Veterans protest alleged stereotypes in 'Orange is the New Black'

Veterans groups say the show's negative portrayal of veterans in its fourth season promotes harmful stereotypes with real-life consequences.  

JoJo Whilden/Netflix/AP
In this image released by Netflix, Constance Shulman, from left, Lori Petty, Laura Prepon, Brad William Henke, background, and Danielle Brooks, right, appear in a scene from, "Orange is the New Black."

The latest season of Netflix's original series "Orange is the New Black" has received widespread acclaim from critics and viewers alike, but there's at least one demographic that isn't applauding the most recent adventures of the women of Litchfield Penitentiary: veterans.

Groups including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans Of America, and Disabled American Veterans have spoken out against the show's portrayal of veterans-turned-guards in its fourth season, calling the representation "offensive" and demanding an apology.

"'Orange is the New Black' had the opportunity to portray veterans in a way that shed light on an identity that’s widely misunderstood; but instead, the show fed into the very worst stereotypes that we’ve been working so hard to overcome," wrote veteran Tahlia Burton in a recent blog post for military news and culture website Task & Purpose.

In one frequently referenced scene, a guard named Dixon comforts another C.O. who has just killed an inmate by detailing graphic acts of violence against innocent civilians that he committed while serving in Afghanistan.

After so much fighting, he says, "you get so mad, tired and bored" that "you just grab a farm kid from a grape field, and you make him juggle live grenades until one of them blows up. And then you shoot him, because you don’t want him to grow up without arms or tell on you. Or maybe you just strangle a girl that you had sex with in a small village because her family is gonna kill her anyway, right?"

Another veteran-turned-correctional-officer, Humphrey, displays sociopathic tendencies and appears to enjoy psychologically torturing the inmates: he forces one swallow a live baby mouse at gunpoint, and makes another say whether she'd rather eat her mother or her father. At other points in the show, he encourages two inmates to fight each other for the entertainment of the guards, refers to a black inmate as an "ape," and smuggles an illegal weapon into the prison.

While such villainy may make for gruesomely captivating television, veterans say it promotes negative stereotypes of veterans as mentally unstable and dangerous, adding to a stigma that creates challenges for veterans in real life.

The show's portrayal is especially harmful as it comes at a time when many service members are returning home and looking for jobs, Dan Clare, the national spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, told the Associated Press.

In a survey by The Center for a New American Security, negative stereotypes involving anger management problems and PTSD was one of the top five reasons provided by employers when asked why they might hesitate to hire veterans.

The trope of the dangerous, mentally unstable veteran is one that veteran advocacy groups say has been promoted through the media, particularly in sensationalist headlines that highlight violent acts. In reality, such incidents are "like shark attack stories," says Rich Blake, an Iraq War Veteran and psychologist who has worked with veterans who have PTSD, in an interview with VAntage Point, the official blog of US Department of Veterans Affairs: "People are scared of shark attack stories but they don't happen that often."

The stereotype isn't anything new, says Ryan Gallucci, the National Legislative Service Deputy Director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Yet despite the fact that veterans in prison have a lower rate of mental illness than non-veterans in prison – with the number of veterans in prison on the decline – it still persists.

"Vietnam Veterans were stereotyped as the crazy Veteran, but over the years we’ve proven that isn’t the case," said Mr. Gallucci in an interview with VAntage Point. "What concerns us are today’s Veterans sitting down for a job interview and once they mention their military service, the tone of the conversation changes."

In her blog post, Ms. Burton laments the years spent "trying to de-stigmatize the veteran identity, convincing our community that we are responsible, capable, honorable, and sane."

It would appear that veteran advocacy groups such as Got Your 6, a nonprofit that aims to foster accurate portrayals of veterans in films and television, have been at least somewhat successful in challenging negative stereotypes. A recent survey by Got Your 6 found that public perceptions of post-9/11 veterans are slowly shifting to become more positive.

Shows such as "Orange is the New Black," Ms. Burton worries, have the potential to undo some of the progress that's been made.

But at the same time, she tells the Associated Press, she will most likely keep watching.

"One of the things people love most about 'Orange is the New Black' is the fact it sought to challenge stereotypes around underrepresented prison inmates, those who experience mental illness, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and survivors of sexual assault," Burton writes. She says she hopes the show will do the same for veterans in future seasons.

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