Web Only// Features » October 30, 2013
Orange Is the New Black Roundtable, Part 4: Blackface, Larry and Other Things That Make Us Go ‘Ugh’
Our experts on Julianne Hough’s Halloween costume and the surprises and disappointments of OINTB’s second half.
What I find peculiar about OITNB is how it’s been positioned as some kind of social justice project that we can all engage with (mostly from our armchairs) ... OITNB is not activism; it’s television.
By the time In These Times had recapped the first six episodes of Netflix’s surprise hit Orange is the New Black, we realized the show was sparking an amazing, and ongoing, critical dialogue. So we arranged an all-day roundtable in September to cover the series. The panelists had so much to say that at the end of the day, there were more than a few topics we just couldn’t cover. Now that our recaps are over, we’ve convened some of the original participants—and one new guest!—to cover the surprises and disappointments of the back half of the season.
Assembled for this roundtable we have yours truly, Sady Doyle, In These Times' Orange is the New Black correspondent; Lindsay Beyerstein, author of ITT's 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; Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV and founder of Women in Media and News, who’s covered OITNB for Salon; Yasmin Nair, the volunteer policy director of Gender JUST, co-founder of Against Equality and author of the article that kicked off OITNB criticism on In These Times, White Chick Behind Bars; and Michelle Dean, a cultural critic and reporter who’s covered OITNB for Flavorwire.
This time around, we're covering the disturbing developments of the season's second half: Pennsatucky's bad record with abortion clinics, Daya's pregnancy, Pornstache's downfall and that shocking final scene. SPOILERS, naturally, are abundant, so read the following abridged and edited transcript accordingly.
1. Pennsatucky did what?
Jenn Pozner: Pennsatucky's back story starts with a clinic staffer making a mean-spirited crack about her repeat abortions, and so she makes a beeline for her truck, grabs a rifle, and storms back in to gun down the woman who shamed her. Really? One of the most underreported stories of the last 40 years has been the decades-long, highly coordinated campaign of violence against the staffers and the property of women's health clinics by religious zealots—there have been murders, attempted murders, bombings and bomb threats, arson attacks, acid attacks, anthrax attacks, and so much more—often by people who call for the killing of “the baby killers” as divine intervention for Christ. So I found it weirdly bait-and-switch-y for OITNB to portray Pennsatucky as basically just an obnoxious rage-aholic who had no political or religious reason for killing that clinic staffer.
Lindsay Beyerstein: But Pennsatucky's co-optation by the Religious Right was delicious. In real life, rage-filled schlubs like Scott Roeder get seduced by anti-choice extremists before they shoot up abortion clinics. Mainstream anti-choicers exploit these dead-enders. They build them up and egg them on, and then pretend to be shocked when they shoot another abortion doctor. Pennsatucky got grandfathered into anti-choice martyrdom after her crime, but the mutually exploitative relationship between her and the anti-choicers satirizes how anti-choice groups and anti-choice terrorists use each other in real life. It's a great satire because it implies that neither the anti-choicers nor Pennsatucky give a damn about the truth. Pennsatucky gets a false heroic narrative and fictional Operation Rescue gets a faux martyr. Everybody wins!
Jamia Wilson: The part about that plot line that was a challenge for me to deal with was the prospect that the clinic staffer would slut-shame her and make her feel guilty for having had terminations in the past. Theoretically it could happen, but I think the likelihood that the shaming and blaming would come from the clinic protesters and people she ended up joining with would be more realistic.
Sady: Right. I definitely hear the complaints that Pennsatucky's abortion-clinic plot line wasn't realistic—and I think Jamia's points, that Pennsatucky would have been more likely to be mocked by the protesters and not the doctors, are well-taken. I almost think that, even if the plot had been more realistic, it would be impossible for the show's writers to present a humanizing portrait of a woman who shot up an abortion clinic without drawing feminist anger.
Jenn: I hear what you're saying, Sady, but honestly I think that's a cop-out on the part of the writers. Yes, it would be harder to humanize someone who was an active and pre-meditated anti-abortion terrorist. It takes more intense creativity and dramatic writing chops. It could be done, though; they simply didn't try. But OITNB did “write a story about a woman who shot up an abortion clinic,” they just had her do so out of spite, not religion or politics. Would they have gotten it perfectly right if they'd tried to treat her back story with more bite, where the anti-abortion terrorism is concerned? No, I'm sure they wouldn't have. But that's fine. What's not fine is making clinic violence into a joke.
Sady: But if I try to imagine myself in an OITNB writer's shoes, I imagine this plot line would be almost impossible to handle responsibly. My show's premise is “every sentence is a story,” and I'm meant to make audiences empathize with each inmate. So do I write a character who kills remorselessly, without reason? No, that's a comic-book villain, not a person, and I'll be slammed for dehumanizing a working-class incarcerated woman. Do I write about a dedicated and committed anti-choice terrorist, and try to make audiences empathize with her? No, I'll be slammed for glamorizing anti-choice bigots, and taking the wrong side in the War on Women, and probably for being an anti-choice bigot myself. Do I write a story about a woman who does commit an anti-choice crime, but not for ideological reasons, who promptly becomes a pawn and is exploited by those terrorists? Yes: That allows me to condemn those terrorists without short-changing my character's humanity. That would be my thought process, though I don't know the thought process that was actually involved.
Jenn: I would understand that thought process, sure, but that intent would still not change my point in any way: My point is that the content, not the intent, is fucked up.
2. And, speaking of abortion:
Jamia: Maria's delivery and Daya's pregnancy illustrate some of the inequity and indignity pregnant women experience while incarcerated, but I would have liked a deeper look into the realities of their lives and what pregnancy in a prison culture means, especially for women of color. I'm still trying to unpack my feelings around Daya's pregnancy and issues of consent and agency. Bennett is abusing his power and privilege and has way less to lose than Daya does, even if he is caught.
Jenn: I wrote some about this in the piece I did for Salon on the pros/cons of OITNB. The scene with Maria being denied medical attention until way late into labor, then giving birth and the baby being taken away from her (which happens off-screen), then being wheeled back into the prison in as somber a scene as if someone had died … I thought that was handled extremely well and shone a light on the dehumanizing impact of the prison industrial complex.
On the “con” side: Daya's false rape frame-up of Pornstache is so incredibly fucked up on a multilayered level that I devolve into inarticulate ranting when I think about it. Because it's not just the reinforcement of the “Women, they lie about rape! See?” myth—it also is compounded by the erasure and misrepresentation of the actual problem of rape in the prison system, which is a constant, violent threat to inmates' safety and is far too often carried out by guards. So, instead of really looking at prison rape, instead, OITNB first has Daya “love” and romance a guard (which is not romance but sexual abuse by all moral standards and most legal ones, too), ignores real sexual violence against inmates by prison guards and administrators, and then follows that up with a false rape claim. No. Just, no.
Sady: I think that the plot line is problematic, no way around it. However, I do think the “sex” with Pornstache is presented, pretty unequivocally, as a violation of Daya —it's just that the conscious (and therefore more accountable) orchestrators of that violation are women, specifically Red and Aleida.
Jenn: Sady, you raise an interesting point about Daya's sex with Pornstache being a violation orchestrated by other women. Yet the show still frames her as at best complicit in the “false rape” lie.
Sady: I also think we ought to talk about Daya's attempted abortion, which would have solved a lot of things—any thoughts on Aleida's interference there?
Jamia: Ooh, I forgot about the attempted herbal tea abortion. Aleida's interference was unwarranted, in the sense that it is up to Daya to decide what she wants to do. It is her body and her right to decide. I found myself asking the question: Is she preventing Daya from taking the tea because, as Daya's mother, she's worried what might happen with a termination that is not administered in a clean and safe space under a doctor's care, or was it because of her own ideology or personal agenda that benefits from Daya staying pregnant? Their relationship is so dysfunctional that it is so hard to know whether there was genuine concern about Daya's safety involved in the equation.
3. Psych! But not, you know, “psych.”
Sady: We really got to see a lot more of the prison’s psychiatric care in the back half of the season, which is a topic in and of itself.
Jamia: I had no idea that psych meds were given out so freely in prison until I watched OITNB. It makes sense that people would be dealing with depression and other conditions in prison, but the images of the institutional, transactional, conveyor-belt line administration of the meds in front of other inmates and prison staff really felt dehumanizing to me. I was thinking about the privilege I have of taking any medication I am prescribed without other people's surveillance (beyond the pharmacy and my doctor) and what it must feel like to have everyone else know about your health care journey without your consent or trust.
Lindsay: The show did a good job of showing the brutality of the prison hospital. Pennsatucky is clearly crazy, but the scene with the prison psychologist shows how she's also being unfairly tormented by the system.
Sady: Right. “Regular” psych wards—which include plenty of people who are taken there without consent, and which are frequently too overburdened, underfunded, and understaffed to do anything but provide basic crisis-management work—are plenty traumatic for a lot of the people who visit them. OITNB presents an absolute worst-case scenario, though: You go down once you're a problem, they dope you up to stop you from moving rather than performing any complicated and time-consuming diagnostic work, and you don't get back up, because it's too much work to rehabilitate you. I wonder if the show has done anything to make people more sympathetic, either toward people who have done their time in “normal” psych wards or to people in prison trying to manage mental health problems. I know that, for the latter set of people, treatment is frequently horrific and just as likely to result in extended, symptom-exacerbating solitary confinement as anything else, but I don't know how deeply the average OITNB viewer might be engaging with those questions.
Jamia: I say this as a fan of the show, but some of this is really problematic … The show tends to stigmatize and mock mental health issues by deploying humor and promoting stereotypes. “Crazy Eyes” is a good example. While you can tell Suzanne is obviously smart and complex in a sense, there is sort of one-dimensionality about the show's portrayal of her mental health that serves an undermining purpose that doesn't sit right with me.
Jenn: I share your concerns about “Crazy Eyes”—very much so. In fact, the first instances of her in the first couple of eps she was in almost made me stop watching the show. And while there are a lot of things I like or at least appreciate about the show, this is one of the things that makes my skin crawl: “Crazy Eyes” occupies the center of a Venn diagram of mockery of people with mental health issues, racial stereotypes, and tropes about lesbians as predatory. And what makes this most galling is that, unlike most of the main characters who have as much screen time as she does, “Crazy Eyes” doesn't get a back story in Season One. Yes, there are a couple of in-prison scenes where she is fleshed out and humanized a bit, but they take her only so far away from that Venn diagram. The idea that several of the other characters (especially the white characters— not just Piper, but Red and Alex too) get multiple flashback episodes for well-developed back stories and “Crazy Eyes” gets none was maddening to me, and seems like a damning indication that the show isn't equipped to deal with race and sexuality in as complex and productive of a way as they seemingly think they are.
Michelle Dean: A thought about this: I wondered sometimes though if this was not accurate in the aggregate, in the sense that people that most people would call “crazy” often have other parts of their personality worth exploring. You can read that as making her “magically crazy,” by giving her those depths of wisdom, Sady, but how else to approach three-dimensionality?
4. The Larry question (again)
Sady: Sadly, we should probably carve out some time to address the Alex/Piper/Larry Love Triangle, which ascended to total plot dominance in the back half of the show. Any thoughts on that?
Michelle: The usefulness of the Larry portion of the show was how it let the show get meta about the uses and limits of storytelling as an empathetic tool. Sort of like what we have been talking about! Larry writing that essay dramatically embodied all the problems with telling other people's stories. He had incomplete information from Piper, and an ax to grind against her for her involvement with Alex. And he went and molded it for the most WASP-y audience imaginable: that of a This American Life-esque radio storytelling franchise. It was kind of a genius stroke, in the sense that it took on all the questions about representation we're arguing about.
Lindsay: Larry represents everything that's annoying and fake and empty about Piper's old life. We see her grow by seeing her become less like him.
Sady: I love the idea of Larry as a meta-commentary on the structural problems the show has to deal with in order to exist, and maybe as a way of anticipating the criticisms it would receive. Seeing Larry as the embodiment of an abstract idea, like “The Problems With Telling Marginalized Stories From A Place of Privilege,” allows me to see his incredibly grating character as something intentional.
Michelle: Yeah, because otherwise, what a crap character and a waste of the audience's time.
5. The finale
Yasmin: I think it's symbolic of the politics of the show that it would end on a note of utter and complete brutality towards the person identified as “white trash.” It may well turn out that Pennsatucky's story is more complicated than we believe, but the story line throughout had been one about placing her in the position of being outside everything: race, class, even gender to a degree (she's played with a kind of gender ambiguity). I was struck by the way Piper beats her up almost to the point of annihilation, and we can hear the effects of the blows on skin, flesh and bone.
I generally don't like the way that nearly every group these days manages to insist that it's the “last group it's okay to hate”—the logic of such statements generally avoids the systemic ways that inequality and oppression can and do work. That being said, it really is okay in culture at large to not just dislike but hate, actively hate, poor people—and if they're white and have problematic politics around race and sexuality, it allows the rest of us to be incredibly smug about how much more “enlightened” we are. Mostly, I think, the extreme violence of that last scene was a way for the show to reconcile a lot of its unease around both race and gender: It needed to find a lynchpin, in brief, and Piper couldn't have beaten up anyone of color or an identifiable queer: They'd never have been allowed back with a second season. But beat up the hateful white trash? Voila! Perfect ending.
Lindsay: This might be the only show on Netflix where the self-identified agnostic beats up the Christian and everybody cheers. I'm okay with that. Every drama needs a villain. Why not an abortion clinic shooter? White racism and religious fanaticism are far greater threats than any of the petty crimes that landed most of the other characters in jail. Pennsatucky represents what's truly evil and dangerous in our society, as opposed to the pseudo-threats that most of the other prisoners represent. It was cheap to make her a hillbilly meth addict, but apart from the class aspect, I thought she made a great villain.
Sady: I also think—and I'm riffing off some other recappers here—that having Piper erupt in violence was also a way for the show to remove the last elements of the “fish out of water story” that some viewers found so (logically) offensive. Piper's no longer a suburban white woman who's super-nice and has never done anything wrong: She's a fuck-up, who's done bad things, and she's even capable of appalling violence. Her character is less elevated above the other inmates, because she’s done something worse than most other inmates would be capable of.
Yasmin: True, and there's an interesting discussion to be had about the “fish out of water” plot line, and how it may been reconciled based on viewer feedback, but I'd still argue that in the context of whom she beat up, that last act almost redeems her—and I think that's why it had to be Pennsatucky. Anyone else, and it would have been too much.
Jenn: I agree with you, Yasmin, almost 90 percent about the representation of class in the show and in larger media culture. Where I disagree, pretty heartily, is your conclusion that the final scene could not have involved Piper beating the crap out of a person of color or a queer person. When is corporate media uncomfortable with fetishizing violence against people of color or queer people? I'm sure that yes, representing “white-on-white” violence made the liberal white audience more comfortable than if Piper had beaten up, say, “Crazy Eyes”—but I don't think for a minute that Netflix (or most networks) would have penalized the show if it had chosen to have Piper be that violent against a person of color or LGBT character. Violence against people of color and queer characters is very, very prevalent on network television, especially in procedural crime dramas. I doubt it would even have generated much more than a blink.
Lindsay: Jenn, it wouldn't have worked on this show. OITNB is about humanizing women in prison, particularly women of color. Piper is a sympathetic character, not an anti-hero, so she can't beat anyone up unless the audience thinks the target has it coming. Piper's not only acting in self-defense against Pennsatucky, she's forced to fend for herself because Officer Healy has left her to die. I can't imagine OITNB writing a major WOC character as malicious and dangerous as Pennsatucky.
Yasmin: Hmm … I would have to disagree with that, actually. I do see significant shifts in the media landscape, where, in fact, shows do get written differently these days. And I think that while that may well have happened on a “regular” network show, Netflix TV shows are a somewhat different entity. I'd like to see more about how a Netflix show gets funded, which I imagine is rather different from how a CBS show gets funded.
I also want to be very clear: I'm not by any means saying there's a vast sea change in media, and that we're now able to watch unproblematic representations of queers and POCs everywhere. But I am saying that Netflix is run differently, and that OITNB in particular brought with it the baggage of the massive criticism faced by Weeds, which ran on a “regular” network, for being so blatantly racist. I think [OINTB and Weeds creator] Jenji Kohan had to work against the backlash, and I also think that having editorial freedom amongst writers and the creative team doesn't mean that a show will be unproblematic. That said, I do think that this show works too hard to be “right” on a lot of things. There's a lot of white guilt in OITNB, as well as some troubling politics around the relationship of white people to jail. For me, OITNB is part of a genre that I think of as Dora The Explorer for white women who want to fantasize about what it means to fall from certain heights of privilege.
6. Uh-oh, the fans.
Michelle: This [Julianne Hough's appearance as “Crazy Eyes” in blackface for Halloween] made me choke on my coffee just now.
Sady: Oh. Oh, dear.
Lindsay: My word.
Jamia: OH. HELL. NO.
Sady: Well, if nothing else, this leads us into something we covered last time: Yasmin's point about how much “change” this show can realistically accomplish. I'd like to think it challenges people to broaden the scope of their empathy—and would expect there to be clueless folks in any fan group, although they're not always semi-well-known actresses like Julianne Hough—but something like this seems to demonstrate pretty clearly that folks are missing a huge portion of the point. Thoughts?
Michelle: I generally take the position that white Hollywood actresses are … less adept at addressing complicated issues than the general population. So things like this can rarely be taken as wider symbols. That said, I have heard the point you've made before, Jamia. On OITNB, my sense throughout is that Kohan was aware of these kind of audience responses, and in David-Chase-like fashion, occasionally toying with them. That seems to have been the point of the “Crazy Eyes” evolution. However clumsily accomplished— and I would agree this was inelegant—it's clear to me the plan with “Crazy Eyes” was to trigger racist reactions in both Piper and the audience and then force the audience to confront them. The point being that it's not just the extension of imaginative sympathy that counts in creating a show. It's being aware of the way sympathy, in and of itself, can turn ugly.
Jamia: A friend and I were talking about how triggering it is to be women of color watching shows with white people who are laughing at people of color's pain, especially during moments that are decidedly not comedic. We were talking about it in the context of movies like 12 Years A Slave and The Butler, but I think it applies to OITNB too. Some of the scenes, characters, and tropes I've heard white people laughing about on the show make me really uncomfortable, and I wonder if the laughter is nervous and uncomfortable, or lampoonery. It's a sidebar, but I have been thinking a lot about humor and comedy and its ability to unify—but it can also lead some people to miss the depth of important messages about race, gender, and class.
Yasmin: This will sound jaded, but I’m completely unsurprised about this latest bit of news about Hough, and I fully expect that there will be many “Crazy Eyes” costumes sprouting up all over the country (and possibly the world) this week, and for years down the line. What this raises for me is a set of issues about the relationship between media, and television, and the set of social issues it takes on.
To me, this is also very much connected to the issue of whether or not, for instance, Laverne Cox’s presence on this show is dramatically useful for trans representation or not, and what the logic of representation really means in this context. In the case of Cox, I’ve been somewhat bemused by the ways in which people have blurred the line between the character she plays and who she is. That’s in many ways understandable: Her presence is groundbreaking, and will be for many years, I suspect. What I’ve found problematic in all of this is the way … the first response [to critiques] has been, “Yes, but look, Laverne Cox, and why can’t you just be happy, and, yay, trans representation!” I’m obviously reducing the many complex strands of cultural conversations here to some degree, but that’s how they tend to play out.
In the end, OINTB is a television show. Yes, we should care about how it represents people and experiences, and who plays characters, and everything else. But there’s much, much harder work to be done in terms of race, gender, sexuality and gender identity—and the fact that the prison-industrial complex inflicts continual damage on bodies and lives and needs to be demolished.
What I find peculiar about OITNB is how it’s been positioned as some kind of social justice project that we can all engage with (mostly from our armchairs). It’s not, and I write that as someone who does actively concern herself with prison-industrial complex issues. It’s a television show, made by particular economic interests that will pander to particular desires and prejudices. If we want to stop white women (or, for that matter, I’d argue, even women of color) parading around as “Crazy Eyes” every Halloween, we might want to start thinking about OITNB as a representation, not as a reflection, of society at large. [We should] set about changing the conditions that allow not just [Hough] but thousands of white people to run around in thoughtless costumes and set about changing the conditions of economic inequality that render some people more vulnerable than others. To me, as an activist, the latter is much more important, frankly. As a critic, I fail to understand why anyone would be surprised that a television show’s characters will inevitably be reified in particular ways by dominant communities.
OITNB is not activism; it’s television.
Sady: Right. My general philosophy is that it’s better to screw up at something good than to succeed at something bad; while I admire OITNB’s ambition, I don’t think it always succeeds, and I don’t think it will resolve the problems we’re talking about just by existing. Frankly, I’m just glad it exists, because I can’t think of any other show that could give us so much to talk about.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Sady Doyle is an In These Times Staff Writer. She also contributes regularly to Rookie Magazine, and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. She's the winner of the first Women's Media Center Social Media Award. She's interested in women in pop culture, women creating pop culture, reproductive rights, and women's relationship to the Internet and the Left. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady