"I Have a Voice, and Here's My Story": A Conversation With Danielle Brooks
It's hard to identify what precisely draws us to the craft of storytelling. Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion, offers a possible answer: "We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise." So if we rely on stories—whether they exist in history books, museums, television shows, or even our own journals—to make sense of our world, then the most fruitful ones beguile and empower the audience while also challenging it to confront painful truths. More importantly, since stories are imbued with cultural value, especially in the case of mass media, it's worth thinking about whose stories are told and how.
Of all the great (and not so great) stories on television today, Orange Is the New Black is arguably the most successful, as it captures moments of joy and humor within the larger, often heartbreaking framework of injustice and systemic patterns of inequality. Indeed, the viewers are able to wrestle with complex issues in a meaningful way while also finding inspiration in the most unsuspecting place: Prison. Show creator Jenji Kohan and the entire cast of women humanise a marginalised community through the art of storytelling. So when we had the opportunity to speak with one of the inimitable cast members, Danielle Brooks, we were excited to hear her thoughts on her character's growth as well as her own and why she's choosing to tell this story.
Read on to learn about the issues that Brooks is relentlessly speaking up about—from criminal justice reform to the importance of inclusive representation, community engagement, redefining beauty standards, and cherishing small moments of joy and humor—and get inspired by her outspoken, empowering role both on and off the screen.
The Value of Representation and Redefining Beauty Standards
Much of our conversation with Brooks focused on why she's working to change the beauty standards in her industry and beyond. Specifically, she's been really involved with the 67% Project, which speaks up against sizeism in the fashion and entertainment industries while also offering an alternative form of media in response. Specifically, Brooks explains that "67% of women are plus-size, which means a size a 14 or above, but only 2% of those women are represented in media—so on billboards, magazines, TV, and movies," basically everything that we consume.
Speaking to the impact, Brooks shares that "to not see yourself represented is sad" and alienating. And beyond that, it's a loss to those industries. "It's like, what are you thinking? Do you know how many women want to feel included in the fashion world and walk down the street in different materials, fabrics, styles, to rock the shit out of them?" she asks rhetorically.
"The fashion industry is so far behind when it comes to all women being represented," Brooks tells MyDomaine. "I've spent a lot of time trying to fight that." But recently, she decided to shift her approach. Rather than focusing on calling out the people who won't design for her, she started to reframe the question: "Why don't I focus on the people who actually are designing for me? Why don't I align myself with people who do care enough about letting me feel good in the clothes I wear?" Just this week, she walked the runway at Christian Siriano's fashion show.
Unsurprisingly, Brooks's personal perspective on beauty and self-confidence is empowering. "For me, when I put on a bodycon dress, I love the way my shape looks. It's not because the world tells me that shape looks better; it's because I love that shape. I like to see my body look a certain way, so sometimes I will wear a push-up bra or tights or whatever because that's what I like. We shouldn't tell size-20 women that they can't wear the same thing as a 2. Women should wear the heck what they want to wear." In other words, you get to decide what's flattering and beautiful. "Don't let anyone else define that for you," she advises.
Beyond sizeism, Brooks also speaks to the standards of ways in which beauty is racially coded and represented. "Being a dark-skinned girl, for a long time, I didn't feel that my skin is beautiful," she shares. So when asked what piece of advice she's held onto since she was a little girl, she says, "that my skin was beautiful." And when it comes to representation of race in mass media, she continues, "I do feel like I'm starting to see people more like myself on TV, but it's still not enough—not compared to the millions of white faces that I see, which is an even bigger issue in film than it is on television." According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, "14% of all female characters were black in 2016."
"So we definitely have a lot of work to do. And it's cool to see people step up and say, 'I have a voice, and here's my story.' And big heads of these studios say, 'Okay, we want to hear your story. We're going to change what they think people want to see. We're going to change that.'" And one of the most important ways OITNB is doing that is in it raising awareness around the need for prison reform.
Unpacking Mass Incarceration and Why We Need Reform
In Michelle Alexander's seminal book about mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow, she discusses how the criminal justice system has become more about social control and profit than it has been about reducing crime and creating a safe, productive society. Alexander also convincingly argues that the disproportionate number of people of colour in American prisons is a legacy of past racist institutions like slavery and Jim Crow–era laws. Yet these inequities are so difficult to dismantle because when people are labeled as criminals before they're labeled as human beings, it's easier for human rights to be forgotten. And that's why the stories in OITNB are so crucial; they're shifting the social perception of inmates.
Indeed, Brooks's character, Taystee, experiences the failure of the system firsthand. In an interview with Los Angeles Times, Brooks explains that Taystee "has this opportunity to take all her intelligence and go back into the world once she's released [from prison] … but feels like she doesn't know how to navigate the world, partially because of her background" and childhood in the foster care system. Brooks tells MyDomaine that much of the reason Taystee ends up in prison again right after she's released reflects poorly on the cyclical pattern of the U.S. criminal justice system, not on Taystee herself.
"The system has completely failed people," she says. "Prison should be about rehabilitating people, and it's not. It's a business. These companies have gotten so money hungry that they've forgotten about the humans." In fact, in City of Quartz, Mike Davis writes that the increase in incarceration rates is due to increased production of prisons that can house a bigger population of prisoners. In other words, prisoners become monetised and commodified, and somewhere along the way, we lose sight of the goal, which is to rehabilitate.
But like Taystee, "a lot of people are locked up and given sentences that don't match the crime," Brooks says. And at the same time, many others commit atrocities that go unpunished or at least treated much differently under the law. One example? "We see the sins every day that our president is committing, and yet he still has the privilege of being the president," and while it's an incredibly complicated issue, the crux of it is simple: Different identities and bodies are valued over others because of a long history of inequality.
While Brooks mentions that she doesn't know what the answer to mass incarceration is, she says it starts with speaking up and representing these narratives on-screen because the impact goes far beyond entertainment—it breeds compassion. "As someone who played an inmate, I'm reminded more of the humanity of a person than the sin and the act of what they've done wrong." She remembers a time when she "visited Rikers doing a book group with a few women who were incarcerated, and one woman just started crying and was saying thank you for telling her story and reminding people that there are human beings behind those numbers."
So her responsibility as a storyteller is to remind people that despite their shortcomings, they are still worthy of love. Beyond that, education and job opportunity are the answer, not criminalisation. "People need guidance and help, and when you're in the foster care system, you don't get to do that. So my character thought she needed someone to guide her, which led her down a hole of crime. It was because of the circumstance pushing her in that direction." So instead of criminalising inmates or turning a blind eye to disenfranchised youth, the solution is about "having programs that are guiding people and helping them find somewhere to go knowing that people care about them is very important."
Valuing the Power of Humor and Joy
Next, we discuss the role of humour in both entertainment and activism. How can it be a tool and to what extent? Is there a limit? "Sometimes we use humour to soften the hardness of the truth. It makes our reality an easier pill to swallow," Brooks explains. "You know, we had Taystee fighting the good fight, but then you have Cindy doing something ridiculous to loosen up the audience. So yes, for my character, she definitely went from somebody who was humorous to someone who was taking every moment very seriously. But even in the midst of taking things seriously, I feel like the audience is still able to find moments of humor in her struggle of finding justice for Poussey. I'm not laughing at the pain, but the things that we—no matter how hard we're fighting—there can be humor in them. And I think they wrote it that way so that, yes, we don't lose the importance of what we're talking about, but it still makes the pain easier to swallow to balance it out."
And it's important to find empowerment and joy in the little moments in our day-to-day lives, not just to bolster activism and social justice movements but also for personal health. Brooks shares an anecdote about how these small moments are personal: "The other day, like two days ago, I ran three miles. I've been running short distances, like a mile a day, maybe four times a week because I've been trying to challenge myself to run. So yesterday I was attempting these three miles, and I really wanted to give up. I have like three minutes to go, and I had gotten a blister on my foot for the first time, a runner's blister which is really cool. And instead of quitting, I took off my shoes on that treadmill and continued to run, and I completed my three miles that I told myself I was going to do. And nobody told me to do it; it was just something that inside I wanted to do. I felt unstoppable. And three miles might not be anything to somebody, but it was for me. But I did find out I need to buy runner's shoes. So I also discovered that," she jokes.
How to Be Part of the Solution
So where do we go from here? "As someone who started out just really loving this craft because I was able to connect with it, and I loved it because I saw how stories really change peoples lives, I feel like my character has taught me it's now time to take that to another level. The women behind the storytelling understand that there's more to be done than just playing these characters," Brooks says. And her castmates are doing the same. "We're very vocal about the Dreamers," and the list goes on. "You can just Google anything my cast is doing, and we're in the middle of it. But I feel like art is a form of activism, just by the stories you align yourself with" and which ones you choose to tell.
So aside from representation and being vocal about the injustices we witness or experience, Brooks emphasises the importance of helping others outside of your own immediate community. "I've been working with Urban Arts, and after I get off the phone with you, I'm going to Feed America to feed the homeless, and you know, I understand that I've been given this platform and that I want to use it for more than just for myself. I have my own scholarship that I started back at home." She's also been working with a program called A Sense of Home, which "helps people who are coming out of foster care or who have aged out of the system" and need to make their own place feel like a home. It's based in Los Angeles, and the founder, Georgina, gathers a group of volunteers to decorate their entire home. "There are things we can do as individuals to help the community," she reminds us.
"We all have a responsibility to be activists regardless of our circumstances. Everybody has a different idea of what that means. For some, they will become politicians, senators, and hold court in those positions, but for others, it's merely about having a full conversation with someone in your family. Taystee's lost everything. Shes behind bars, which means her resources are limited more than any other human, but she still fought for what she believed was right. And it was because of her, you know, I try as much as I can, to do the same."