SPOILER WARNING: Don't read this article until you've finished Season 4 of OITNB!
I'm not sure who the Orange Is the New Black writers think is devouring their show binge-style every June when a new season releases, but I really hope it's not low-income, disabled, transgender, LGBTQ+ or people of color that they think are reaching. And based on the way season four was written, I highly doubt reaching those audiences was the intent.
When I started watching the show in college, Piper as an 'audience surrogate,' someone we were supposed to relate to, was almost laughable to me. Piper and I have in common the color of our skin and the fact that she's bisexual (as much as the show refuses to label her as such), and that's about it. I was raised by a disabled mother in a community where a majority of my neighbors were people of color, families of immigrants and those who were disabled or mentally ill. The possibility that someone in our community would go to jail or be given a prison sentence was very real—especially for a lot of the same low-level crimes shown in OITNB, such as posession of drugs or disorderly conduct by someone with a mental illness.
I went into the show looking to see myself, to my friends and family, to see my neighbors, to see my community, on television. I was tired of watching whitewashed shows with very little diversity. I was tired of the Bury Your Gays trope. I was tired of seeing disabled people and a fuller, more colorful range of LGBTQ+ experiences (OITNB has butch representation, a transgender woman of color, and plenty of queer girl-on-girl love) ignored in the media.
And now I've come out of season four feeling a little betrayed.
I get it. I really do. If OITNB expects Piper to be the audience surrogate, then it's looking to reach a primarily white, affluent (or at least upper middle class), well-educated viewer. It's looking to reach a viewer who really does need to learn what the Black Lives Matter movement is. It's looking to reach a viewer who, when shown scenes of Lolly and Alex covering up a murder, will sympathize with Alex more than with Lolly. It's looking to reach a viewer who will see Suzanne physically tortured and Poussey killed and gasp in surprise and distress, but who won't feel personally persecuted because they're at risk of the very same violence every day.
But the thing is, we've got enough television shows (and books and magazines and websites) for upper middle class, abled, white, college educated viewers. That's already every other show. And in my opinion, OITNB can't sit around, accepting awards and praise for its diverse cast, while it tortures Sophia season after season, and pretty much lets Piper off the hook for starting a white supremacist prison gang.
Season four is by no means the first offense, but it was during this season that I reached my breaking point. When Piper started targeting the Latinx characters in an effort to save her precious "panty business," she not only organized white supermacists against them, she also turned the guards against them. Latinx women were both physically and mentally scarred as a result of Piper's selfishness. Who were these scenes meant for? My Latinx girlfriend, who I watched the season alongside, and who has been bullied and discriminated against because of her Mexican and Spanish background? Or for white viewers who, like Piper, run no risk of being targeted for abuse simply based on race?
The thing about season four is that it gives us clear villains. It tells us to hate the new guards, but it also tells us to remain sympathetic for Healy, Piper, Alex, Bayley and to some degree, right up until the ultimate episode, for Caputo. These people, the show tells us, made mistakes but didn't intend to cause harm. The show does a great job of exposing how systems of privilege and oppression can lead to different fates for characters--notably in how it shows us Poussey and Bayley crossing paths briefly on the same night that Poussey was arrested for posession with intent to sell, a crime that led to her prison sentence. Bayley, conversely, was let off the hook for a low-level crime of trespassing and now works as a correctional officer. It's clear that the show is intent on showing how Bayley's privilege as a white male, and Poussey's oppression as a queer woman of color, participated in what ultimately happened to both of them.
But how do we hold accountable the people who are complicit in the systematic oppression, if they "didn't mean" to do that? That's where season four left a bad taste in my mouth, along with the onslaught of trauma porn that seemed directed at privileged viewers. As much as I love Alex, it was difficult seeing her let Lolly take the blame for a murder they committed, and consequently covered up, together. Lolly's in prison because she's mentally ill, and to see her persecuted even more because of this fact was difficult to bear. After Alex shows her guilt, Piper jumps in to say she shouldn't feel guilty. Of course not, just as Piper's friend didn't want her to feel guilty for the repercussions of her racist actions, and made her feel better about having a swastika branded on her arm.
During scenes like the one where Suzanne and Maureen are forced to fight, it just didn't feel like the show was being written for viewers like me, a disabled, queer woman who has been the subject of physical violence and oppression. It felt like we were being shown this for shock value; that, although we were shown more of Suzanne's backstory, we were always supposed to feel pity and shock, not empathy and commiseration. I've always read Suzanne as being developmentally and cognitively disabled, potentially with mental illnesses as a result of the trauma she survived as a kid because of her disability. I don't always directly relate to her experiences, but I relate to that feeling of helplessness: that people can't see beyond the disability, and that it will always be a detriment, because even when Suzanne shines as she did writing the Time Hump Chronicles, it isn't long before she's forced to fight with one of her biggest fans. It was painful to watch her being physically tormented and then again to watch her get upset during the peaceful protest and see Poussey rush to help her.
And during Poussey's death scene, I didn't get the feeling I expected. To be quite honest, like many other viewers, Poussey Washington was my favorite OITNB character. I considered naming my cat after her when I adopted her last August. Although Poussey was a queer woman of color while I'm a queer disabled woman, I easily related to her intersectional experiences, and I was rooting for her to find love with Soso. Poussey, like me, lost her mother young, and was a dreamer and a reader. She deserved better.
Because it's OITNB, this was a rare death of a queer character that didn't scream of Bury Your Gays. Poussey was queer, but it's clear why they chose her as a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was because she was a beloved character, and because she was, in every way, the kind of POC character who "should've made it:" well-educated, compassionate, intelligent and capable (as she says, she knows multiple languages). The viewers, those already unfamiliar with Black Lives Matter and those who aren't personally afraid they'll be the victim of violence because of their identity, could see how unfair Poussey's death was and would empathize with the movement.
But what about viewers who finally see someone like them in Poussey, in Lolly, in Suzanne, in Maria, in Sophia, in Blanca? What do these viewers stand to gain as they watch a character, maybe the only character, that represents them be tortured or even killed, and left on the floor for hours?
I'm all for a 'realistic' show. I'm all for a character death that tears me to pieces, that makes me feel something, that stands for something important. But, as much as the writers wanted Poussey's death to be that, it wasn't. After she died, I felt empty and blank. And angry. I stood up from the couch and went directly to bed, unsure how to feel. I didn't feel the character was justly served. I didn't feel the so-called realistic, traumatic storyline was necessary or written for the people who are actually experiencing it—people of color who risk their lives just by existing every day. I didn't feel like any of the storylines, written to show how 'real' prison can be, really served those of us who experience them. Not disabled or mentally ill women, who are at risk of violence and prison sentences much like Lolly and Suzanne. Not women of color, who are subject to the same kind of racist remarks, physical and sexual violence and prison sentences like so many of the OITNB characters. Not transgender women, who already know what it's like to be denied healthcare and deal with transphobia, and who could really benefit from Sophia being used on-screen in any storyline that isn't traumatic.
It's time we finally had a show for us.