Demo Counting as Criticism

Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon, stars of Orange Is the New Black (AP)

Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon, stars of Orange Is the New Black (AP)

An essay on Orange Is the New Black by Noah Berlatsky in the Atlantic has stirred up no small amount of outrage. Its crime? Pointing out that men are underrepresented—it’s a show about prison life and more than 90 percent of prisoners are men—and stereotyped as “super predators” or weak-kneed functionaries. Female criminals are portrayed as sympathetic and male criminals are treated as monsters, an artistic choice he deems “irresponsible.” You can check out Twitter for a sampling of the angry—and they’re almost all angry—responses, but the basic reply is some variation on, “Duh. This is a show about a woman’s prison, what do you expect?”

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the Berlatsky’s critics. At the very least, I’m not sure how you can write a whole essay on a television show about the portrayal of men in prison and not once mention HBO’s great series Oz. Additionally, arguing “this piece of art would be better if it’s a different piece of art” is silly. There’s also the obvious point to be made that this isn’t “criticism” in the traditional sense: there’s little discussion of craft or storytelling, no sense of how the authors of the program help us understand the world they’ve created. It’s a simple collection of grievances that can be summarized thusly: “Why aren’t you telling the story I think needs to be told and why have you portrayed a group I believe needs defending in an unflattering light?”

On the other hand, however, I have this to ask of Berlatsky’s naysayers: What do you expect?

There has been a movement in criticism in recent years to catalog the ways in which art fail certain classes. We have it hammered into our heads that the Bechdel Test is a thing that is useful. We have a whole army of Auras Bogado, of kids raised on critical race theory who scour television shows and movies and plays and books and comic books and vintage books looking for ways in which the authors have failed minorities and women and the impoverished. We have Slate and Salon and any number of lesser impersonators speaking truth to power in the form of counting up representation and sadly shaking their head about negative portrayals.

In other words, we have a generation of essayists and critics who have been taught that finding the oppressed person in any work and denouncing their portrayal (or lack of representation) is a useful form of criticism. That lens is usually trained on mainstream works in order to critique the mainstream power structure. Berlatsky’s just shining that light on an ostensibly progressive production in order to achieve the same effect. It’s the reductio ad absurdum of demo-counting-as-criticism, a sort of inverse Bechdel Test that makes about as much sense as the original iteration.

On Twitter, Matt Zoller Seitz harshly condemned Berlatsky’s piece, writing, “The fact that the only people defending that OiTNB piece are dudes crying misandry should tell you all you need to know about its validity.” Their support for the essay isn’t surprising at all, however, given the fact that Men’s Rights Activists are basically just the flipside of the demo-counting coin. As Andrew Ferguson masterfully noted in a piece on the MRA set for the Weekly Standard last year, these jokers have modeled their movement on the more aggressive and aggravating aspects of feminism:

The final chapter of [Men on Strike] offers an “action plan” for men to fight back. The plan ranges from the personal to the political. First, she says, when men are stereo-typed as dolts or wimps on TV or in the movies, “stop laughing.” (How many men’s activists does it take to change a light bulb?) She also has ideas for new laws. One would require paternity tests for all newborns and their alleged fathers. …

So there you have it, everything a movement needs: questionable statistics, a scattering of inconclusive anecdotes, a steady harvest of victims, and a program for political agitation. …

You don’t need a long look to see that the men’s movement Dr. Helen hopes to advance is a mirror image of the movement it’s reacting to. … In its ideological DNA is the same heedless individualism that bred Second Wave feminists, who likewise reduced every human interaction to a confrontation of legally enforceable “rights.” Gender warriors think alike, no matter which army they’re in.

One shudders to think of the ways classic cinema would be critiqued today. Imagine our generation of critics being handed a gem like The Godfather. Oh, you’d see an initial wave of rapturous support. Our finest writers—our A.O. Scotts, our Anthony Lanes, our Seitzes—would undoubtedly recognize its genius. But then, after a week or two, the counterintuitive takes would start popping up. Slate‘s Double X would ask why there are no strong female characters: “All we have are an abused wife and an exploded wife and an ignored wife! What, there was no room for a lady-gangster? Has Francis Ford Coppola never heard of [incredibly minor figure who has been blown up to mythic stature in women's studies courses]?” Salon would denounce the five families for their plan to distribute drugs among “the coloreds” as well as critics across the land for failing to properly announce just how despicable they found the Corleones following that scene. Godfather Part II‘s release would see Jose Antonio Vargas given 5,000 words and the cover of Time to lament America’s abandonment of immigrants looking for a better life: “We used to be a nation that took in young Vitos, despite their disease, despite their lack of opportunities. Now we’re a nation that heartlessly turns its back on children.” Et cetera, ad nauseum.

Berlatsky’s just playing an iteration of this game. It’s not his fault the rules are stupid.