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Orange Is the New Black Roundtable, Part 2: On Religion, Aging, Rape and Race
Does OINTB do its diverse characters justice?
I think it's possible for prisoners to believe that they're romantically attached to their guards, and that guards might believe the same—but the show paints it almost in Romeo-and-Juliet terms.
To celebrate the fact that In These Times's recapping of Netflix sensation Orange is the New Black has reached its midway point, we convened a group of feminist and activist all-stars to talk about the show's evolution over the first half of its much-lauded first season.
Assembled for this roundtable were yours truly, Sady Doyle, In These Times' Orange is the New Black correspondent; Lindsay Beyerstein, author of the blog Duly Noted; Jamia Wilson, a feminist activist and writer who's authored, amongst many other great pieces, “The Upside of 'The Help' Controversy” for GOOD; Danielle Henderson, Ph.D. student in critical race theory and media and New York magazine's OITNB recapper; Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back and founder of Women in Media and News, who recently wrote about OITNB for Salon; and Yasmin Nair, the co-founder of Against Equality and author of the article that kicked off OITNB criticism on In These Times, ”White Chick Behind Bars.”
What follows is an abridged and edited transcript of one of the most fun, interesting and challenging conversations your humble OITNB correspondent has ever had about TV. In part II, below, where we talk OITNB's big villains, Pennsatucky and Pornstache, and debate how well the show handles race, class, sexual assault, age and faith. (Read part I here and part III here.)
(SPOILER alert: The following contains general plot points from the first six episodes of Orange is the New Black).
Sady: One character who seems to draw a universally negative reaction is Pennsatucky, the far-right Evangelical meth addict. She'll have more air time in the second half of the season, but for now, I think it's worth noting that she seems to have been written solely to provoke and anger the upwardly mobile liberals that the Piper character represents. And she seems to have been written with a meanness that I don't expect from OITNB. Thoughts?
Yasmin: I think that meanness you so rightly point out is in fact inevitable in a show that is predicated entirely on the valorizing of diversity. I also think it's worth pointing out that this diversity is almost unprecedented in a mainstream show—and that it only appears in a show about women in prison. Which is to say: Diversity is important (and I use the term hesitantly, and as a shorthand for what's going on here), and it's key to the setting, and I hope to see many more shows about people and women in prison.
But within the confines of diversity, then, the meanness towards Pennsatucky is inevitable—because diversity teaches us to look for the good in all ethnic groups, but poor white trash remain far outside the pale (no pun intended) of diversity. Poor white people don't constitute a “minority” in the recognizable sense, and most people—particularly white liberals and progressives—have nothing but contempt for them, because the homophobia and racism sometimes made evident in the community is so much easier to focus on. It's okay to hate and even—as in this show—be really, really brutal towards poor white trash because, the logic goes, what's not to hate? If we were to dig deeper into this hatred of poor white people, I suspect we'll find a lot of self-loathing going on, but that's another kind of narrative and enterprise altogether.
Jenn: My beef with the way the Pennsatucky storyline is drawn is not only that she is an easy villain because “poor white trash, ha ha ha!”, but also because of the extremely convoluted way that her back story plays out in terms of what she did to end up in Litchfield, why she did it, and how she’s exalted for it and by whom. I really want us to come back together as a group and discuss that aspect of the storyline when Sady gets to the end of the series.
Lindsay: Even Pennsatucky gets humanized as the show goes on and we learn more about her. She's still a villain, but she's also medically psychotic and (surprise!) prison is making her mental illness worse.
Sady: See, I don't think Pennsatucky could be classified as “psychotic”: I think she's deeply religious, which strikes others as a form of magical thinking. I don't think Yoga Jones's Buddhism is crazy, either. (That Yoga Jones line about being too surrounded by irritating people to meditate on universal compassion belongs on a T-shirt. A T-shirt that I will wear, all the time, until it falls off my back.) What I do think is that Pennsatucky is a bully, and a person for whom religion affords her a form of power and validation she can't get anywhere else in life. She uses her “special messages from God” to browbeat her friends and build a power base, because the ability to browbeat people and feel powerful is what she needs. That doesn't mean she doesn't believe it, though; she believes just as deeply as more sympathetic characters like Miss Claudette or Sister Ingalls. It's just that Pennsatucky's religion takes the form of something that primarily serves the bad parts of Pennsatucky.
Jamia: As much as I loathe Pennsatucky's bullying ways, I appreciate her character's role in building a community of support for people seeking something or someone to believe in during a terrible, alienating time in their lives. Pennsatucky is sincere about her belief in redemption. And while I disagree with her approach and find myself literally repulsed at her fervor, I find her resilience, her ability to forgive and her attempts at serving others somewhat endearing.
As a liberal, pro-reproductive justice Christian, to me her character embodies the kind of stereotype that reinforces every negative generalization out there about people of faith in this country. The caricature she represents sickens me, but it also presents an opportunity to discuss what spiritual communities provide for people who are suffering/and in need that activist communities could do better. Yes, there is a history of corruption and social and physical violence within fundamentalist organized religion and the political church. At the same time, I've seen unchecked bullying, hypocrisy, power-mongering, and mental illness strongly impact activist communities I've been in without the emotional, social, and community support I've seen many faith communities provide when their members are in need. Pennsatucky was looking for support, love, validation, and community—she was looking for a place to feel valued and to know that she mattered—and a group of Evangelical Christians took advantage of that. Her role raises the question for me: What can we learn about how we support each other in our times of struggle and need? How do we make each other feel valuable, and provide services to community leaders who need them?
Sady: Also, bouncing off your points about faith, Jamia: Although we don't get to see this in flashbacks, it's clear that the community of the church is really central to Sophia and her family. Losing the church is one of the big things Crystal holds against her wife. And when Sophia makes a friend in prison, it's Sister Ingalls, the nun. Which is one of the quietest, most precise character arcs (“Sophia starts healing her important and traumatic relationship with Christianity that we've heard about exactly twice in throwaway lines”) that OITNB has done.
Yasmin: I can see the points about faith and community, Jamia, and I absolutely agree about activist communities and the harm they can inflict. But I'm not sure that the community that Pennsatucky draws around her comes about because of any kind real support—rather, there's plenty of evidence throughout that these are a lot of very damaged people who are effectively coerced by her into joining her, in order to survive in prison. Again, I'm hugely critical of the way that Pennsatucky is rendered, but in terms of the actual character and how her faith is portrayed, I'm concerned that we not forget about how much of this faith is also based in violence and intimidation (not the least of which lies in an angry and vengeful deity of her choosing). I do worry that we might erase the violence inherent in religion as well. The values and practices you address can come about in other forms of community.
Like Romeo and Juliet, except she can't consent: Daya, Bennett and sexualized violence
Jenn: There are ways in which OITNB spectacularly fails in terms of realism—here, I'm thinking most egregiously of the Daya/Bennett “romance” storyline, which is a disgusting and utterly misrepresentative way of hiding the epidemic sexual abuse by prisoners by guards and staff.
Yasmin: Oh, gosh, yes, that whole weirdly convoluted tale, and the idea of a “romance” between guards and prisoners. And the erasure of the sexual vulnerability of a very young woman who has been taught nothing but how to use her body to trade favours… I do want to emphasize: I'm COMPLETELY pro-sex work and sex trade, but the erasure of a lot of disturbing dynamics here, yikes.
Sady: On Daya and Bennett, I completely understand why Daya would think this relationship was a good idea. She's had an emotionally abusive mother, and a sexually predatory quasi-stepfather: Not only is she starved for affection, I don't think she's ever had a relationship that wasn't founded on abuse of power. What I don't understand is why Bennett would get involved. He's portrayed as a kind of vacant dreamboat, but every time it's brought up to him that this relationship is unethical and harmful to Daya, he acts as if it's some huge revelation. He's been trained on this, he's culpable in this, but the show seems not to understand that.
Yasmin: The erotics of all the prison relationships, too. I liked the casualness with which the women discuss fucking, but some of the sex is also just so over-acted. (And, please, can I pause to complain about the bad Marisa Tomei-imitation acting by Yael Stone?) A friend of mine described that sex scene between Stone and Lyonne as something that looked like the latter was tilting furniture. You could imagine the director behind the scene: “Go deep, Natasha, go REALLY LESBIAN!!”
But yes, the relationship between Daya and the prison guard was absurdly romanticized. Which is to say: I think it's possible for prisoners to believe that they're romantically attached to their guards, and that guards might believe the same—but the show paints it almost in Romeo-and-Juliet terms. We'll see what season 2 brings!
Jenn: There’s a regular campaign of intimidation, harassment, and minor groping of inmates by “Pornstache,” but the writers play it far too safe, making him rub up against the violent line but never outrageously cross it. For example, he repeatedly threatens his nemesis, Red, with promises like, “I'll end your life!” Yet all he actually does is creepily touch her lips and spill large canisters of food in petty tantrums. Kohan wants to pay lip service to the brutality prisoners face while shielding her audience from the sort of ugly, vicious realities that might make them realize that prison life is actually more than a frustrating-but-funny dark comedy.
Yasmin: I think you're right about the erasure of violence—and that includes the erasure of sexual violence between and amongst prisoners as well. Prison amplifies how rape, the threat of rape and sexual coercion are used to keep people in line. And, again, I think this is where the expectations surrounding OITNB make it impossible to be anything but a spectacular failure in terms of it being anything like a cultural tool for change, which is how some of its strongest proponents see it. Prison life is seen as practically a romp, a kind of girls' night out, with a few bleak spots to remind us of the harsh world, but a good place to be in. Rape and sexual violence hang over many prisoners' heads the moment they enter—but here, it's mostly fun and frolic.
Jamia: I agree. Kerman's book touches in more depth on privilege, and the dehumanization and violence women prisoners face (not comprehensively, but much more so than the show). Kerman explains how uncomfortable being cuffed and strip-searched is, how agonizing being transported in prison planes can be because you're not allowed to go to the restroom, and how some women fear the indignity of prison gynecologist visits so much that they elect to skip them each year. There's no surprise that Kohan is giving us the same flavor she did with Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) in Weeds. She seems to love a good-White-girl-from-the-right-side-of-the-tracks-gone-bad story.
Sady: From a storytelling perspective, I don't know how much more sexual violence I could handle. Pornstache strikes me as genuinely scary: His assault on Piper in the “missing screwdriver” scene, his sexualized intimidation and humiliation of Red, and the fact that he's regularly having coerced sex with addicted prisoners all, to me, make him a real threat. As for sexual violence between the inmates—there are a few bits coming up that seem to almost-address the matter, but I'll agree that the show doesn't want to go there. I wonder if all of the sexual relationships between inmates are enthusiastically consensual simply because the show does want to humanize these characters, and because it doesn't want to play into all the sadistic, homophobic “prison rape” jokes that are so commonly the only thing people have to say about prison.
Jenn: Right, but I think it’s really dangerous and also a cop-out to try to have it both ways. This almost-going-there-but-not thing with Pornstash is just playing it way too safe. There are so many ways they could “go there” if they wanted to without either trivializing sexual assault on the one hand, or sensationalizing it on the other; but that kind of writing is tricky and complex, and requires a nuance that I think Kohan is profoundly uninterested in when it comes to this subject. It would be a failure of creative imagination for storytellers to not be able to address prison rape in a solid, strong way without turning it into a “don’t drop the soap” prison rape bit.
Sady: But Leanne—Pennsatucky’s mini-me—is a devout evangelical Christian and an addict. She takes her religion so seriously that she won’t even consume pop culture with wizards in it. And this religion, which is her identity, is not at all kind about pre-marital sex, and yet, as we see in the third episode, she has to “have sex” with Pornstache if she doesn’t want to go into withdrawal. He tries the same thing with Sophia. How is that not “going there?” I think he’s all the way there, it’s just not graphic. I don’t think Healy and Caputo’s inappropriate sexual interest in Piper is ever condoned or glossed over, either. It seems to be Dreamboat Bennett who gets the free pass.
Lindsay: It's hard to know how much violence we should see from the guards without knowing how much violence there actually is in a minimum security federal prison like Danbury. My sense is that those kinds of facilities are less physically violent than higher-security facilities, or local prisons. It's a fine line to walk, though, in terms of representation. If you add extra violence, you risk being sensationalistic.
Jenn: I had forgotten that scene in Episode 3 with the Christian inmate, Sady, that’s a good point. I probably wouldn’t have the same problem with this if the Daya/Bennett “romance” storyline never happened, if rape of inmates wasn’t treated as sweet—complete with distinct rom-com soundtrack most of the time Daya and Bennett are on screen together.
'I've been here a long time': Miss Claudette and age
Sady: At some point around Episode 4, I ran into a problem with recapping OITNB, which was that it was practically impossible to just “sum up” every single long-running plot line and character arc. Which is another way of saying that this show has a remarkably deep bench. Which character moments and character arcs really stood out to you, in the first half of the season?
Danielle Henderson: Miss Claudette and Janae. The show doesn't explicitly talk about age, outside of showing women in different stages of life (which is a triumph in and of itself), but I was really fascinated by the hardness in Miss Claudette. It was first revealed as a cultural difference (her long-winded greetings to her new roommates was very similar to how she greeted the new girls working for her, which was similar to how SHE herself was greeted when Jean Baptiste brought her to work), but also a tool of self-preservation. It was interesting that within the prison landscape, she was able to maintain mystery, to be sort of an unknown and unknowable element.
Janae is similar. She reveals very little, and has more vitriol than Miss Claudette, but is similar to Miss C for her ability to maintain some autonomy by being evasive.
Yasmin: Miss Claudette, I'll confess, reminds me of some of my tough-ass teachers in school, growing up.
Sady: I love Janae, and I think she's one of the show's best examples of how much character work this show can fit into a small space. I think her story is one of the show's most straightforward feminist parables—ladies! If you're good at something, and it threatens people, don't pretend you're bad at it to get a boyfriend!—and I also love how she's constantly trying to maintain her autonomy by taking a stand, and how those stands are usually 100 percent correct, and how that consistently comes back to hurt her. Janae is the woman whose strength keeps getting used as a weapon against her. So much going on there. Which is bizarre, considering that she spends most of the first half of the season in SHU.
Also, I'm a huge fan of how this show depicts its older characters. Women get more powerful as they age, instead of becoming un-sexy and therefore invisible. Big Boo, who's played by an actress in her 50s, is one of the most vocally sexual characters. Red is an archetypal movie Mob boss, played by a woman. Her arc —the “I draw a line at narcotics” struggle with Pornstache, the way subordinates are part of “the family” with her as its head, the way she controls the black market and will take violent action if necessary—is classic Godfather stuff. Except, instead of getting The Godfather, we get The Mom. And the rest of the women with long histories in the prison—not just Claudette and Red, but Yoga Jones, Big Boo, Sister Ingalls—seem almost as complex and interesting.
Except Chang. I sincerely doubt we will ever get a flashback episode exploring the inner life of Chang.
Jenn: The fact that Chang is pretty much the only Asian actress and never speaks or has any details at all to flesh out her character makes my skin crawl.
Jamia: I'm fascinated by Miss Claudette's relationship with Piper. She almost plays a sort of maternal role, like Red does for her tribe but without the manipulation and power-games. Miss Claudette is a survivor who teaches Piper how to make it in prison. She was a young immigrant who was basically sold into indentured domestic work who ended up in prison due to the same system that wronged her. In some ways, it seems like she's caring for Piper in the way others never cared for her. I'm still unpacking how I feel about her caretaking role and whether her function is to serve as a “magical Negro” or not. She has a tremendous amount of agency and dignity. Would love to hear what you ladies think.
Lindsay: I think Ms. Claudette dodges the “magical Negro” stereotype because she has such clear internal motivations that have nothing to do with helping Piper. She's an older prisoner; she's resigned to doing her time, preserving as much order in her world as possible, and not letting any young punks cause her any unnecessary trouble. She teaches Piper because Piper's cluelessness is going to bring down a deluge of shit on them both if Ms. Claudette doesn't intervene.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady