Pray for Paris: On Selective Grief, White Privilege and the Westernization of Loss

Originally published in Antidote Magazine November 25, 2015. tumblr

On November 13, 2015 a series of coordinated attacks took place in Paris. As the night stretched into the hours of daylight, the total death count reached 130. In the aftermath of the attack the world mourned Paris; world monuments from New York to Sydney lit up in blue, white and red, Facebook offered a French flag filter to its users and the hashtags #PrayForParis and #WeAreAllParisians engulfed social media. But are we in fact all Parisians? Or do we value some lives more than others?

A mere 21 hours prior to the Paris attacks, a similar scene unfolded about 2800km southeast of Paris, in Beirut. ISIS, the same terrorist organization that took responsibility for Paris, attacked an unassuming suburb. One of the casualties of the Beirut bombing was Adel Termos – a father out with his young daughter. In a decision that will last a lifetime, Adel threw himself on the second suicide bomber, diffusing the blast and saving countless lives. Yet, despite this, there was no hashtag #PrayForAdel or #WeAreAllAdel. The world did not light up in red, green and white and no Lebanese flag filters were offered. In fact, the news coverage was nearly non-existent. Of course, this is not the first time that the Western world has ignored genocide in the global south; on April 2, 2015 Al-Shabab gunmen stormed a university in Garissa, Kenya. 700 students were taken hostage, 148 murdered and 79 injured. Again – there was little outcry and the resistance that was offered came from a niche demographic, primarily in development work. It becomes clear that while we may all be Parisians – we are certainly not all Kenyans.

Almost as quickly as news of the Paris attacks went public, so too did the Islamophobic anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiments. Before the shooters’ identities had been confirmed ‘concerned citizens’ sat at their keyboards offering condemnations of Muslims and advice on foreign policy that revolved around curbing Syrian refugee resettlement. Tweets, Facebook statuses and comments on news articles ranged from sympathetic to outright xenophobic. Assumptions about the attacks, Muslims and refugees didn’t end online. The following afternoon in Toronto a Muslim woman was attacked outside of her children’s school , punched, robbed, and told “go back to your country”. Five more incidents followed this one, in Ontario alone, including the intentional arson of a mosque in Peterborough. In London, another Muslim woman was pushed into an oncoming subway train at Picadilly Station, and an increase in Islamophobic violence was reported. Anti-Muslim bigotry stretched from Calgary to

Melbourne in the aftermath of Paris.

Was there perhaps some justification to the anti-refugee, anti-Muslim rhetoric that  overcame both social media and bodies of government, like the southern states that unanimously rejected Syrian refugee resettlement programs? Or was it nothing more than fear mongering based on loose accusations? Let’s look at the facts.

Since 9-11 75,000 refugees have been re-settled in America. Not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges. In fact, as an American you are far more likely to die as a result of gun violence on a college campus or in a movie theatre – there have been a reported 294 mass shootings in 275 days in 2015 alone. As a Canadian, you are far more likely to died from a moose attack, or even the flu. The notion that terrorist sleeper cells may moonshine across borders is incredibly unlikely. The global Muslim population is 1.6 billion. Of that 0.002% is the Taliban, 0.006% is ISIS and 0.0006% is Al Qaeda – less than 1% of the entire Muslim population comprises the three fundamentalist extremist terrorist organizations combined. In fact, Toronto Pearson International Airport successfully screens more people…every two days. The Trudeau government has pledged to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees by January 1 – with 4,258,918 passengers in 2015 passing through Canadian borders it would only take a week to thoroughly screen three times that amount. Factually, there are no valid claims to halt refugee intake.

In conclusion, I want to close by saying that feeling for Parisians is not the problem; I am not suggesting that Parisians lives are not worthy of mourning or sympathy. What I am saying is that if you are devastated by the Paris attacks but ambivalent towards Syria, Lebanon and the greater part of the Middle East you need to re-evaluate; re-evaluate exactly why it is that we felt an outpouring of intimate grief and rage despite most of us having no direct ties to Paris. Why did the world react to Paris, but remained apathetic to Beirut when both events happened within hours of one another? I remain critical of the various systems of oppression that present other lives, particularly Black and Brown lives, as somehow less valid and our selective grief is evidence of that. We grieved Paris not only because it was unexpected but because we saw ourselves in those who died; we could relate to them and the familiarity of Paris’ sidewalk cafes and landmarks. The Paris attacks penetrated our perception of safety, our immunity to terror, a kind of terror that we have ascribed as characteristic of other corners of the world.  But what kind of world would we live in if we could take the outrage we have for Paris and extend it to all victims of armed conflict globally? What would it look like to have grief and compassion across borders? Some may suggest that there is simply too much conflict in the world, that to humanize the victims of violence would be to stretch our emotional selves too thin. To the contrary – raising resistance to the mainstream narratives we’re told through media conglomerates, refusing to assign value to some lives over others only strengthens us – a politic of compassion can only unite, not divide. I know that I hope to see a world where all survivors and victims of terror can have equal representation in our dialogues.

Feeling bummed out about the state of the world? It’s a good things there are tons of ways for you to contribute!

What you can do to help?

For beginners, you can sign this petition to voice your support for Syrian refugee acceptance in Canada.

Next, if you have some extra green lying around you can make a donate to Lifeline Syria, a Toronto based non-profit, that as its name suggests, aids Syrian refugees

If you’re more of an online activist, you can take to social media to show your solidarity. A more inclusive hashtag than #PrayForParis is #I’llRideWithYou. This campaign offers passengers in Toronto who may feel targeted or unsafe on public transportation in Toronto a companion. Don’t live in Toronto? Start your own #IllRideWithYou campaign of support.

Lastly, refuse to stay silent in the face of xenophobia. You don’t need a graduate essay style rebuttal – just a couple words and some empathy, like this New Yorker.


Je ne suis pas Charlie


(Originally written by Maria Arseniuk. Published by Antidote Magazine January 8, 2015. Re-posted April 7, 2015)

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which left 12 people dead, the hashtag #jesuischarlie enveloped the internet. The attack, which took place in the Paris office of the satirical newspaper, was allegedly a response to the consistent profane imagery of the prophet Mohammed, construed under the guise of satire. Since the shooting, #jesuischarlie has been trending as people around the world rush to condemn violence and offer support for the slain journalists, as well as broader concepts deemed valuable in liberal democracies, including freedom of speech. Satire has the potential to act as effective social commentary, critiquing the status quo by skewering public figures. By definition, satire is meant to lampoon and draw attention to systems of power, power relations, and often, social injustice. Instead, Charlie Hebdo – a publication with a sordid history of Islamaphobia, xenophobia and homophobia – ridiculed a religious figure in a country where national rhetoric and policy are entrenched in Islamphobic sentiments and practice.

In a Salon article, Andrew O’Hehir writes that “the Paris attack was a direct assault on freedom”, Richard Dawkins tweets that Islam is “a religion of killers”, and Fox host Eric Bolling offers militarization as a response. What O’Hehir forgets to disclose is France’s own “direct assaults on freedom” – the civil war in C’ote D’Ivoire (2002), Operations Atalanta and Linda Nchi in Somalia (2009-present) and the 2014 Iraq offensive. In his tweet, Dawkins fails to note the culture of violence embedded in Western militaries and Bolling’s comments are a direct contradiction to evidence which confirms that over militarization does not act as a crime deterrant.

Following the media coverage of the shooting, some moderate Muslims flocked to the internet to denounce the shooting in an attempt to divorce the perception of violence as inherent to Islam, writing “As a Muslim, killing innocent people in the name of Islam is much, much more offensive than a cartoon will ever be”. A noble getsure, no doubt, but we need to question why such apologies are necessary. When Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 600, moderate white men didn’t offer public apologies on behalf of the white patriarchy. McVeigh’s act of terrorism was not held as indicative or representative of his religious or ethnic communities. Communities grieved the loss of life and the attack on freedom, safety and liberty – but no national discussion was had about how violence informs white male Christian identity.

In the April 26, 1980 issue of The Nation Said wrote, “It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have, instead, is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world, presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” When acts of violence are perpetrated by those conforming to the normative categories of what we are socialized to view as morally superior, ethnicity, race and religion are invisible. Discussions of ethnicity and religion are traded in for a more individualistic narrative: what could have possibly gone wrong? When acts of violence are committed by those who fall outside of these normative categories, those who are Othered, the narrative inevitably reflects onto the greater community in ways that vilification of whiteness and Christianity never do.

What happened in Paris was, no doubt, a tragedy. The loss of life is inexcusable, always. But what is needed now is a nuanced dialogue about the context in which this violent crime unfolded, an interrogation of our apathy, complacency and intolerance – not widespread condemnation of Islam. I am not Charlie – and neither are you.

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Hands Up, Don’t Shoot. Revisiting Ferguson: Where Are We Now?


(Originally written by Maria Arseniuk; published by Antidote Magazine February 9, 2015. Re-posted April 7, 2015.)

February 9th, 2015 marks the six month anniversary of the murder of 18 year old Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson. Wilson fired a total of six shots – Brown was unarmed. In the aftermath of the shooting the Ferguson grand jury found Wilson not guilty.

While this case highlights both the epidemic of gun violence in America as well as focuses in on police brutality, what it truly underscores is the current state of race relations – a state entrenched in white supremacist values and structures. The words white supremacy are powerful; they tend to conjure images of white hooded men, burning crosses and the 1965 Selma demonstrations. In reality, white supremacy is much more insidious than that. White supremacy is a system of privilege that positions whiteness as a moral high ground. It is the system that informs our interactions, beliefs and values. It is the system that allows for the continued murders of Black bodies to go unpunished.

In 1992 we had Rodney King. We said never again. In 2009 we had Oscar Grant. We said never again. In 2012 we had Trayvon Martin. We said never again. And since then we’ve had Michael Brown and Eric Garner. How many Black boys and men have to die until we realize that the surveillance and policing of Black bodies is entrenched in white America? Until we hold police – the police who are meant to protect and serve -accountable for their conduct?

We tend to think of overt racism as a marker of the past. We want to believe that racism and white privilege no longer colour the landscape of our lives. But consider the fact that today, in 2015, police kill Black men at nearly the same rate as Jim Crow era lynchings (i). Consider that there are currently more Black men incarcerated in the prison industrial complex than there were slaves in pre-Civil War America(i). Consider as well that in 2013 Ferguson police arrested 483 Black people…and only 36 white people(iii). And lastly consider that out of all the traffic stops that were conducted in Ferguson in 2013 only 14% involved white drivers (iv). While it is true that Ferguson is a predominantly Black community (67%) that still does not account for the fact that as a Black person you are thirteen times more likely to be shot by police than your white neighbour. What all of this demonstrates is that white supremacy is the thread that runs through the fabric of our social interactions. What it also demonstrates is that it is time for resistance.

Following the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson scores of demonstrations mobilized as a response to demand justice for Brown, his family, and the countless other victims of white violence. This is the kind of mobilization that is crucial and necessary if we hope to counteract a culture of white privilege. Since Brown’s murder twenty-two year old John Crawford was gunned down by police in a Wal-Mart parking lot, twenty-five year old Ezell Ford was shot by police in the back during a Stop and Frisk, and thirty-six year old Dante Parker was tasered to death by police (v).

We need to demand change. Change in representation, change in policy and change in the legal frameworks that presuppose Black guilt and white innocence. We need to challenge the structures that continue to maintain racialized hierarchies; challenge the Ferguson police department that employs only 3 Black officers in a 53 person police force (vi). Challenge the Ferguson city council that only has one Black representative and the Ferguson school board that has none (vii). And all the police departments, city councils and school boards across the country that are just like Ferguson’s. Ferguson doesn’t end in Missouri – it calls out to all of us. The choice is ours.

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Constructions of Villainy: What the Boston Bombing Taught Us About Race

family-illustration-960-1.5x.rAmericans Learn of Chechnya” – The International Herald Tribune. 

Senator Says Boston Attack Should Factor in Immigration Debate” – New York Times.

Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects Motivated By Religion, Say Two U.S. Officials” – Huffington Post

Beslan Meets Columbine” – New York times, with the tagline: Is the root of the Boston marathon bombing in America or Chechnya?

These are just a handful of the headlines that dominated press coverage April 19-22, 2013 in the days following the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. In a time where institutions and individuals alike are perpetually on high alert, an environment that is unremittingly assailed by media images and texts, and a time where Othering is pivotal for self identification in increasingly heterogenous surroundings, it is crucial to explore the representations binding terrorism, ethnicity and religion circulating in dominant dialogues. What do these stories, and others like it, tell us about how we conceptualize and understand difference?

In Beslan Meets Columbine, Oliver Gullough opens with “I could always spot the Chechens in Vienna. They were darker-haired than the Austrians; they dressed more snappily, like 1950s gangsters; they never had anything to do.” In a single sentence Gullough homogenizes an incredibly diverse culture and packages it into a neat and palpable image for the Western audience – an image that reinstates their otherness in popular imagination.

I grew up with Chechens, two in particular, Beka and Zema. We were friends and classmates at an international school overseas. They did not dress like gangsters, nor were they perpetually aimless, like Gullough suggests. Neither were their cousins, who attended the same school. In fact, they were all ordinarily vanilla. But ordinariness is not for the Othered.

Johnson et al. offer that “Othering is a process that identifies those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, and it can reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination.”

 In the foundational text Orientalism, Edward Said – primarily a post-colonial theorist, whose scholarly contributions have also helped shape discourses in cultural studies – introduces the concept of The Orient, the trope in cultural representations assigned onto Muslim, Arab and/or Middle Eastern bodies. 

In the  April 26, 1980 issue of The Nation Said wrote, “So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have, instead, is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world, presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” Essentialized caricatures not extended to the White Westerner, for when an act of terrorism is committed by a White, Christian or atheist American the act is inherently portrayed as an anomaly rather than as emblematic of the White, Christian community.

When Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 600 there were no headlines that read “Oklahoma City Bombing Suspect Motivated By Religion, Say Two U.S. Officials” or “Americans learn of Oklahoma City” or “Senator Says Oklahoma Attack Should Factor in Debate on Immigration”. Unlike with the demonization of Islam following the Boston Marathon bombing, no condemnations of Roman Catholicism, or Christianity more broadly, were made. Young white males, statistically the main perpetrators of violent crime in North America, were not racially profiled. Timothy McVeigh’s act of terrorism was not held as indicative or representative of his religious or ethnic communities. Nobody wrote editorials in the New York Times about how they could always spot Americans in Vienna.

When Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, an atheist mathematician, professor and Harvard graduate from Evergreen park, IL terrorized America using homemade mail bombs, there was no discussion of how whiteness, atheism or “homegrown Americanism” motivate violence. There was no discussion of religion, race or ethnicity predicating violence in the countless coverage of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the Columbine Massacre; of James Holmes in the Century movie theater in Aurora, CO or of Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newton, CT.

Instead, they were presented as victims in their own right. Had they been bullied in childhood? Did they listen to rap and play too many violent video games? Did  they have overbearing mothers? All questions that were never extended to the Tsarnaev brothers; their violence was inherently cemented as synonymous with religious and ethnic belonging. Despite their crimes, McVeigh, Kaczynski, Harris, Klebold, Holmes and Lanza were humanized. They were given voices. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were not. They were merely dark haired Chechens, dressed like 1950s gangsters, with nothing to do.

When acts of violence are perpetrated by those conforming to the normative categories of what we are socialized to view as morally superior, ethnicity, race and religion are invisible. Discussions of ethnicity and religion are traded in for a more individualistic narrative: what could have possibly gone wrong? When acts of violence are committed by those who fall outside of these normative categories, those who are Othered, the narrative inevitably reflects onto the greater community in ways that vilification of whiteness and Christianity never do. I know that in the next act of violence, or case of terrorism, our marginalized populations will be left hoping “Please don’t let it be a Muslim”, “Please don’t let it be an Arab”, “Please don’t let it be an African-American”.

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Guest Blog – A Love Letter of Body Positivity: A Spoken Word Poem

Author: Caelin Morrison

Part I

Dear Love,

The image I have of myself is fluid

Constantly changing back and forth

My mind’s relationship with my body is love-hate

Like a tide to the shore it moves back and forth between kissing it, and leaving.

It drowns in the sea of negativity when I look in the mirror as I get ready to go out,

My friends in their crop tops and leggings, me in my favourite jeans with the holes in the crotch from my legs rubbing together and the t-shirt that covers my arms perfectly.

Getting changed for a third time I look at myself and see my thunder thighs lined with tiger stripes

They say pretty girls don’t look like this.

Girls are fragile and small,

Smooth skin that encase a petite frame, toned with glistening muscles and glazed with the definition of beauty.

Hair long, like the gift wrapping to every man’s dream.

That is a girl

At least that’s the only girl I’ve been shown.


Part II

Dear Love,

I scroll through the pages of blouses and dresses online

All I notice is how different these girls are from me

They are the definition of the “unusual, slim-hipped, long-legged, large-breasted ideal.”

They say that personal body image is “a multidimensional construct” (Woertman, Van den Brink, 184).

The different dimensions all build up to one feeling of worthlessness.

The multiple aspects turn into multiple attacks on the individual’s body.

The weapons are advertisements, media outlets,

Judging who we are by the choice of our outfits.

This “multifaceted psychological experience of embodiment” should be embraced

We should not douse these “evaluative thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviours related to one’s own physical physical appearance” in the negative and ruthless imagery supplied by our society
(Hrabosky, Cash, Veale, Neziroglu, Soll, Garner, Stratchan-Kinser, Bakke, Clauss, Philips. 155).

It’s so overbearing, the pressure could create diamonds

And in turn it creates what we think are diamonds.

Girls starve, they purge, they run for much too long

Just to be the perfect girl.

We are in need of a revolution where we do not need to be afraid

Where we do not need to cry over loose bits of skin or bumps or calluses,

Where we can eat what we want, because we want to

We do not need to close our eyes when we step onto the scale because when it comes down to it

Weight is just a number.


Part III

Dear Love,

I got changed four times today

Jeans to leggings to “fat girls can’t wear skirts” to tank tops to sweaters

To ensure that I look pretty and feminine and sexy and gentle enough to hold your hand outside

I settled on a dress and heels

Not to prove to everyone that I am a woman

But because I look fucking hot.


Part IV

Dear Love,

“She was a beautiful girl until she got fat”

I look at this “once beautiful” girl and see she’s no bigger than me

We must have been beautiful until we got fat

Now we’re just that, fat.

Because fat girls aren’t noticed at first glimpse as girls, they are their fat

Because those who do not fit into the H&M style need not be recognized as any other than fat if they cannot even fit their bellies and thighs into the tight see through clothes marked “women’s.”

Well I say that’s wrong.

For as long as my thick thighs and stretch marks keep me standing up in one piece, pulling up my size 12 jeans that are too hard to find – as if big girls don’t need jeans-

I will parade around loving my body yelling “I am a woman” not regardless, but because of my fat.

Because with every new stretch mark I learn a bit more about what it is to love a body

With each dent and bump I find, I learn what it is to appreciate every inch of life

And I will parade, stomp, dance, sing and run wearing your tight and see-thru clothes, and you know what? I will rock them

Because as a woman I am entitled to feel good about who I am

Because as a fat woman I am capable.


Part V

Dear Love,

Slowly and surely I think we can all learn to love a body for what it is,

For it’s ability to carry us far and keep us warm and safe from the outside attacks.

I think that the revolution has started, the revolution of self love,

Where there is only “respect, appreciation, and tolerance for the diversity of weights and shapes”
(Wood-Barcalow, Tylka, Augustus-Horvath, 111).

I think the movement will be upheld by the thunder thighs, the tiger stripes and the cellulite

Of those who know that what they deserve, is love,

That what they expect, is respect,

What they know is that fat is not a bad word

And that all they want is recognition for being that handsome man, the beautiful girl

regardless of a belly or a pair of touching thighs.

I think the revolution is here and I couldn’t be more happy.

And though my self image is fluid, I can always hope for a high tide.

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Feminist Felons: How ‘Orange is the New Black’ Transgresses Traditional Television

(Originally written by Maria Arseniuk; published by the rad folks at Shameless October 3, 2013. Re-posted January 30, 2014.)

Chances are youʼve either seen, heard, or read about the Netflix phenomenon Orange is the New Black (OITNB). If you have, and are currently basking in the glory of inclusive awesomeness that is OINTB read on; if you havenʼt then stay tuned – shitʼs about to get real.

Hereʼs the deal: OITNB is subversive to the normative cultural representations of popular culture depictions of femininity, incarceration, heteronomativity and power. Get comfortable because there is some serious deconstructing about to take place.

So who exactly are the women of OITNB, what are they doing in prison and what’s up with orange? Outwardly the script revolves around the (mis)adventures of Piper Chapman – an upper class, white college graduate with her own artisanal soap line at Barneyʼs; a wealthy, preppy college graduate who is serving a prison sentence for her role in an international drug trafficking op. However, the premise of the show is less concerned with Piperʼs first world problems and alternatively revolves around telling the stories of Litchfieldʼs inmates: a promising track star, a homeless youth, a trans woman, a political prisoner nun, and countless others – and the ways in which their lives have been shaped by flawed institutional practices, past and present.

The beauty of OINTB is that it functions to subvert conventional representations of silver screen women in two ways. First, it addresses the ways systems of privilege articulate Piperʼs experience in relation to the experiences of her cellmates. Second, it provides a platform for the narratives of women of colour and other marginalized voices, including trans womenʼs. By placing the inmatesʼ stories in contextual flashbacks the script transgresses mainstream representations of prisoners as rogue Others.

Piper Chapman is a trojan. Remember that lesson from history class about the Trojan Horse and tricking the Greeks? That is essentially what Piper is; her function is to acquaint the audience with the stories of the other characters and move these diverse and heterogenous experiences away from peripherality. Jenji Kohan, the mastermind behind OITNB, has been unapologetic about Piperʼs paradoxical role: “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals” (Nitke, NPR 2013). What does this say about the state of contemporary Western society? It says that media conglomerates are immensely powerful in introducing and maintaing ideas of what is acceptable – and that is middle class, able-bodied whiteness. F*ck that.

Challenging the status quo, Kohan integrates a hilarious yet critical response to middle class whiteness. In what can only be called comedic brilliance Poussey and Taystee satirize the very core of privileged identity (arguably Piperʼs identity), parodying everything from sushi to documentaries, veganism, wine tasting and yoga workshops, hedge funds and side bangs. With a single, swift scene, Kohan deconstructs and lampoons the legitimacy of upper class entitlement.

One of the many allures of OINTB is its use of irony as both a narrative device and as an arsenal against dominant forms of control and power. The irony-meter is on full alert when Piper tells a young Black girl using a wheelchair that sheʼs just like her; “Iʼm like you Dina. Iʼm weak too”. Bitch, please. Somewhere in between her juice cleanses and jet-setting to Paris I think Piper misses out on the memo that no, in fact, your college educated middle class white able-bodied self is nothing like the people whose experiences you attempt to appropriate in a world that accepts and rewards a very specific and narrow type of person.

But even more noteworthy than the dissection of Piperʼs arrogant sense of self entitlement and unchecked privilege is the phenomenal presence of heterogenous voices that saturate the colourful story lines. Black women, queer women, immigrant women, fat women, trans women and Latina women – hell yeah. Given that primetime television is dominated by white presence – a whopping 81% – the cast and characters of OITNB are not only transgressive, but revolutionary.

We watch as Sophia, one of primetimeʼs sole trans female characters, grows as a woman and claims her rightful place within a shared community of womanhood; we watch as Big Boo who is fat and fabulous, shamelessly gets down and freaky; and we watch as Daya, Poussey, Taystee Miss Claudette and Crazy Eyes reel in nearly unanimous amounts of screen time as the central protagonist. We watch as Lorna, Nicky, Big Boo, Mercy, Alex, Tricia and even Piper subjugate heteronormativity; and subjugate it not for the sexual arousal of a hetero-male audience but as active subjects engaging their own intimate and sexual desires.

In addition to giving a variety of women presence on the silver screen that would otherwise have been occupied but what we normally see (hint: white middle class men) OITNB also illustrates how problematic the criminal justice system is and forces the viewer to challenge any preconceived notions they may have about the types of people who are incarcerated by one of the largest enterprises in the US; the US prison system is a multi-billion dollar business whose profits in 2012 amounted to $1.7 billion (Forbes, 2013). Without giving away any spoilers itʼs fair to say that the portrayal of prison staff on power trips contrasted with the background story flashbacks of many of the inmates leaves the audience sympathetic at worst, and enraged at best. Tackling the not so pretty issues of sensitivity training, solitary confinement, consent in prison-inmate relationships, and complete lack of any resources OITNB effectively demonstrates that contrary to some popular notions, a prison sentence is no cake walk.

Lastly, OITNB operates as a form of collective cultural commentary. It addresses the complicated relationships between the Foucauldian notions of power (Foucault was a rich white guy whose claim to fame was a leftist critique of privilege. Kind of a big deal for feminists, philosophers, other cultural studies folks and critical thinkers just like yourself), gender, race and class; it confronts how failed institutions recycle the most marginalized within the Western neo-liberal establishment – and it humanizes people in an all but inhuman world. We come to understand and sympathize with characters that conventional principles label as outsiders, deviants, monsters.

OITNB attends to the issues of surveillance, gendered violence, patriarchy, ableism and cis-normativity with an open, inclusive and compassionate frame of mind – with just the right amount of crass drollery. It allows us to see a little bit of ourselves, depending on our own social locations within the hierarchies of race, class and gender; we get a glimpse, however narrow, of where and how we fit in within the structured and systemic protocols of Western society.

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