Seeing the cast members of the wildly successfully Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black on a host of magazine covers isn’t necessarily a surprise: With the third season’s return a week away, publicity appearances, like the cast’s new July Essence and Rolling Stones covers, are to be expected. However, what proved distinct about these spots is the racial disparity the two covers create.
Awash in orange floor-length gowns with an idyllic beach scene behind them, the black female cast members of OITNB are captured huddling intimately together, with Laverne Cox perched in the center. Stately, reserved, and elegant, Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley, Danielle Brooks, Adrienne C. Moore, and Vicky Jeudy join Cox in a pose that quietly speaks to a black sisterhood that has always been the, well, essence of Essence magazine. And in a sense, Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling’s Rolling Stone cover speaks to a sororal bond, as well — but one skewed towards a sorority house. Or at least, the male fantasy of the hijnx that may ensue at one.
Also wrapped up into each other, the comely white actresses are leaning into one another, but with their braless chests turned towards the camera. The outline of Prepon’s decolletage and Schilling’s pert nipples calls to mind the only episode of the show I’ve watched, wherein Schilling steps out of a prison shower and runs smack into a stereotypical wisecracking and nearly intelligible black female inmate who oohs and ahhs over her “perky” breasts — “like the ones you see on TV.” The cringeworthy interaction very conspicuously showed the privileging of the white female body in Western media and how the black female inmate had internalized this idea of white female body capital. The exacerbation of this myth was unnerving, especially in the midst of OINTB‘s apparent progressive and radical stance on women and LGBTQI rights. While telling the stories of marginalized women with unprecedented vigor, the show is still very much undergirded by the prominence of the white female protagonist — a dynamic of power that has been so visually represented within these two covers.
Understandably Essence caters to a predominately black female audience, and Rolling Stone certainly serves its young white male readership, but by sexualizing the two white female lesbian protagonists and grouping the black cast members in albeit beautiful but stoic, staid postures on competing covers, stereotypes surrounding desire, respectability, and space are called into question. Schilling and Prepon’s “will-they-won’t-they” stance and braless state reveals them as objects of (male) desire, while Cox and Co. play down their sexuality entirely and play into the trope of the strong, impenetrable black female. But even more, the casts owns different spaces within media entirely due to these distinctions. While wildly successful as an assembled cast, they independently come to mean different things to consumers. Yes, Cox famously covered Time last year, owning the space of politics and activism, but Schilling in turn was branded within the beauty realm as Allure‘s cover girl. Which is to say that Cox and Schilling haven’t been positioned together in platforms outside of OITNB, as their identities evoke competing ideals.
Perhaps splitting hairs over magazine covers seems futile, but what they visually represent and evoke seems significant: That despite all the progress OITNB has wrought in the way of representation, there is still a considerable amount that needs to be made.