On June 17th, 2016 Netflix released the fourth season of their hit show Orange is the New Black. This season of the show took on many hard-hitting topics, such as racism, prison privatization, CO brutality, and sexual trauma. This controversial season has sparked many online debates, with some critics calling it ‘ trauma porn’, a co-optation of the ‘BlackLivesMatter’ movement, and an unrealistic portrayal of prison life, etc. The following is a conversation between the lead editor of the Evolving Man Project, Berneta L. Haynes, and me, in regards to the most recent and contentious season of OITNB and it’s relevance to today’s social and political landscape.
“What do you say to those critics who called this season of OITNB trauma porn?”
Lornett: The show is a prison show first and foremost. So the Sophia Burset character being unjustly locked up in solitary confinement for a matter of months or a year is a very realistic portrayal of how prisoners are tortured and punished behind bars. We’ve seen this in the case of Huey P. Newton and Kalief Browder, among others. We see those real-world cases and how it negatively impacts those men. Of course, the character of Sophia is forever altered by her confinement, and her suffering emphasizes a larger point: the inhumanity of solitary confinement. Yet this inhumane treatment is a reality for many men, women, and youth locked up today, especially those of color.
As far as Poussey’s death goes in the 12th episode, I think the event highlights a real problem we have with race, criminal justice, and police violence. Mike Brown’s body was apparently left to decompose for hours until his body was attended to. The same thing happens to Poussey. The point of this episode is to show that in the context of the corporate prison and criminal justice system black bodies are still the strange fruit hanging in poplar trees. Regularly, we witness modern-day lynchings of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and countless others with no accountability by law enforcement or the system.
Not to mention, those criticizing Poussey’s death (or the writers’ decision to kill her character) as a mere exercise of black trauma porn forget the agency of the wonderful black actresses who are heavily involved in the script. These actresses have a say in how the story is told, and we can assume they are keenly interested in making sure the story is told in a way that doesn’t make Poussey’s death trivial.
OITNB did a better job of saying black lives matter than Empire did this past season. (Let’s not even start about that infamous scene in Empire where Taraji P. Henson “Cookie” dons a gorilla suit and yells about how black lives don’t matter.) Does OITNB get things wrong? Yes. Do they need to diversify their writing staff? Yes. But I contend this “black trauma porn” critique is just fake Negro outrage. Black people have the capital to produce their own shows and tell things from our perspective instead of relying on white shows to do this, but I say as far as white shows go, OITNB has done a fair job handling race.
Berneta: First of all, let’s define porn. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines pornography as “the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.” So, what I need to know is what was “sensational” about Poussey’s death? The fact is her death is the very opposite of “sensational.” It isn’t exciting. In fact, she died so undramatically that I was almost unsure she was even dead until the next episode. Her death is absolutely mundane and, in light of current events, felt eerily commonplace and…normal. She dies, and the prisoners (all but the black ones) continue their day as normal for nearly the entire next episode. Only at the very end do the prisoners finally react to her death in any way that can be deemed “sensational,” when they revolt against the guards.
I thought it was perfect how the writers scripted her death because it so closely mirrored reality. In reality, the only people who really react dramatically to the deaths of black people like Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin are black people. We are the ones who cry relentlessly, post angry post after angry post on social media, find ourselves unable to even function at work around our white colleagues because we are so overcome with grief and anger, and sometimes we explode into riots. We are the ones who feel it most deeply, just as Poussey’s black prison mates are the ones who feel her death most deeply (with the exception of Poussey’s Asian girlfriend) because we have lost one of our own. The non-black prisoners say things like, “It’s so sad,” “Sorry for your loss,” and “It’s not right,” or “She was so innocent and small.” Just like in reality. In reality, well-meaning white folks say similar things because they don’t feel the loss the way we do, the way Poussey’s black prison mates feel and display such deep loss. Notably, only the Latinas (the Dominicans) express somewhat deep anger about her death, mainly because as one of them mentions, “It could’ve been any one of us.” They know, like the black prisoners, that the racist guards hate them. Indeed, the racist guards spend all season stopping and frisking all the non-white prisoners. So, I ask again, where’s the “sensationalism” in all of this? Where’s the so-called “porn” in this? Her death was utterly mundane…eerily mundane. That is the frightening element of her death, the element I think the writers were trying to convey: that her death is so utterly mundane, so unsensational…to all but her black and Dominican prison mates.
“This season added a blatant ‘racist’ element to the inmate population; did it do a fair job of capturing the complexity of race relations in an extreme environment?”
Lornett: I think this season did a fine job at showing how race works in an extreme environment. Where the ‘white lives matter’ bit a little over the top? Yeah, but so is Donald Trump and his supporters with their blatant racism.
The most brilliant part was how the main character’s (Piper) ‘liberal’ racism was shown. She doesn’t see herself as a white supremacist yet espouses their same sentiments, especially about people of color, in order to maintain and hang on to her wee bit of power and privilege. She pays for it in the end, and I think she’s the most unlikeable main character ever. But, importantly, the depiction of her character shows how some white women have used their ‘white privilege’ to step over other groups of colored people in a patriarchal system.
Plus, OITNB has been critiqued for not interrogating racial tensions in the past, like when Pennsyltucky’s casual racism in seasons 1 and 2 was written as a mere comic relief. The writers could have worked with what they had (Pennsyltucky and the racist meth heads), but adding new blatantly racist characters (the skinhead girls) doesn’t hinder this season’s examination of race. It is a bit genius to have the de facto leader of the white supremacist’s group sort of realizing, by the end, that ‘those people’ aren’t so bad.
Berneta: I also think it did an excellent job of capturing the complexity of race relations. It showed how folks can be blatant, overt racists (like the skinhead girls) and how folks can be covert, undercover racists like Piper. Piper is the quintessential white liberal racist. Piper is the kind of person who would think,”No, I’m not racist. I’m just looking out for myself. I have nothing against people of other ethnicities, as long as they don’t get in my way.” She is a self-serving narcissist who will use whatever she has at her disposal (in this case, racism) to get what she wants. Honestly, I hated her more than all of the skinhead girls combined. She is the most dangerous type of racist because she’s smart enough to know how to embolden the dumber, more overt racists. I truly despise her character for everything that she represents, and I applaud the writers for their (initial) truthfulness with her character. I’m not ashamed to say that I laughed when the Latinas branded the swastika on her arm. She deserved it. If anything, I was a little disappointed when the writers decided to get rid of her swastika tattoo. It was almost like they wanted to give Piper a second chance, especially when she later stood up for the Latinas whom she had previously thrown under the bus. I doubt many viewers gave her a second chance, though.
“This season didn’t portray the corporatization of prisons in the most flattering light, so are systems themselves inherently bad or the people that run them bad?”
Lornett: I think that people are the ones who make up these systems and, thus, it’s the people who run them who are bad, or they become corrupted by the system. The character Caputo shows this in brilliant complexity. He started out as a sort-of decent man who tried to do the right thing, but throughout his life paid for it by losing everything he held dearly.
Now he’s gone full corporate and even got himself an amoral corporate mistress, Linda. She’s one of the most terrible villains on TV because she mirrors many people I’ve come across in the professional world. By the end of season 4, after selling out and trying to play the game, Caputo realizes it’s all bullshit and that he’s the one who’s been changed. The system didn’t change, he did. This parallels life very well because you have people like social workers and teachers who stay in their respective industries and eventually become jaded. With cops, they become corrupt or jaded and leave the force.
Berneta: It’s not a fair question. Systems don’t exist on their own. Like you said, they are run by people. Hence, systems are only bad because the people who run them are bad. In OITNB, the corporatized prison system is bad because it is being run by assholes. For instance, I think we see in this season that there are ways they can do better by the prisoners, but they refuse to do any of those things. They could have implemented Caputo’s liberal arts curriculum, but they choose not to. They choose, instead, to implement a construction worker (aka “chain gang”) program. They choose to carelessly hire veterans as guards, without doing thorough background checks or caring about the background checks, because they only care about the federal grant money they will receive by hiring veterans. It doesn’t matter that the particular veterans they hire are psychopaths. They don’t look for good veteran candidates. They just want veterans, any veterans, so that they can get the federal grant money. Money. That’s all that matters.
Ultimately, I don’t believe prisons should ever be for-profit and corporatized because the individuals who work in the for-profit sector seek only to make money and satisfy their bottom line. Individuals with that mindset should not be involved in running prisons, in any capacity. Ever. Prison should never be about making money. OITNB shows that when the for-profit sector merges with the prison sector, that’s exactly what happens: prisons become money-making endeavors. This is plainly wrong.
So, it is my opinion that mindsets rather than the systems themselves are the problem. Some mindsets are inherently bad when operating in certain settings (like prisons). The “make money by any means” mindset of people who run the for-profit sector is bad and destructive when deployed in a prison administration context.
“Did this season romanticize the relationship between a rapist and his victim?”
Lornett: I think the story that stuck with me the most was the storyline between Pennsyltucky and the prison guard, Donuts. This season portrayed the COs in a less than flattering light. They are cruel, violent, perverts. The women COs turn a blind eye to their male colleagues’ transgressions and even join in on the fuckery.
Donuts, we learn, is a rapist and will always be that. What critics of this story arc fail to realize is that Big Boo lets him know what he is and he can never live that down. And unlike in Game of Thrones where female characters repeatedly fall in love with their rapists, this show is very different.
In the final brilliantly acted scene between Pennsyltucky and Donuts, he shows his true colors and basically confesses to wanting to rape her again. Then she slowly but surely realizes this man is and will always be a monster. It is a very nuanced and well-acted scene. And I dare say one of the better scenes of the season. Perhaps American t.v. audiences need to be spoon-fed every detail, but shows with complexity and nuance are far superior to predictable plot devices.
Berneta: Exactly. Anyone who thinks the writers romanticized that relationship did not watch the same show I watched. I confess that I initially, about mid-way through the season, thought the writers were about to romanticize that relationship as a way to try to make us forgive the rapist. There was a point when I was ready to quit the season over this storyline alone. But it quickly became clear to me (given that Big Boo consistently called him a rapist and scolded Pennsyltucky for even considering befriending him) that that was not the route the writers would take with the relationship.
The final scene between the rapist and Pennsyltucky made it even more evident we are supposed to view him as a rapist and that we are supposed to feel grossed out by him and the thought of those two having a friendship. The way he tells her he’d basically like to rape her all over again, and the way she winces when he says it…I could feel nothing but fear for Pennsyltucky and sadness for this girl who wanted so desperately to believe that he wasn’t like all the other men who had abused her. She has been raped repeatedly throughout her life. As a result, this is a girl who lacks any understanding of “healthy” male-female relationships. For all she knew, he simply behaved the way all men do, and maybe if he apologized and repented it meant he wasn’t as bad as the others.
But, luckily for her, Big Boo befriended her and forced her to see the man for who he is: a rapist. I think we are supposed to feel profoundly grateful that Big Boo took such a protectionist, BFF attitude toward Pennsyltucky. Her friendship with Big Boo helps Pennsyltucky grow and understand how she deserves to be treated. We see that growth when she tries to protect the Latina bus driver from the rapist. We see that growth when she confronts him and actually calls him a rapist. We see that growth when she says to him, “That doesn’t make it right,” in response to his proclamation that he hadn’t meant to hurt her and that he loves her. We see that growth at the end, in the final scene, when she draws away from him as he tells her he’d like to have his way with her again. She knows, then and there, that Big Boo is right, that she deserves better than the affections of a rapist. The subtly of that whole final scene was amazing.
No, I don’t think the show romanticized the relationship between Pennsyltucky and her rapist at all. I think it toed the line, brought us closer to Pennsyltucky, took us into her discomforting worldview, and showed us her growth.