Orange is the New Moral Dilemma: Season 5’s Tensions and Gray Areas

Like everyone else who’s been keeping up with Orange is the New Black, I, in my lack of self-control, marathoned the new season in two days despite having other things to do. After letting my thoughts stew for a bit and discussing some of them on Tumblr, I found myself thinking a lot about this season’s focus on blurred morality.

Season 5 stretches roughly four days across thirteen episodes, a significant change of pace from previous seasons, which generally cover a couple months or so. On one hand, this pacing makes sense because stressful situations, like riots, do make the days feel long. A lot happens to these characters internally and externally over a very short period of time. On the other hand, the riot felt too long. It didn’t need to last the entire season–in fact, it’s still not technically over. One reason why the season felt so slow is that several characters go through some intense changes and moral dilemmas that we as viewers logically think should take a long time to work through; however, it’s entirely possible to go through significant internal changes during a crisis in a very short amount of time.

Many of the changes for these characters involve moral dilemmas that have no easy answer. The broadest of these is “Can the inmates run a more just system than the existing prison hegemony, or will they resort to implementing the same abuse they were subjected to?”

Are We Better Than Them?

Over the years, Orange is the New Black has made us sympathetic to the prisoners, the protagonists. Now, some are dolling out the same abusive treatment they received from the guards, and whether we find it funny or repulsive depends on our sense of justice and notions of retribution. The show does this on purpose, forcing us to think about whether they are right to do so, and showing us some characters who blatantly question whether they are really better than the guards.

Some characters want to try and prove that they are–that when you take away the corrupt agents of the prison system, the inmates will create for themselves better living conditions. This works to some degree. Brooke gets her living library, some inmates create a cafe, and others set up small shops in the hallways akin to a craft fair. When Pennsatucky gets scathed for helping Coates, Boo convinces the other inmates that instead of throwing her in the Poo, they should hold a fair trial. Ultimately, Tucky’s “punishment” is community service, which makes her happy, gives her a sense of purpose, and appears more rehabilitative than locking her in a port-o-potty.

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However, other characters care more about retribution or simply want to relish in the chaos. Leanne and Angie literally piss in Tucky’s pot, forcing Tucky to conclude that doing nice things for others is pointless–that the second she starts to feel a sense of purpose in life, it’ll just be taken away, not only by the guards (the system) but also by the people in the same boat as her. These circumstances place a pessimistic spin on the notion that subjugated people can rise up and run themselves more justly instead of emulating the practices they’ve known for their entire lives, or in this case the treatment they’ve received in prison.

Pull The Lever?

In this vein, several characters face moral choices of the utilitarian variety: sacrifice the one for the many or the many for the one? This problem explicitly arises when Piper, Black Cindy, Allison, and a few other inmates watch Taystee’s negotiations with Figueora and Figueora learns that someone shot one of the guards. It comes down to a choice of whether they should turn Daya in to keep Figueora’s quickly dwindling trust, or if they should cover for her. Piper connects this dilemma to the utilitarian answer to the trolley problem–whether you should sacrifice one person to save many more people. Ultimately, Daya makes her own decision and chooses the many by turning herself in. By taking responsibility for her actions instead of trying to get away with them like her mother always taught her, Daya manages to keep the negotiations on the table for all the other inmates to see the changes Taystee is fighting for.

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Throughout season 5, Taystee has only one goal in mind: justice for Poussey. In my opinion, she and Brooke are the only characters who keep Poussey at the forefront of their minds. Other characters, like Allison, help to solidify the anger and pain into tangible demands that can help the inmates who are still alive. Together, all the black girls lead an organized effort for all the inmates to input their demands. Then, the black girls sift the top ten demands into a written letter, and it’s these written demands that Taystee spends hours negotiating. In her mind, all of it is for Poussey. Toward the end of the season, however, Black Cindy voices her disagreement, telling Taystee that her efforts stopped being about Poussey and started being about her pride a long time ago. She believes that Taystee should accept a deal with Figueora, one that satisfies every demand except the one most immediately related to Poussey’s death: arrest CO Bailey. Should she settle for this and struggle with feeling like she caved in or lost sight of what the whole riot was really about? Or should she stick to her ideals and push for every demand? In other words, Taystee’s dilemma is whether she should help the many by taking the deal offered to her and (theoretically) secure tangible changes for all the inmates, or if she should help the one (Poussey) by seeing that her killer is brought to justice. Taystee chooses the one. She holds out on accepting the deal and getting most of the demands met. Then, the moment is gone and by the season finale, it looks as if none of the demands will be met.

Whether we think Taystee was right to stick to her ideals or that she made an entirely foolish decision that screwed over hundreds of inmates depends on how strongly we value ideals over imperfect yet real compromises. Either way, this should be a major sticking point for Taystee in the next season. She will be blamed for not having taken what she could to help the inmates who are still alive.

Personally, I never sensed as I watched that Taystee had become prideful or that she had turned the riot and negotiations into an effort to stroke her ego. I think she wanted retribution for her best friend’s death, and whether her choice becomes a good or bad decision will depend on how season 6 unfolds.

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Taystee and Daya are not the only ones who face this many-or-one decision. Gloria struggles with it as well when she learns that her son is in the hospital and the only chance she has at getting furlough is if she releases the hostages. However, that would mean betraying everyone she’s known for the past several years. Does she leave the hostages alone for the (supposed) good of the many prisoners to continue the riot and their demands for justice? Or does she choose the one–her son–above all else? Though she does choose her son, her efforts fail, emphasizing the reality that many of the characters on this show face: the best attempts to do the right thing–to change–are stacked against them because someone somewhere wants them to fail, whether it’s another inmate, the system, or the universe.

Resistance and Social Media

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I once jokingly told a coworker that sometimes, the best way to stick it to the man is to “just chill.” That’s exactly what Alex ends up doing, though she doesn’t see herself as a resistance leader. All Alex wants this season is to chill outside in her bulldozer house and not deal with any drama, yet this somehow becomes a symbol of resistance to other inmates who want nothing to do with the riot. But is it really resistance to hang out away from the fray and not partake in the chaos inside? Mostly, it seems like self-preservation. Alex herself isn’t trying to make any statement, but her “followers” do participate in the outdoor camp to resist the violence of the riot. Through one lens, they may be cowards for not participating. Through another, they may be smart for doing what they must to protect themselves. Yet the chaos does eventually reach them, and Alex ends up locked in a supply closet with only a shower curtain covering her as Pischatella ruthlessly breaks her arm. Gina catches this incident on camera, then disperses it into the world of hashtags and reblogs.

Yoga Jones comments later on that it’s hard to ignore injustice when it’s on your Facebook feed, yet she says this in a pessimistic tone. This is important because it makes the audience think about how the wider world only appears to care about injustices when we see them on social media, not at any point before. It conjures questions of the merits of social media activism and why it takes something going viral for people to begin caring about an issue. Yet social media is a powerful tool this season and its role in the show reflects its role in reality. It’s not always the vehicle for change that we want it to be. The Internet will take a serious video, autotune it, and spit it back out as a meme, as we see with the Litchfield confession video and “Black Lattes Matter.” The most viewed content coming out of Litchfield appears to be Flaritza’s makeup videos, which do contain some brutality in the background, but are otherwise silly and therefore perfect for a YouTube fanbase.

Whether it’s good or bad that it takes social media to stir consciousness about injustice depends on our sense of how people should respond to daily injustices, our views about social media in general, and how removed from a particular experience we must be to first see it on social media–or on a TV show, leading me to my last reflection.

Art Reflects Life?

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I’ve had a post about season 4 sitting in my drafts for a year because most of it consists of rhetorical questions, and I couldn’t articulate my thoughts without sounding like I was making excuses or diminishing experiences I don’t have. Season 5 has helped to bring some of that into clearer focus.

The truth is, I saw Poussey’s death in multiple lights. I saw the needlessness of it in that she was one of very, very few queer black characters on television and was therefore vital representation for so many. The season also aired during a year where it seemed like every TV show was killing off its queer women. Furthermore, one point of Poussey’s death was to stir consciousness in an audience that might not otherwise have cared about or understood #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, some non-black fans of the show did post about how they never felt affected about this particular brand of injustice until it happened to a character they loved, and we know how some of us can be with our attachment to fictional characters. Why did queer black representation have to be taken away like that for some audiences to awaken?

In another light, I see Orange is the New Black‘s overall purpose and a particular silver lining that art, in general, occupies. Orange is the New Black has always aimed to raise awareness about life in incarceration and the mistreatment inmates face in federal prisons. Though it wavers between humor and drama, Orange is the New Black has always had realism in its serious plot developments. That intention on the writers’ parts is clear. The reality of a black person dying at the hands of a federal or state authority figure is well within the scope of horrors that Orange is the New Black could reflect back to its viewers. The show has always aimed to be provocative. One of fiction’s roles is to stir outrage and reflection upon broken parts of society, to make readers and viewers care about people and issues and realities that they might not have otherwise known or cared about. The great thing about all of this happening in fiction? It’s not real. This is why fiction is a safe(r) place to encounter these situations. At the end of the day, Samira Wiley is still alive. Poussey herself is just a fictional character, one who is well-developed and certainly feels like a real person, but still a character nonetheless. That is our level of removal from any story we read or watch, and sometimes, that removal is protective. Does Poussey’s death reflect what happened to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland? Absolutely. Poussey not being real doesn’t mean that her story isn’t realistic or that it isn’t based on reality. It just means you can sit there taking in what happened after that fade to orange and know that this particular case is only a story.

Would Poussey’s story have turned out differently if the Orange is the New Black writer’s room wasn’t mostly white? I’m not sure, but I think about how Dear White People had Reggie almost shot by a campus security guard and how that provoked a similar sense of outrage among the characters. Not only did Reggie not die from that incident, but the audience also saw the psychological aftermath–both the trauma and friends gently checking on Reggie. To me, this was just as powerful and made as much of a point as Poussey’s death did, but Reggie lived.

Personally, I could go back and forth with myself on this and many of the other tensions Orange is the New Black presents to us. Although I’m starting to sense that this series is spiraling out of control and is nearing the ends of its run, I’m still invested enough to see it through to the end.

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Finding God Imprisoning: Religious Identity and Exclusion in Orange is the New Black

CFZK8E5UUAI8kpn.jpg-largeRegular readers know by now that any time I see Christian iconography mixed with pop culture, I immediately want to pick out some grand meaning which ultimately suggests that said icons aren’t as sacrilegious as they seem.

In the weeks leading up to season 3 of Orange is the New Black, these new promotional images appeared rendering Litchfield’s inmates on Jesus candles. This piqued my interest, though I didn’t expect the show to deal with religion in any substantial way. Season 1 gives us two versions of Christianity and season 2 doesn’t explore religion at all. So, I chalked these “sacred inmate candles” up to nothing more than a cheeky ad and didn’t think this season would give us much in the way of religious narratives.

But I was pleasantly proven wrong.

Though Tucky has left behind her fundamentalist convictions (while retaining much of the rhetoric in her daily speech) and Sophia only has one scene with Sister Ingalis, this season spends a good amount of time telling other religious narratives. There’s Leanne’s Amish background, Gloria’s voodoo, Black Cindy’s journey from fire and brimstone Protestantism to Judaism, the Wiccan group, the New Age Norma cult, and Watson’s Islamic background.

None of the characters depicted in the candles above have a religious arc this season, though there may be other candles with other characters floating around somewhere. The most immediate connection I can make to the candles is that perhaps their individuality represents each character’s own conception of sacredness, which would match the spectrum of religious journeys that this season presents. None of the characters strike me as particularly Jesus-like (except for Norma, since she’s worshipped), so the connections to Sacred Heart images themselves aren’t that strong; however, one could make a general connection between each character being a despised inmate and Jesus being despised and aligning himself with the marginalized.

So while I don’t see much in a 1:1 connection between the characters and sacred candles, I do see a lot in the spectrum of ways they experience or participate in religious faith. Three narratives that stood out most to me are Leanne’s exclusion from her Amish family, Black Cindy’s conversion to Judaism, and the cult that forms around Norma.

When Structure Doesn’t Love You Back

orange-is-the-new-black-season-3-9-where-my-dreidel-at-leanne-taylor-amish-emma-myles-review-episode-guide-listI have a lot of respect and even admiration for religious structures, especially Christian ones. Mostly, I feel a soft-spot for them since it sometimes feels like contemporary Christianity has no desire to learn about its various branches or reach back into its own history of traditions and sacraments due to some notion that becoming relevant again means eschewing all of that (when in reality it means radically reexamining theology and values, but that’s a separate rant).

So while I’m not sailing the flagship for adopting Pennsylvania Dutch beliefs or values, I see it positively in that it’s something Leanne genuinely relates to–something that genuinely gives her a community and a way to experience God. Yes, she leaves and experiences the world, which begins her path to prison, but she returns and is ready to declare her dedication to her faith, community, and lifestyle. Already, there are hints of this structure being too overbearing, but Leanne is happy.

Things go wrong when the police show up and pressure Leanne in to going back to the “English” world undercover to turn in her friends for drug offenses. Going back there is taboo for people who have already made their choice, so when Leanne returns to her Amish community, she’s shunned. The very structure she dedicated herself to rejects her and she leaves quietly in the night to ease the burden on her family.

Yet religious structure is still important to Leanne. As part of the Norma cult, she vocalizes a need for hard-written theology, especially when challenged with allegations that Norma’s followers aren’t a real religion. If not for the other members’ insistence that believing in Norma is more about being seen and the feeling of the moment rather than theology or doctrine, Leanne would’ve succeeded in her “Council of Nicaea” attempts to create a structure for her faith. Structure is immensely important to her even though her faith itself has completely shifted. Unfortunately, even the toxic parts of the structure she came from seep into her interactions with others in the Norma cult and the season ends with Leanne kicked out of yet another faith community in which she tried to find meaning.

Not Just in it for the Kosher Meals

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One of the most dynamic faith stories this season is Black Cindy’s conversion to Judaism. Sparked by the disgusting slop-in-a-bag that now passes as food at Litchfield (which Red didn’t not make and has nothing to do with, for the record), several inmates learn that they can request kosher meals since the prison is obligated to respect religious food restrictions. Word spreads and soon everyone is asking for kosher meals, including Cindy. However, she anticipates from the start that someone upstairs is gonna catch onto this Jewish ruse soon enough and spends much of her free time studying up on what she thinks is Judaism, namely the culture. This is more than what the other inmates do and when a Rabbi comes to visit, it’s game over for most of them. Cindy, though, doesn’t get a complete dismissal from the Rabbi. He tells her that she’s confused cultural Judaism with religious Judaism and though neither he nor the audience really expects her to get serious about the faith aspect of Judaism, that’s exactly what Cindy does for the rest of the season.

What began as something self-gratifying and shallow for Cindy becomes a deep, genuine desire to experience God again. The next time she meets with the Rabbi, she’s desperate to convert and when she cries in front of him, he knows that she is taking the Jewish faith seriously. In a flashback, we see Cindy as a child at the dinner table while her Protestant father leads the family in prayer. When he catches her sneaking a bite of rice, he turns the prayer into angry, verbally abusive condemnations to hell.

No wonder Cindy can’t experience God through Christianity. Judaism has no strict concept of hell, so there’s no way that anyone within that faith could condemn her to it like her father did. Her Christian upbringing imprisoned her spiritually and proved toxic, so Judaism becomes something freeing for her.

This transformation from a shallow, self-gratifying motivation to adopt a faith tradition to a deep, spiritual drive to join it and continue to grow in it is poignant. It shows the transformative power of God to reach people, even through their selfish actions.

Sacred Norma

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With her perpetual silence and warm smile, Norma becomes a receptor of her followers’ ideals. When they look at her, they see the perfection and love that they cannot otherwise experience. They project their thoughts, and in some cases their developing “Normatology” onto Norma and Norma, in part due to her muteness and in part due to the pleasure of leading a spiritual community, never gives them any clear rejection except when they act unkindly toward each other. As the season progresses, Norma’s followers encounter more miracles and find more reasons to believe in her. They’re seen as a fringe group–not as easy to ignore as the Wiccans and not established enough to deserve time in the chapel. Through flashbacks, we learn how Norma only felt seen and heard in a hippie community, specifically through the leader with whom she fell in love, and then she ultimately pushed him off a cliff. Is her prison cult an attempt at recreating that life before it all went wrong? Does she allow the girls to keep idolizing her because they make her feel seen just as much as she makes them feel seen?

Since she never speaks, we’ll never fully know what she’s thinking, but her cult does embody this notion of the unseen being seen. Before this season, Norma didn’t have a major role. She mostly existed in the background, but then a few of the girls started seeing her. Then, more saw her and soon the cult formed. Most of the inmates in Norma’s cult have experienced not being seen in some fashion. We know Leanne’s community stopped seeing her the moment she committed a taboo (which she was coerced into doing in the first place). We know Brook Soso is unseen because not only is her cultural identity as an Asian called into question, but her bubbly, talkative mannerisms compels others to ignore her. Norma is one of the few people who sees her, but then Leanne’s overbearing dogma pushes her away. With nowhere left to turn, Brook decides to kill herself in the most “unseen” way possible: swallowing pills and passing out in the library where no one’s around.

It’s this experience of being unseen by religious communities or communities in general that creates the Norma cult. In the face of this rejection and their status as inmates, they have to construct new meanings and miracles, one of which is the fence in front of the lake being wide, wide open.

Baptism and Mikvah in the Lake

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The season finale gives us a “miracle” in which the idiocy of a couple of contractors results in one of the fences in the prison yard being wide open. We’re then treated to a ten-minute scene of inmates realizing their proximity to momentary freedom and running toward it. They strip their shoes and plunge into the water without abandon. This is Cindy’s chance to perform her Mikvah and make her conversion to Judaism official, so the lake is already given this spiritual significance. More generally, this free play in the lake is a brief interruption to the women’s confinement and subjugation as prisoners. It’s eschatological in that they are already free (for a moment in time), but not yet free (since they will be caught and rallied back into their cells). New communal and relational realities are birthed as Brook finally finds a community (and most likely a girlfriend) that accepts her while Taystee embraces her role as “mother” of the black girls.

I loosely call this scene a baptism because these women connect themselves with the freedom of the water in some way. Some fully submerge themselves while others only dip their feet in, but they all experience unabated joy at this unexpected interruption.

And the season leaves us with that–with these women experiencing a moment of life in the face of death all around them and the certain punishments to come once they’re caught. Despite being in prison, they are constantly finding new ways of encountering the divine.

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Yet as interesting as this all is, I’d love to see the same treatment given to Christianity that has been given to other religions. Christianity is still portrayed homogenously as a backwards, exclusionary and abusive system (Islam gets even less development than that as we only see it briefly in Watson’s short flashback). It has certainly been these things and I have no problem with narratives exploring that, but there’s plenty of grounding to go beyond that. Sister Ingalis is a prime example of a character the writers could use to explore the radical, social justice-oriented praxis of Christianity. Once again, I see so much potential for her friendship with Sophia as a metaphor for a reunification of queerness and faith, but they need much, much more than a five-minute scene in one episode to achieve that.

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In any case, I hope the series isn’t finished with exploring religious narratives, because encounters with religion deeply shape us and, as we see in some of the stories from this season, they radically change us.

Orange is the New Black Season 2: Old Ladies, White Privilege, and the Black vs. Latinx Problem

The only reason why I didn’t marathon Orange is the New Black season 2 in a single weekend is the fact that I’m a working adult with other responsibilities and sleep is precious to me. That being said, I blew through it just like everyone else and like last season, the show continues to prove itself more diverse and honest about a range of social issues than most other shows that enjoy immense popularity.

This season is less about Piper and more about everyone else. Poussey and Taystee, along with being my BrOTP for this series, are perhaps the most dynamic characters. Morello is up there, too, and of course Piper gets some character development, but it really seems that these 13 episodes are all about the women of color (would’ve loved some more Sophia, though). That, in my opinion, is both the direction the show needed to take and how Piper Kerman would like her memoir’s legacy to unfold. The entire book, really, is a balance between white privilege and breaking the silence on issues that definitely need to reach public consciousness. In that vein, the TV show shifts its focus to tell some fascinating stories and make poignant points.

 

“No one gives a shit about old ladies. We remind everyone that they’re going to die.”

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I noted in my post about Katara’s portrayal in Legend of Korra that old people, especially old women, are rarely featured in stories. When they are, they may be confined to very small roles since a lot of people creating stories are young and many of us, perhaps, feel lost if tasked to write well-rounded old people.

However, OITNB does more for old women than anything else I’ve seen or read that’s also as widely popular as this show is. In season 1, we got a little bit of Yoga Jones (though we have yet to see her flashbacks), but in season 2, the Golden Girls get much more attention as Red finds herself trying to start over after losing the kitchen. Though the clan of old ladies still isn’t heavily featured, they’re given a complete story that ends up proving the quote above.

At first, the audience laughs at Jimmy’s random one-liners and her constant searching for Jack, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s completely lost to Alzheimer’s. Still, we don’t expect anything truly terrible to happen to her, but as her condition worsens, she endangers herself by jumping off the stage in the cathedral, believing it’s a pool. The prison’s response to this is to give her a “compassionate release.” Instead of paying for treatment, they drop her off at a bus stop to fend for herself. This is basically a death sentence, since we learn from other characters that she has no family and nowhere to go. Her desperate cries for “Roberta” (Piper) as the guards load her into the van are heart wrenching, and the entire scene is one of the most sobering in the entire show. Closely related is Vee’s manipulation of another character with a mental illness: Suzanne.

No one gives a shit about old ladies or the homeless—this is how society in general conducts itself. OITNB once again unearths another layer of injustice against criminals. Though this representation is tragic, it’s a necessary reality for the show’s mostly young audience to see.

 

Piper and her white privilege

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OITNB isn’t shy about examining racism and Piper’s self-defending rant in the cafeteria when everyone keeps treating her poorly because she got furlough is another example of how she still doesn’t quite get it. I think she understands it in her head—she knows on some level that her white middle class privilege has benefited her the entire time in prison, but she doesn’t actually know it in her heart. She turns the entire cafeteria into her own soapbox and when the other inmates still don’t leave her alone, she attempts to reverse her furlough, but she’s really making the entire situation about her. If she truly understood her privilege, she might have unabashedly admitted it and how unfair it really is and left it at that. Instead, she makes the entire situation center on her feelings, even when she appeals to Healy to reverse it. Piper tries making herself a martyr to cure her guilt.

The series isn’t over yet, so maybe Piper will learn. Maybe she’ll become a character who goes through all the stages of confronting her white privilege instead of running away from it. For now, she comes across as someone who is still self-absorbed, someone who still doesn’t understand just how much she benefits over everyone else. Something like that would not only capture part of the zeitgeist of our generation, but it would also make more mainstream the conversations that white people need to have amongst ourselves about our privilege and all of the consequences it has. In the end, it’s not about us being terrible individuals, but about honestly acknowledging history and our current society.

 

The black vs. Latinx problem

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One aspect of OITNB that I think is truly flawed is its portrayal of Latinx* as a race, a race that is pitted against black people. Now, part of this is due to the narrative tension that the villain Vee creates in season 2, but this really perpetuates the false idea that Latinxs look a certain way and that black and latinx are mutually exclusive. First of all, Latinx is not a race. It’s an ethnicity that includes black people, white people, and anyone in between who claims all or a significant portion of their heritage in the Caribbean, and/or Central/South America (Equatorial Guinea may count, too, but I don’t know if people there choose to identify differently). This enmity between the black and Latina inmates ignores the reality that afrolatinxs exist.

While it’s amazing to see several Latinas in one show, there’s still this notion that Latinxs are homogenized. It’s very important to understand that Latinx is not a race and perhaps OITNB can challenge that in later seasons. Maybe one of the existing Latinas could acknowledge it. Daya seems like a natural choice since she’s more introspective, and her baby may turn out very white-passing. That and/or an afrolatina character joins the cast and causes a rift in the Litchfield inmates’ understanding of their “families.”

 

Orange is the New Black has plenty of room to further explore these issues and many more. Its popularity means that more and more people will become aware of problems that haven’t been in the spotlight. It’s a testament to the power of stories to change the way people think and hopefully future seasons will continue to engross us in stunning narratives relaying powerful themes.

 

* “Latinx” is an intentional spelling that includes genderqueer and non-binary people. When speaking about the community as a whole, I prefer using this more inclusive spelling. “Latin@,” though better than “Latino,” is still binary.

 

Finding God in Prison: Flavors of Christianity in Orange is the New Black

If you have Netflix and haven’t watched Orange is the New Black, we’re fighting.

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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.

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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

 

"Do you believe in Hussein Obama?"
“Do you believe in Hussein Obama?”

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

"I don't need sedatives! Jesus has my back!"
“I don’t need sedatives! Jesus has my back!”

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

 IngalisSophia

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.

Final Thoughts

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.