Asian Representation in Orange is the New Black

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Wrote this episode review for my Performance and Media class, focusing on the nature of Asian tropes and stereotypes presented in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

In Netflix’s original series Orange is the New Black, one of the smaller characters is an elderly Asian inmate named Chang. On the surface, like many Asian characters in media, she’s quiet, keeps to herself,  and doesn’t really interact much with the other inmates. Not much is known about her even by viewers, except for that she’ll occasionally provide comic relief. Season 3, episode 6 “Ching Chong Chang” finally revealed more to the audience about this mysterious character, and it told a surprisingly unusual story.

–spoiler alert for S3E6–

 

The episode follows some of Chang’s everyday routine. The audience gets a glimpse of how she survived her many years in prison; Her creativity and discipline shows as she comes up with own rebellious solutions to make the most of prison mundanity. Her backstory reveals her past and reason for her sentence, which occurred while she was a teenager/young woman when she first came to America. To escape poverty in China, her brother made a deal for her to be wed to a wealthy Chinese businessman, but deeming her a “squatty peasant”, the man rejected the offer.

Mei (Chang’s first name) then offers to help her brother in his shop, but later sees her brother talking to two men and discovers his involvement in a black market operation. He comes up with the idea to use her to help smuggle goods, nothing that “she’s invisible”. Later, Mei and an accomplice wait for the the deal to be made, but it goes wrong when Mei discovers the turtle eggs are ping pong balls. The dealer tries to overpower the accomplice, but Mei hits him on the head, knocking him unconscious. The accomplice thanks her for saving his life and says he owes her, to which Mei replies, “I know what I want”. It later cuts to a warehouse where Mei is watching some henchmen beating a man on the the floor, who turns out to be the businessman that insulted her. One man asks her what she wants them to do to him, then the flashback cuts to a scene where the inmates are staging a play directed by Chang, with one saying “Cut out his gallbladder.” Chang reminds the shocked inmates that it’s just fiction, but a return to the flashback shows the businessman truly suffered the fate.

I like how the series explored Chang’s past to bring her character to the foreground and developed her character in a way that’s telling, but not too much. The backstory doesn’t provide a concrete conclusion, like what her real motives were, what happened to her brother, or if she expressed any kind of remorse.

The revenge story showed how Chang’s chilling tenacity restored power to her. It emphasized her underestimated power and how she was a victim of circumstance. Her exercise of power was her trying to survive and regain control of herself and her life.

Her depiction is vastly different from the usual Asian stereotypes on television. Chang isn’t portrayed as one-dimensional, but is made into a humanized and well-rounded character. She doesn’t exhibit any of the characteristics commonly associated with an Asian woman — cute, exotic, hypersexual, and submissive — but just the opposite. Throughout the show there aren’t really any scenes that depict any personal ambitions she has. It never shows her as conventionally, academically smart, but resourceful and calculated. She shatters the submissive stereotype by exerting power over her offenders. The show did a good job in highlighting how her choices illustrated the lengths she’ll go to prove herself. This personal discipline is a notion that echoes with modern Asian culture, one that is embraced but often imposed. Chang’s debut that initially introduced her as the sole Asian inmate depicts how this solitude leads to a lack of support experienced by the Asian community.

Though it’s not perfect, Orange is the New Black does a pretty good job in terms of representing a diverse cast of women, especially concerning women of color and the LGBTQ community.In addition to Chang, there is also another Asian character named Brook/”SoSo”, but who is a far different character (and whose backstory is yet to be revealed). It takes its theme of female empowerment to heart while shedding light on a multitude of issues and experiences, both personal and political. I appreciate its depictions of underrepresented minorities and women in general, as well as how actively it tries to negate stereotypes on television.

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