Where to begin with season 4 of Orange is the New Black. I marathoned through this season on a Monday, having passively watched the first half to the season that Saturday without really paying attention. Then I got to episode 8 and realized it was getting real, so I rewinded back to the beginning to give it my full attention. After a melodramatic Season 3, I was not expecting this season to come back with such a bang. But consider the time, consider the year, consider yesterday….everyday this year feels like too damn much. And OITNB rolled up that feeling packing it into the last 4 episodes of this season.
Some have called it Trauma Porn, with a blatant focus on Black Lives Matter, systematic racism, white patriarchy, transphobia, the oppressive structure and degradation of human rights in the US for-profit prison system, and the islamophobia (that’s scantily being discussed), OITNB went for the jugular of the oppression awards and gave us no break from all the times we’ve asked “is this really 2016 and not 1952?”
This is not a review suggesting that I have the right opinion on #OITNB. I am critiquing based on my preview, as a heterosexual cisgender Black woman. When we watch characters that we see ourselves in, we take it very personally because we want their storyline to go in ways that we explicitly approve of. When Black Cindy goes off spewing Islamophobic jokes at another Black inmate or when she implies that Black people can be racist, we take issue because we saw ourselves in Black Cindy. We feel that her actions imply that we are the same way. But we are not monolithic and each character no matter how much we believe they individually represent us, is an amalgamation of the diverse people within our subgroups.
Many themes were heavily highlighted in this season:
- Even the oppressed and can be oppressive and active members in keeping together a system of oppression.
- How easy and mindlessly one can invoke privilege, often white privilege, via apathy, becoming the main pillars of oppression.
- Black Lives Matter and respectability politics.
- The facade of liberal ideals in the contrasting relationship of Yoga Jones and Judy King. Race relations in the Latino community.
White fragility was presented, almost to an exhausting level. But everyone who watches is not woke and some themes that felt exhausting, like they were beaten over your head leaving you bone weary were for the audience who’s never had to see the world outside of their lived experience. This is for the people who actually like or relate to Piper — maybe not this season, but for every person who didn’t have a visceral reaction to Piper in Season One, as I assume most Black women did.
The character arcs I was most emotionally attached were Lolly and her battle with schizophrenia, Suzanne formerly known as Crazy Eyes and her whole storyline this season, and of course Poussey. The actress who played a young Lolly was spot on and yes it was two different actresses. Lolly humanized the struggle of dealing with mental illness and how society viewing someone as simply “crazy” removes their right to ever live a truly fulfilling life. Did she really end up in jail on the other side of the country for resisting arrest? Same thing with Crazy Eyes, which I was totally not prepared for at all. The ugly cry was deep in my chest because again it was just so visceral, how she ended up in jail was such an unnecessary situation. I have so many questions about why her sister didn’t hire a caretaker for her, or have her stay with someone else, even a co-worker, while she went on vacation? I knew when she showed up at the park and saw the little boy who she already knew where it was headed but how quickly it escalated entirely caught me off guard.
All the white characters were absolutely annoying. Literally I’ve been digested more than enough from Underground to Roots to OJ Simpson’s 30 for 30 and now this season of OITNB, to not trust a white person for three lifetimes. Piper is insufferable. Not a single white character stood up aside from Sister Ingalls and Danny Pearson fighting to get Sophia out of solitary confinement. Every other white person stood idly aside as Piper spurred a White Power Aryan gang to protect her business interests, as COs employed the broken window theory to traumatically damning results. The Latinas and Black women were not inherently violent, until Piper’s racist gang began to wreak havoc on the minimal livelihood they held on to in the prison. It was the white women who caused the disruption that they were then allowed to police it and created cycle of violence that sat squarely on the foundation of white privilege.
Throughout all the corrections officers (CO) we see an exertion of male and white male privilege, in the most grotesque forms as one guard forces Maritza to get a live mouse and then the haphazard apology from CO Coates to Pennsatucky, who is sorely in need of love even from her rapist. It was uncomfortable watching Pennsatucky endear herself to Coates, after he apologized for raping her. How far off is this from the discussion around Ray and Janay Rice? Who authorizes a domestic abuse or rape victim’s right to forgive and just exist? Is there a larger conversation or I am right to just be infuriated with Pennsatucky’s character arc and another CO not receiving any sort of punishment for his actions.
Back to the ain’t shittedness of white people, Yoga Jones sis…I was disgusted but so happy her character highlighted the utter bullshit of liberal white people who can speak on but never act on dismantling systems of oppression. Yoga Jones was the perfect subtly elitist and racist liberal like status quo. It was a great parallel to see the easy to despise Judy King highlight Yoga Jones own shortcomings. King was a mirror image of Paula Deen who thought throwing money at folks would make people look past her blatant bigotry. For all her seeming to turn a tide as she pantomimed through a relationship with Black Cindy, she did what every other white person did, even when she had the explicit ability to change the tide and advocate for the rights of Poussey. King did nothing. Low-key King’s character say’s a lot about own inaction, when we have a chance to stand for something but it requires self sacrifice and we quickly turn inward in the name of “self preservation.”
Caputo frustrated me the most. You just wanted him to wake up, how hard is it to understand the weight of the injustices happening to your inmates and still you just such a simp that you never speak up for them. In the one moment he had, he used it to defend his CO with no mention of any inmate, even as Poussey’s body still lay cold on the ground. It was exacerbating watching these characters invoking their privilege to just check out, go home, walk through the war zone and only caring about their own.
The Black Women, so much, we can have an infinite conversation about their character treatment. Black Cindy is a quizzical character. She converted to Judaism last season and the joy she found in that awakening was fun to watch. But her Israel vs. Palestine beef was Alison the Muslim inmate was hard to stomach. That a Black woman would freely express Zionistic and xenophobia as humor, when I perceive her to be so much smarter than that. I wanted to like Cindy and she kept spewing damning rhetoric and to say that Black can be racist, then highlight all the reason that we are not, because racism requires power…like come on sis. I have definitely encountered women like her, in my own comment section. Outside of this conversation I would like you as a person, but within this conversation I cannot morally fuck with you. I do not do respectability politics and that was Cindy all the way. I don’t know why they had Allison show her cool-aid red locs at the end of the season, like okay she’s a Philly Muslim, we got it.
It’s also been critiqued that the Black women are not shown experiencing any joy or there is no Black love exhibited; suggesting that the Black women were reduced to the mammy trope. That’s a worthwhile critique, though I didn’t walk away with that feeling. Tastee is smart without any structure or support system that would allow her to flourish. As Caputo’s assistant is was hilarious but sad, and Danielle Brooks acted her ass off this season. She was a protector especially over Suzanne but we walked through her relationship with Poussey previously and she asserted that she had no interest in a sexual relationship with a woman. I can own that as a heterosexual woman my missing that no Black on Black love was shown though white inmates were paired together for intimate relationships, was on account of my own bias. I didn’t see any of the relationships as desirable, they were either manipulative, one-sided or revolved around drugs and negativity. So to not see any of the Black women inmates participate in that with each other, read to me like they were better than that.
And while the Poussey/Soso read as very genuine, real relationship, I do have to stop and think about why none of them were shown as being in loving relationships outside of prison, in their flashbacks? The one hint at Poussey’s girlfriend in Europe was volatile as they weren’t accepted by family.
While enjoying the development of the characters and the dialogue around the xenophobia and racism that exists in that community, especially the humor used to highlight the absurdity of Dominicans xenophobia towards Haitians, the Latina characters all played into the trope of being subservient and hot in the bedroom women to their men. Like Blanca going hard with the lawn care guy. It all felt very heavy handed and stereotypical. Sidebar: I totally forgot that Maria gave birth while in prison. That the bulk of the Latina women are shown to have relationships outside of prison with flashbacks showing how the relationships developed, a treatment void in any of the Black women characters.
Finally addressing Poussey’s death. I still don’t know that I’ve processed it. It was absolutely heart wrenching and infuriating on a deeply personal level, but I think thats why the killed off Poussey and not some other nondescript minor character. Yes we can say we are sad for Freddy Gray, Trayvon, Michael and Eric. Retweet a link about Renisha McBride, share in remembrance a Sandra Bland video, but how often are we moved to invested action. And in these instances action really is motivated by anger, do we en masse really get there? There’s always a disconnect because these people as they are not personally tied to us. Except Poussey most definitely is and that’s why we are so disgusted and want to discuss and watch and have GroupMe chats about it. But we don’t do the same for people IRL.
Poussey being presented as a respectable bougie Black person, highlighted that respectability saves no one. The prisons PR guy hastily notes that she was picked up for having a blunt, maybe next season the mechanics that landed her in jail for at least a year will be shown, as a nod to Kalief Browder. But being a presentable, educated Black person won’t’ save you in a world that views your melanin as the base of your criminality.
Was Baxter’s backstory necessary? It wasn’t necessary for us, for Black people, woke people, women who understand the weight of intersectionality and the various forms of oppression that attempt to keep us down. But it was for all the others, who say the police officer made a snap judgment with no time to spare, Zimmerman feared for his life, he wasn’t violent, he was good. Look at Brock Turner the Stanford swimmer who had hopes of the Olympics, Oh what a charming young white man, he can do no wrong. Baxter’s narrative is endearing to white people, and then we see how shifting the focus on Poussey’s murder to how Baxter needs to be saved is further suffocating an already cold body. I don’t think it was right and I honestly didn’t play much attention to his scenes, but I chalked it up to proving a point to folks who cared. I did not.
I’m tepid with my criticism on Poussey’s death because other than keeping her alive, I don’t know what resolve the pain I feel over it. I walked into this knowing that I want the story to be told a particular way because I see so much of myself in that character, but then is her story just for me? Every criticism I have around it, is paralleled to real life situations. All of the white characters inaction like literally the whole world. Maritza and Marisol crassly joking about it much like trolls on social media, Judy King not speaking out like hey everyone on YouTube with a large platform, Caputo doing no more than what any DA has done, standing behind the brothers in blue. If I criticize what I am suggesting is the right way. I am so at a lost in this.
I don’t know that I will be that invested with next season, because I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to see my people degraded any more.
Overall I do have a high appreciation for the show, because for all our criticisms and discussions, this was a comedy series, and the prison system in the United States is not a cake walk. They have yet to address the limited access these women have to lawyers, there’s been no legal action taken against the prison, we get the flashbacks but never the connecting moments that lead to them being sentenced….
OITNB needs to diversify more than their cast, as their writers and producers are mostly if not all white. Leaving Brenda Nasr’s comment to be accurate summation of the exploitation that is definitely taking place.
Season Four still didn’t answer what happened to Ms. Claudette.