Why Good Representation Matters

Just over a month ago, the fourth season of Orange Is The New Black premiered on Netflix. Binge watchers all over the world rejoiced and immediately tuned in to follow the adventures of the women of Litchfield. Critics and viewers have praised the show for its groundbreaking representation of minority communities. Though the show’s protagonist is a self-described “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), the supporting cast is composed of women from various backgrounds.  Of these, the Latina inmates (known to the others as “Spanish Harlem”) are among the ones most frequently cited as examples of progress in representation. Some of the actresses from this group have been able to branch out and land major gigs outside of Orange Is The New Black. Diane Guerrero (Maritza) appears on Jane the Virgin as the titular character’s best friend. Dascha Polanco (Daya) has graced the covers of magazines such as Nylon. Yet even their mere presence on the show breaks a mold that has existed in the entertainment industry for decades. Among themselves, a diverse amount of ethnic backgrounds and body shapes can be seen. Given that some of the characters (and their corresponding actresses) come from countries such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the presence of Afro-Latina women or those with plus-size figures have struck a chord with viewers. Many female viewers have expressed delight at being able to see someone who likes them on television, some for the first time in their lives. However, this does not mean the show and its representation of Latinas is immune to criticism, especially from the Hispanic/Latino community. Compared to previous seasons, the depictions of both male and female characters were hot topics on Latin-oriented sites such as Remezcla. A think piece penned by Mechi Estévez-Cruz on Remzcla, “Orange Is The New Black Season Four Failed the Dominican Community” is less-than-subtle in its criticism of how the storylines involving the Dominican (and to a lesser extent, Puerto Rican) characters were handled. Estévez-Cruz included anecdotes from previous seasons, such as an instance where a Puerto Rican character talked about making tamales for Christmas. While this can be considered a slip-up at worst, Estévez-Cruz pointed out more problematic scenes, such as the portrayal of Dominican men as borderline nationalist and hypersexual. Despite the fact that their female counterparts received more screen time than previous seasons, Estévez-Cruz argues the show missed the opportunity to start meaningful dialogue about racism and classism. Among viewers at Texas A&M International University, similar sentiments can be found. Gladys Gonzalez is a student at Trinity University enrolled in summer courses at TAMIU. Like most Laredoans, she is of Mexican descent; she spent the first half of her life in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, and other parts of Mexico. She expressed disappointment in this season’s depictions of the Latino community. “I definitely feel like the Latinos got more screen time in this season than in the previous season. But just because of this, I do not think it was a good representation. Latinas in media are usually represented as being seductive or hot-headed, and in this season, I felt like it gave them a negative portrayal,” said Gonzalez. Gonzalez went on to explain how all of the inmates come from working class backgrounds, and how that ultimately led them to make the choices that landed them in prison. Still, she explained, this does not always warrant the portrayals they have received. “…In this season I feel like they really emphasized the aspects that Latinas are a ‘mafia’ and the division of gangs between the prison and how they take over and fight for their territory,” explained Gonzalez. She continued, “I feel that a better way to represent Latinos might be to at least bring in a secondary character that is Latin or perhaps even a Latin cop that can help out the prisoners. Just to shed some light on a different type of Latin to break some stereotype[s].” On the other hand, some believe that the show is still groundbreaking in its own right. This includes some of the show’s stars, particularly Jackie Cruz (Flaca) and Selenis Leyva (Gloria); both have recounted their struggles to break into Hollywood in recent interviews. The latter, a native of Cuba who identifies as Afro-Latina, stated that her ethnic background has left producers unable to “fit” her into a box.   As for Cruz, she also experienced the ignorance of the industry, some who told her she was “not Mexican enough”, failing to realize that she is of Dominican descent. Manuel Betancourt of Mic.com explored how the Latina inmates of Litchfield still manage to become fully fleshed-out characters, in spite of the show’s premise. Anecdotes taken from more of the actresses make it clear that while the portrayal of Latinos as criminals has always been a problem, OITNB allows more room for character development. Citing the storylines involving motherhood, he explains that the less-than-ideal circumstances gives these characters a chance to reflect on issues not usually found in shows involving Latinos. Family dysfunction is often used for comic relief, but in OITNB, we can see the consequences of neglect, such as those made obvious in Aleida and Daya’s strained relationship. Impending motherhood, parenting while in prison, and other family issues are brought to light. Betancourt states that this helps reduce the possibility of caricaturing and brings these characters to life. Nevertheless, the question as to what constitutes good representation on television continues to be raised. Simply having characters from a minority group doesn’t mean the representation is fair and accurate. Another criticism coming from viewers is the fact that the writing staff of OITNB is mostly (if not entirely) composed of white women. They believe that allowing white writers to write about non-white characters and their unique dilemmas does not allow people of color equal and fair representation in television; this is a problem that has existed since the advent of television and film. However, despite Orange Is The New Black’s mismanagement of the Latina inmates and their storylines, the show’s success has not been dampened. Similarly, the Latina cast has continued to thrive off-screen, attaching themselves to noble causes and venturing into other areas of entertainment. Their respective communities now consider many of them as trailblazers. The diversity of the Latino community is impossible to ignore, and hopefully Orange Is The New Black and its writers will begin to understand the importance of accurate representation and allow these characters to thrive just as their actresses have. Only time will tell if these characters will receive the same comeuppance in the next three years, or fall victim to the same tropes that have trapped them for far too long.
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