profile of showrunner Jenji Kohan, New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum noted that Kohan possessed two seemingly contradictory qualities. She exhibits “deep care for disenfranchised women”, but also “values rude humor to the point that she sometimes veers into the language of the right.” The show has also been criticized for perpetuating racial stereotypes against its African-American and Latina characters. Given the far greater number of black and Latina characters on the show, however, it is harder for one stereotypical character to be seen as representative of an entire community.
In season 5, Gerrard Lobo portrayed minor character Adarsh Khanna, a kind-hearted prison nurse who was referred to as “Dr. Samosa”, “Gandhi”, “Dr McCurry” and “Apu” by two white drug-addled inmates.
There is also a disparity of significance. Some viewers have objected to the show’s depictions of graphic violence against its characters (specifically Poussey Washington, Soso’s murdered lover) as “trauma porn”, but one could still argue that it was making provoking references to the Black Lives Matter movement, racial profiling, and systemic racism by doing so. On the other hand, there is no redemption or catharsis to be found in perpetuating the sexual fetishization of Asian-American women in such a blithe manner. As Kimiko Glenn herself noted, “Whenever an Asian is brought in [Hollywood productions in general], there’s a mention of their Asianness as being the butt of the joke.” Without any noteworthy backstories (so far) or opportunities for character development, Charlene and Shruti have only served yet more evidence for Hellman’s nonchalant sexual racism.
Nussbaum’s profile revealed yet another paradox about Kohan. On one hand, she has a pitch for a show about a Korean spa – which will dwell on the theme of immigration via its owners and its Latino employees – which she hopes to write with a Korean partner. On the other, she has a history of being indifferent towards criticism about perpetuating offensive Asian stereotypes:
“Kohan has a deep, occasionally prickly aversion to even a hint of censorship, which goes back to her childhood. In fifth grade, she wrote a play in which an Asian character brought Sleeping Beauty a gift of egg foo yong. The white boy playing the Asian role improvised slanty eyes, leading a Chinese-American teacher to cancel the play. “And I went crazy,” Kohan said. “Yes—it’s totally offensive! But he was also nine or ten. If you want to have a cultural-sensitivity discussion, great. But to say, ‘You’re bad, you offend me, this play cannot go on’—fuck you. Then I was supposed to write a letter of apology, and I refused.” Her mom backed her. Kohan described her attitude on these issues as old-school, “very A.C.L.U.”
After so many years and discussions, one hopes that prominent showrunners like Jenny Kohan are significantly more receptive to the idea of cultural sensitivity.
CATEGORY OF OFFENSE: Gender ( Asian Woman is disposable, sexual plaything)
MEDIA TYPE: TV Show
OFFENSE DATE: July 1, 2018