If you have Netflix and haven’t watched Orange is the New Black, we’re fighting.
But in all seriousness, this show is a treat in so many ways. Netflix’s newest original series features what is arguably the most diverse cast of women to appear on any television show in the West. Piper Chapman, a 30something yuppie with a nice fiancé, suddenly finds her life flipped upside down when her past involvement in her ex-girlfriend’s drug ring catches up with her. She lands a 15-month sentence in a federal prison that will force her to confront her past and examine what kind of person she really is.
Here are some highlights of the show that make it such a welcome fresh breath of air:
- its intense focus on character
- its honest, human portrayal of women of color, lesbians, transwomen, and the mentally disabled
- its criticism of the way inmates are treated in federal prisons
- its lack of sugarcoating the issues of sexual abuse, racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia
- its surprising hilarity despite its intense subject matter
The show has a lot to offer, but one of the diversities that stuck out to me the most was the almost polarized portrayal of Christianity. Christianity is neither the central focus of the show nor the butt of a poorly constructed joke and the whole reason why it’s not entirely pigeonholed is because of its manifestations in two characters: Pennsatucky and Sister Ingalis.
The former is your dyed-in-wool Westboro Baptist Church-style fundamentalist, except she actually killed someone. The latter is a Catholic nun/political activist who was arrested at a protest. On the surface, these two women couldn’t be more different. Tucky is feverishly passionate about the supremacy of the Lord God, the coming rapture, and the impending judgment upon all those who refuse Jesus. She destroys part of the prison’s chapel after hanging a heavy wooden cross from one of the pipes and every act of retribution she performs has divine justification.
Tucky’s angle is fervent desperation and Sister Ingalis’s is boundless, reserved patience. Tucky is the result of a “nothing but the Bible” culture and Sister Ingalis is the result of “everything including the Bible.” All that connects these two women is that they both call themselves Christians.
Pennsatucky: the God Warrior
Tucky is loud, extreme, and operates with an all or nothing mentality. She was imprisoned in the first place for killing someone who she thought was disrespecting her. In Tucky’s world, you’re either on her side or you’re dead. She scorns Sophia for being transgender while she scorns Alex and Piper for being lesbians. In Tucky is the consuming fire of Christianity. It would be easy to stop there and conclude that Tucky’s flavor of Christianity is nothing more than the harmful, exclusive rhetoric spewed by politicians and religious leaders. It would be easy to write off her fervent belief as a result of her mental instability. And without Sister Ingalis, it would be easy to paint Tucky’s Christianity as the Christianity.
Yet the show gives us more than that. In Tucky’s narrative is a descent into the prison’s psych ward where all she has is her faith and her worldview of all or nothing is reaffirmed. She is either God’s chosen one to heal the sinners in the prison via great miracles, or there is no God at all and, as she says, “we just crawl around this Earth like ants and then we die.” Given this, it doesn’t surprise me that fundamentalism speaks so strongly to Tucky.
The All or Nothing Faith
In one of the more chilling scenes of the show, Tucky is locked in a cage while a therapist questions her. No matter how much she asserts that she doesn’t need medications, every doctor she encounters writes her off as crazy. When no one around her will take her seriously–when she’s trapped and bound and sedated and disoriented–what does she have left besides her passionate faith? Nothing. With this scene, it becomes clear that Tucky is not just a caricature of Fundamentalism. She is somebody who desperately needs it.
Fundamental Christianity is notorious for its rigid rules, fiery rhetoric, and exclusive, backwards views that often repel people from accepting Christ as opposed to compelling them. However, Fundamentalism is among the easiest branches of Christianity to understand. It condenses the messages of the Bible into very clear moral and spiritual practices. Its black-and-white presentation of God is, if nothing else, simple to grasp for people who don’t have the resources or education to pursue the complexities that high-church traditions offer. This is why Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism have historically appealed to the poor. Their doctrines provide them with very simple, but highly effective ways of spreading the Gospel. When they began, they stripped away the need for people to have some type of formal education in Christianity in order to really understand what was being said in church.
Given this, it makes perfect sense that someone like Tucky would hold fast to Fundamentalism. In the little that we learn about her life outside of prison, we see that she’s from a backwater town, lives in a trailer, and doesn’t seem to have much direction. In fact, she’s so apathetic that she nonchalantly decides to get an abortion just as easily as she decides to then kill a nurse in the clinic for disrespecting her. Her lawyer convinces her to play the religious warrior card, knowing that most of the people in town would then see her as a martyr. While this is Tucky’s initial reason for conversion, Christianity becomes very real to her and through the extremities of Fundamentalism in particular, she is given a sense of purpose for the first time in her life, even though she is trapped in the walls of federal prison.
This is why Tucky’s bleak attitude after her time in the psych ward is so heartbreaking. She is entirely stripped of her passion and is left as a shell of a person after constantly being told that what she’s fervently holding to isn’t real faith, but rather a delusion of her unstable mental state.
So in Tucky, we’re presented with a Christianity that connects the deeply desperate to God. It inspires passion in the face of a stagnant life and gives purpose despite the confines of prison. To Tucky, God will break her shackles and set her free into new life once her sentence is over. Until then, she is to be God’s divine justice in the prison and will quite literally use the cross as an implement of that justice.
Sister Ingalis: The Healing Water of Christianity
By contrast, Sister Ingalis is far subtler. Although she too holds fast to her faith given her status as a nun, she is at peace keeping company with Sophia and Yoga Jones. Both women are people who generally make Christians uncomfortable, Sophia because she is a transwoman and Yoga Jones because she’s a new ager. Yet this nun who by all appearances should be as conservative as Tucky is not fazed by the “worldliness” of the women around her. Although Sister Ingalis generally keeps to herself, she also welcomes the company of anyone who seeks her. Her friendship with Sophia especially shows how she represents a gentle Christianity that does not boast in its own righteousness, but rather adopts the stance of serving and shepherding the Other.
Sophia’s initial reason for seeking Sister Ingalis’ friendship is that she hopes to convince the nun to share her estrogen pills. After the prison cuts back on her dosage for no solid reason, Sophia is in desperate need of the hormones or else her facial hair will regrow, among other effects. The ordeal she experiences sheds light on the lack of consideration of healthcare for transgender inmates and it leaves networking as Sophia’s only option.
Little does Sophia know that Sister Ingalis sees through her ruse immediately, but despite this Sister Ingalis welcomes her. Very quickly, they form a genuine friendship. Sister Ingalis encourages Sophia to allow her son and wife to adjust to and heal from both Sophia’s transition into a woman and the crimes that landed her in prison. Sophia is able to let go because she found some amount of strength in her friendship with Sister Ingalis.
The relationship between these women shows that Sister Ingalis’s primary goal is to connect with others when they seek her no matter what their reasons may be. This stems directly from her faith, and her dedication as a nun is further proof that she regularly sets aside her own interests for the sake of others.
Orange is the New Black is a show that intentionally refuses to create a flat portrayal of a particular group of people. You will not come away with one idea of what a black woman or Latina or lesbian is like and you certainly won’t be fed one idea of Christianity. Without Sister Ingalis, Pennsatucky would be much more of a straw Christian. Unlike Tucky, Sister Ingalis never feels that her faith is under attack and as a representative of high-church traditions, her acceptance and the love she shows toward Sophia alludes to something that I have found true in my own spiritual life: traditionally-styled churches are more genuine than moderns ones. Like Sister Ingalis, they have an unassuming outward appearance, immediately showing that they’re not trying to impress me because Christianity is not about being impressive. I will take a church that’s like Sister Ingalis over one that’s appealing to my youth on the outside, but acts like Pennsatucky on the inside any day.