One Photo of the 'Orange Is the New Black' Writers' Room Shows What's Wrong With TV
(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for Orange Is the New Black's fourth season.)
In the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black, which dropped on Netflix June 17, Litchfield inmate Poussey (Samira Wiley) attends a peaceful protest in the penitentiary's cafeteria. The protest turns volatile, and Poussey gets pinned down under an officer's knee. She loses oxygen — even saying, "I can't breathe."
She's killed in a way that directly recalls Eric Garner's death. She was killed by a prison guard; he was killed by the NYPD. The story is one of many ways Orange Is the New Black incorporated the Black Lives Matter movement this season — an interesting development, if only because TV depicting police violence and racism is of-the-moment cultural criticism.
Season four received rapturous reviews from mainstream critics. Many highlighted this story as particularly salient to this cultural moment. But the execution of this plot left something to be desired for many a black viewer — like Very Smart Brothas writer Shamira Ibrahim, for instance. For her, this was an example of "leveraging black pain and heartache for entertainment."
To quote Ibrahim:
Except... except... the guard that murdered Poussey didn't mean to do it! It was an accidental murder! And he feels really bad about it! It was a consequence of the system that makes even good guys bad guys, don't you get it? The end result, of course being, that Black viewers are forced to relive a facsimile of tragic real-life events under the most infantilizing and insulting context possible.
Three days after the season dropped, a photo of the writers' room began to circulate, immediately raising eyebrows and drawing questions. There is not one black writer on Orange Is the New Black. How could a show with such an inclusive cast have a writers' room that's so exclusive?
But this photo is not the problem. It's a symptom — one that illustrates a much greater problem in television: writers' rooms haven't caught up with the diversity seen on-screen.
Orange Is the New Black, which has been hailed for its diverse cast, fails to include a single black man or woman on its writing staff. In fact, out of 52 episodes; only two of the 16 credited writers are people of color, according to Fusion. Featuring those writers of color is a good step, but a show with half a dozen black characters telling a story about Black Lives Matter demands black voices in the writers' room, too.
Though it's actually from June 2015, the writers' room photo's reemergence isn't a coincidence. Viewers angry about how the show handled Poussey's death cited it as part and parcel of the problem. Stories like Poussey's are sensitive, even triggering; they deserve to be treated well, and they impact the way the public sees them. A show that has literally changed the way we think about racism and incarceration should have an inclusive writers' room.
In other words: This story likely wouldn't have played out exactly as it did — and frustrated black viewers as a result — if it was written by a black person.
Writer April Reign, inventor of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, is one of many who thinks so. "Viewers were left wanting at the end of the season," as Reign put it at Essence, "perhaps because these issues were not handled as well as they could have been had there been more writers of color on staff."
Unfortunately, the Orange Is the New Black writers' room looks like most TV writers' rooms.
In a damning 2015 report, the Writers' Guild of America indicated that employment of minority writers was still low, coming in at just 13.7% during the 2013-14 TV season. Worse even, this is a decrease, almost two full percentage points off the 2011-12 peak of 15.6%.
"Because minorities accounted for a little over 37% of the U.S. population in 2013, they were thus underrepresented by a factor of nearly 3 to 1 in television staff employment," the report reads.
While writers rooms are woefully exclusive, the group of people in charge of those writers rooms is even less diverse. According to a Variety report from earlier this month, 90% of the new scripted network series boast white showrunners. Only five shows will be run by people of color.
As Reign noted in her tweet, "inclusion starts on the page." True, Orange Is the New Black boasts one of the most inclusive casts on TV. But that diversity, while important, isn't enough. A cast is only as good as the writing given to them, and many of the very people Orange Is the New Black's ensemble tries to represent are rejecting the writing.
Orange Is the New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan once criticized Transparent creator Jill Soloway for her efforts in trying to hire a trans writer for her team. As Kohan put it at the time, "I think great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn't automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn't necessarily translate."
This is the attitude that's got to go. Personal experience is not representative of total experience, but it is something! A black writer intrinsically has more insight and information to offer about living while black than any one of the writers in that photograph does. The same could be said for trans or queer writers who have more to offer about their own lives. That's not discounting how talented Kohan or any of her writers are. Inclusion is not about taking away, but adding to the creative potential with lived experience.
TV has made strides toward greater inclusivity in front of the camera, but it doesn't stop there. To tell these stories correctly, writers behind the scenes should be able to glean true insights. Showrunners must look for writers whose experience reflects their show's viewpoint.
On an even more macro level, networks need to look harder for showrunners that represent the show. Are you developing a sitcom about a Latinx family? Look for a Latinx writer or director to run or co-run the show. They'll bring in even more Latinx talent, and your show will more accurately reflect the audience you're trying to reach. This opens up new markets and avenues. "Diversity sells" is hardly shocking news at this point, after all.
Only by making changes like these can culture really change. It all starts on the page.