‘Orange is the New Black’ and Carrie Bradshaw Syndrome

The cast of Orange is the New Black.

Written by Myrna Waldron.

I am not much of a TV watcher. I prefer films for a few reasons – they don’t take as long to watch, plots are resolved, character arcs don’t get derailed, etc. But I’ve started bingeing on Netflix in a smaller window while I work with Photoshop in a larger one. And, upon enthusiastic recommendations from Bitch Flicks Editor Megan and my friend Isabel, I decided to check out Netflix’s original series Orange is the New Black. (Minor spoiler alert, by the way.)

I expected to hate it. I usually avoid tragedies and horror, and since the series is set in a women’s prison I was visualizing Oz-level violence. And then I ended up bingeing on it – not because it was particularly lighthearted (it’s really a drama with a sprinkling of comedy) but because I wanted to know more about Piper’s fellow inmates. I was thrilled that, for once, a TV series was giving voice to the types of women who usually get silenced – black women, hispanic women, lesbian women, trans women, older women, fat women. And they’re all inmates, the types of people that we especially try to ignore. I can honestly say OitNB has the most diverse cast I have ever seen.

And yet it is obvious to me and to others who have written on the show that it painfully illustrates the pervasiveness of privilege, especially white privilege. Piper Chapman is beautiful, thin, passes for straight, is comfortably wealthy, supported by friends, family and a lover, has somewhere to go when her sentence is up, and was convicted for a nonviolent crime. It’s also obvious that although the series has an unusually diverse cast, it only got greenlit because the main character is a pretty white woman.

And oh my god, I hate her.

She’s selfish, she’s spoiled, she’s rude, she refuses to admit guilt for anything, she breaks the hearts of the few people left who support her, she references the Kinsey Scale yet refuses to use the word “bisexual,” and she keeps pretending she’s just a sweet little nice girl who hasn’t really done anything wrong and doesn’t belong in prison.  Fuck that. On her first day in prison, she proves just what kind of person she is by complaining about the food to (unbeknownst to her) the head chef. Lady, you’re getting food for free. Some of these women came from the streets where they had nothing. Suck it up. The chef’s decision to starve Piper for a few days is disproportionate retribution, but it finally starts to give the message to Piper that she’s in prison and she needs to stop thinking that she’s above it all.

Fortunately, the series makes it clear that I’m NOT supposed to like Piper and that she’s in some ways more fucked up than the women sentenced for more severe crimes. But it got me thinking that, in most, if not all of the fictional TV series I’ve watched, the main character is never my favourite – and is sometimes my least favourite. And it drives me nuts when the series focuses so much on a main character I don’t like that much. Stop showing me Piper’s bullshit and tell me more about Sophia!

Since making this realization, I have started referring to my recurring loathing for main characters as “Carrie Bradshaw Syndrome.” Sex and the City operated under the assumption that I was supposed to like Carrie, but I usually fast-forwarded over her scenes because I was going to vomit if I watched her spend thousands of dollars on goddamn shoes again, and then watch her be an absolutely terrible person to the people who (inexplicably) love her. I wanted more Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. And instead I just got lots of Carrie being her neurotic, selfish, irresponsible self. I like Sarah Jessica Parker. I think most of the “horse” jokes about her face are untrue and sexist. But man do I hate Carrie.

I thought about my favourite fictional TV series and where I stand on their main protagonists. (And yes, I watch a lot of animation.)

Sailor Moon – Not my favourite character, she’s pretty close to the bottom. (My favourites are the ones who, comparatively speaking, were in the series the least.)

Futurama – Fry is not my favourite, it’s Bender, and Fry annoys me half of the time.

Adventure Time – Don’t dislike Finn, but I vastly prefer Marceline.

ReBoot – Bob’s okay, don’t like Enzo, but Dot is amazing.

Avatar the Last Airbender – Aang annoys me. I prefer Toph and Zuko.

Young Justice – No real main character here, but there was too much Superboy and Miss Martian and not nearly enough of everyone else.

Star Trek TOS – Boo Kirk. Yay Spock.

The only series I can think of where I don’t dislike or feel neutral towards the main character(s) are the ones with balanced ensemble casts, like Downton Abbey, Community and Slayers.

And the more I think about it, the more I wonder why I tend to dislike main protagonists so much. Is it because series tend to focus so much on the main character that I get sick of them? Is it because I crave more of the stories of the characters that don’t get told? Am I just a rebel or something?

And is it just me who experiences “Carrie Bradshaw Syndrome?”

Myrna Waldron is a feminist writer/blogger with a particular emphasis on all things nerdy. She lives in Toronto and has studied English and Film at York University. Myrna has a particular interest in the animation medium, having written extensively on American, Canadian and Japanese animation. She also has a passion for Sci-Fi & Fantasy literature, pop culture literature such as cartoons/comics, and the gaming subculture. She maintains a personal collection of blog posts, rants, essays and musings at The Soapboxing Geek, and can be reached on Twitter under @SoapboxingGeek and @Misandrificent.

  • This oh lord thank you i didn’t think anyone else hated piper chapman’s white privileged ass. there are so many more characters like you said who are so much more interesting.

  • I thought her privilege – and her ignorance of it – was deliberately made a grounding for the whole show. It seemed like a very deliberate episode by episode exploration of her being a douche, juxtaposed against other characters’ stories and experiences being developed as more than just caricatures.

    True, I doubt the show would have been supported had it not centered around a skinny white woman, but I don’t know, maybe it’s a good way to demonstrate how self absorbed people can be in their own privilege. Doesn’t really change the problem of other experiences not being supported and considered of enough value in the media to tell in their own right which is disappointing.

    But I agree, I found myself wanting to hear more about some of the other characters rather than so much Piper. Felt the same way about Buffy. Maybe the core thread/character of a show gets boring because it has to carry such much of the boring narrative, while supporting characters can add more interest?

  • Me and my sister have been referring to “Carrie Bradshaw Syndrome” as “Main Character Syndrome” for years! It all started with (of all things) Digimon; can’t stand the main character, the minors are much more interesting. It’s popped up again with things like the Harry Potter series, Star Wars, The Simpsons, Yu-Gi-Oh, etc. Personally, I find main characters to be boring and one-dimensional overall, supporting characters are much more complex and interesting.

    It doesn’t help that I find female characters way more interesting than male characters, and there are so few shows headlined by an actress.

  • Buffy was also one of my least favorite characters! I also think Harry Potter is the least interesting of his ensemble cast. I think it’s because there’s a level of constancy that’s required of main characters. They can change, of course, but it must be so much more gradual than their supporting characters who we see less of. Their problems start to seem like old news, it seems like they whine because their central issues are repetitive themes in a series.

  • “Lady,
    you’re getting food for free. Some of these women came from the streets
    where they had nothing.”

    I can’t hate Piper. Why? Because I imagine someone saying the above to any of the other women on the show and it breaks my heart. I mean, there are hunger strikes going on right now in LA prisons. Are we really going to sit here and say OMG who are you ladies to complain? You have a bed don’t you? But no, people like Taystee are vilified for milking the system. So, I’m not sure Piper needs to be vilified for the exact same needs and desires that other prisoners, regardless of background, feel.

  • I took Piper’s complaints about the food’s quality to be just another manifestation of her privilege, since she was shown to be the type of person who would try expensive fad diets just for the sake of saying she could. Considering how much effort and pride Red puts into her cooking, I suspect its lack of quality is not her fault, but because she has a miniscule budget to work with. Hunger strikes are almost always in response to human rights violations. Piper just seemed to be complaining because the food wasn’t up to her usual standards.

  • That is an interesting post, I’m trying to think about the main characters I dislike, but I think my distaste is mostly inspired by alltogheter bad shows or at least bad writing (I’m looking at you, Ringer Michelle Gellar). As someone who has Bunny as her favorite character I concur though, that repetition can kill a lot of enjoyment and new characters or ones with little screen time are therefore often refreshing.

    I feel compelled to point out that letting an inmate (or someone else in your care) starve (for what ever reason) is torture. I have not seen the series or the scene, so I realize I’m vulnerable in this regard, but in my opinion no one (not even a white skinny person who grabs all the screen time) should be tortured. You wrote that it was disproportionate but I feel it’s more likely inacceptable.

    But still, great post, as always, thanks for sharing.
    Sweet Greetings!

  • Yeah, “disproportionate” isn’t the right word to describe that situation. It was more like “extreme and completely unnecessary.”

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