Black trauma should not be mocked or used for distorted conceptions of art.
By Rachael Edwards
Last weekend, I decided to watch the latest season of Orange is the New Black. Admittedly, I felt guilty for succumbing to boredom and pledging my allegiance to a whole weekend of Netflixing with no chill, but why not?
Before season four, I was a devoted fan. However, after watching Black trauma being dangled over our heads and paraded around for good ratings and the sake of staying relevant, I made the premature assumption that I was not going to watch the next season. But I foolishly decided to continue watching.
If you watched season four, you know that it ended on a cliffhanger with Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun at the prison guard, Humps (Michael Torpey). This scene followed the eruption in the cafeteria where Poussey (Samira Wiley) is suffocated to death under the knee of the white, irresponsible, poorly-trained prison guard. I’m still not sure if the scene of Daya pointing a gun at a prison guard was a way to pacify Black viewers after watching Poussey’s limp body on that cold prison floor, but still – fuck ya’ll for that.
Season five opens up with Daya still holding the gun and eventually shooting Humps in the leg and as a result, a days-long prison resistance ensues. Taystee (Yvonne Parker) takes on the responsibility of trying to avenge her best friend’s death through negotiations. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) is cuddling up to her rapist. Red (Kate Mulgrew) is trying to make sure that Piscatella (Brad William Henke) gets due justice after hurting her and her ducklings.
Quite frankly, this season was a web of storylines that lacked depth, was short-sighted, and is still playing with fire as it pertains to their Black characters.
The stigma around medication and mental illnesses were repeatedly brought up this season. It is an essential conversation that is happening in communities of color and if it is going to be brought into a series (WRITTEN BY WHITE WOMEN), it should be handled with extra precaution.
White women love to obsess over our narratives and they get it wrong every time. Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) argues with Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) because Lorna does not readily hand her her medication. Lorna suggests that Crazy Eyes does not need medication and that the medication was hindering her from being herself.
Lorna’s interaction with Crazy Eyes has been minimal throughout all the seasons of OITNB and the writers thought it be a good idea for the first real interaction between these characters was to paint Lorna as sympathetic and giving Crazy Eyes (C.E.) good medical advice?! Please. This caused great turmoil for C.E. as she was visibly growing ill, was bullied, tied to the bed, mocked by white prisoners who white-faced her with baby powder. Then she was told she was “fixed” because her skin was white.
The writers of this show seem to think that their advocacy for C.E., who openly discusses her disability with prisoners, is well-meaning, yet the execution is just not good enough. Here’s a thought – maybe hire disabled Black writers. That might help.
It gets worse.
I’m being honest in saying, I was never impressed by Pennsatucky’s storyline. I thought her accent was kind of cute but other than that I could not relate. You know what got me? Watching her fall in love with the prison guard who raped her. Initially, I thought it was a nuanced take of a victim of sexual assault empathizing with her assailant, especially since Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) was helping her stay away from that toxic fuck of a man. Wrong. My gag reflex was triggered as I watched the writers romanticize and humanize her rapist.
This is not feminist, hell, it’s anti-woman, period. There were so many ways the writers could have taken this, romanticizing rapists is not one. In fact, didn’t we have to suffer through watching her do this last season? Wasn’t one season enough?
In the closing scenes of this season, Pennsatucky could be found snuggling close to her rapist as they watch television in an old abandoned prison guard hangout house. While I never cared much about this character, I was so angry.
The message this sends is that we can reform rapists through the power of love and that the violence on our bodies, as women/femmes can be fixed if we love them and they show us “love”. Prison rape is rape. Rape is not a toy or a tool for juicy entertainment, it is an act of violence. Pennsatucky should have nailed his ass to the cross in the prison chapel. Praise Jesus.
Oh, but that’s not it. In the midst of a chaos, gunshots, there is a scene where the guards are talking to each other on their walkie-talkies, notifying one another that there is an active shooter in the prison. I remember this moment vividly because I still have the crimson wine stain on my baby blue sheets where I tipped my glass over. The (ONLY) Black prison guard asks the other two white guards if Humps is going all “Charleston, South Carolina” on them.
Excuse me? Did I miss something? Does Litchfield only hold all Black prisoners? Did Humps ever suggest he was a white supremacist out to end the lives of innocent Black people? *Sigh* Beloved. I can’t even begin to articulate how I felt – how I know other Black viewers felt watching this – enraged. Confused. Shocked, but not surprised.
We are in an age where the tragedies of Black people are being integrated into pop culture. The dangers of this are dire – hate crimes are skyrocketing since the 2016 presidential election. Every week we hear about places of worship being violated, children being bullied for being Black or Muslim, and assaults of people of color from one end of the country to the next. REAL PEOPLE ARE LOSING THEIR REAL LIVES.
Black trauma should not be mocked or used for distorted conceptions of art. I want to be very clear that media is more likely to mock Black trauma before anything else.
The writers of OITNB are still exploiting their Black characters. They have developed the skill of simultaneously centering the plight of the white characters, and they throw in Black trauma for courtesy and call it a good, relevant storyline. It is an injustice to this (faux) intersectional feminist show.
This season to say the least is entangled with major issues. The writers can’t seem to find their way out of this messy web. It wasn’t worth watching. You cannot write about the experiences of women/femmes of color and not include us in the writing rooms. It’s 2017. I love the woment of color who are a part of the OITNB cast, but I just cannot get behind how the writers are choosing to deal with the characters that are supposed to represent WoC.
Should they continue releasing seasons, it is imperative that OITNB writers hire Black femmes and women writers. If you are going to watch this season: watch it with caution.
Author Bio: Rachael is a writer based in Baltimore who loves to disrupt society and engage in conversations that challenge us to be better humans. Rachael’s work centers Black women and our experiences. On her down time she performs, floods your Instagram timelines with selfies and eats fish tacos. You can find her here: Twitter Website Instagram