Recently, I watched Orange is the New Black. I binge watched most of the series on Netflix after everyone had already seen the finale of season 4. I tried watching it when it first came out, but only managed the first couple of episodes because Piper is the worst. The. WORST.
But I wanted to watch it in part because I binge watched Jenji Kohan’s other show, Weeds not that long ago (yes. Binge watching is something I’ve done a lot of lately. Sue me. It’s called procrastination. And then I write thought-pieces about it on my blog or in my notebooks).
Weeds requires another post of its own. Or several. There were moments I loved that show, and moments I was just hate-watching. But I watched all seven seasons in about 2 weeks. It’s kind of a blur. All I know is that Andy was my favorite character, and this confirms for me that I have some issues to work out.
Back to OITNB.
There are some really great things about the show. I loved getting all the backstory for so many of the characters, especially once Piper wasn’t in the spotlight quite so much.
It’s a good show. Well-written, intense, compelling, emotional. But it has to come with a qualifier that there are some major problems with the show as well, in terms of race, privilege, and the portrayal of power relationships.
The privatization of the prison was the first clue for me that something was going to go dreadfully wrong, and it did. The guards that were hired were incompetent at best, cruel at worst. The choices made by the company that runs the prison resulted in prisoner abuse and a reduction of quality of life that culminated in Poussey’s murder at the hands of Officer Bailey.
I know these things happen in real life. I know that there are prison guards that abuse the inmates. I know that prison is a terrible place and that there are severe abuses at every possible level. I know that prison is, essentially, a business that dehumanizes people. I know that the majority of people that are placed in prison are there because human lives are valued less than property. And I know that the prison system is a major part of institutional racism, because of the school to prison pipeline, and the systemic racism that exists in the U.S. justice system.
All that being said, Kohan’s choice to torture Sophia by placing her in solitary confinement; the choice to have a sadistic guard force Maritza to eat a baby mouse; Suzanne being goaded into beating the pulp out of another inmate; much of this smacks of creating a spectacle out of the suffering of people of color.
I’m uncertain as to Kohan’s motives in a couple story-lines. Pennsatucky’s repeated rape at the hand of one of the guards seems to be handled when she and Boo decide to get even, and then are unable to. But then Pennsatuckey tries to renew a relationship with the guard, once she is able to forgive him. I’m not opposed to the idea of exploring the fact that someone can rape without realizing that’s what they’ve done. Rape culture causes all sorts of messed up ideas about sex. I’m willing to wait and see how that situation works out, before I get too angry at it.
I’m not at all convinced, however, that Kohan will be able to rectify what she did with Poussey’s story-line. Her episode was beautiful, the flashback to New York and her night of adventure and serendipitous events. Showing her beauty, her vivaciousness, her open spirit made her death that much more difficult to handle. I wept.
There are a few things about Poussey leading up to her death, though, that leave me uneasy. There was a great effort to establish her as a respectable character. We have to know that she was going to go to West Point, that her father is a highly decorated military officer, that her mother was highly educated, that Poussey speaks more than one language. We have to know that she isn’t a waste. We have to know that she’s a good girl that went wrong somewhere.
It makes it hurt all the more that she died, because of that. Or at least, it seems it’s supposed to make it hurt more because of that. Because why would we care if it were one of the other black girls that isn’t as good? Would we care as much if it were one of the “thugs” instead of Poussey? I would’ve liked Kohan to have the nerve to force us to face that, instead of engaging in respectability politics to make us care when an inmate was murdered.
I’m also extremely bothered by Bailey’s backstory. I’m bothered by the fact that Kohan decided to make us empathize with the murderer. Yes, Poussey’s death was an accident. But I’m bothered by the fact that, suddenly, we’re asked to view the guard and feel pain for him, before we’re even allowed to process the pain over the death of his victim. It troubles me, not because I don’t want to see a murderer as human, but because Kohan seems to be dangerously close to walking the All Lives Matter line, as if she wants us to not be angry with Bailey for what he did to Poussey. Perhaps she’s challenging us to maintain our anger even when we sympathize. Either way, I’m not satisfied with her choice here, particularly with Black Lives Matter happening in the real world and addressing the issues of “accidental” police killings on a daily basis. Bailey did not mean to kill Poussey, but he was using excessive force. She had stopped struggling, even, and he still kept his weight on her back and suffocated her, because he didn’t know what he was doing.
Ending the season with a riot and another murder a split second away from happening is a bold move, and the guard that Daya is pointing her gun at is one we would all be happy to see dead; but once again, we have suffering of people of color and spectacle for the consumption of an audience, set up as entertainment. It’s an intense cliffhanger, for sure. I’ll keep watching the next season, to see what happens, just as many other people will. But I’m hoping that Kohan will do something to redeem her treatment of Poussey’s story line and that she’ll go back to challenging respectability politics instead of engaging in them.