Orange is the New Black – The Problem With an Unbiased Lens

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Orange is the New Black has been hailed by many for giving a voice to those who are largely considered voiceless – women prisoners representing a diverse range of sexualities, ethnicities and faiths. The stories that are depicted on the Netflix original are often ones which have yet to be shown on a popular TV show before while refraining from fetishizing queer relationships or vilifying working class black and Latina women. In the fifth and latest season of the show, Litchfield is in the midst of a prison-wide riot with the guards being held hostage while the prisoners hold the power. Certain characters are given the opportunity to truly shine this season – principally Tasty, who takes it upon herself to lead negotiations to not only improve the quality of life for the inmates, but to see that Poussey Washington’s murderer is arrested. Piper proposes to Alex, bringing their drawn-out relationship to a surprisingly positive place wherein the two women are now officially engaged and Soso is given an opportunity to grieve.

Not everyone is depicted in a redeeming light now that they have their newfound freedom – which is to be expected. Given the abuse that many of the inmates have endured over the past four seasons, they can hardly be blamed for their distaste towards the guards and the prison system as a whole. The unbiased lens which helped to authentically portray queer women and women of colour in the past however, leaves us with not a sense of unification with the characters, but with one of unease. The relationship between Tiffany – or Pennsatucky as she is often called, and Officer Coates has been a hotly debated topic since their first interaction in the third season. Initially beginning as a possibly sweet dynamic, Coates quickly turned abusive and raped Pennsatucky, with it being heavily inferred that this behaviour continued until she quit her position as driver. Instead of being reported, Coates continued in his position without any accusations against him. Although unsatisfying and upsetting, this is fairly realistic – many women feel unable to report their abusers, and the power dynamic in a prisoner-guard relationship only amplifies this.

The problem with their relationship in season five is that it is romanticised heavily – at one point Coates watches Pennsatucky masturbate and then they have sex. Outside of Boo’s judgement of the relationship, which is often depicted as irrational and possessive, there seems to be no judgement of this. Coates apologised and that is seemingly enough for Pennsatucky, who has a history of sexual assault. It’s believable that Pennsatucky might have conflicted views towards her abuser given that being a survivor is a complicated position to navigate and no judgement should be placed upon her for this decision – but the show’s decision to glorify this relationship instead of condemning it as abusive is frankly insulting to survivors of sexual assault. The two end the series cuddling in Coates’ house and watching television together while the other inmates are ferried into buses leading to an unknown location. It is, seemingly, the ‘happy ending’ of the finale, showing the two happily together while others are in misery.

Other male abusers in the show are not left unpunished, even if their punishment is not always satisfying. George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez is sent to prison, Piscatella meets his untimely end in the finale of this season and C.O Bayley, who murdered Poussey Washington last season, seems to be avoiding prison in spite of his attempts to turn himself in, but is shown riddled with guilt and depression due to his actions. Hopefully, the next season will see him prosecuted, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Given this track record, Coates being seemingly unpunished for his crimes is unsatisfying and serves to belittle the severity of his crimes. Sexual assault is common in the show, which is justified given the rates of sexual assault within prisons, but its reluctance to judge when it comes to this topic undermines its previous triumphs for equality. Aside from Boo’s plan which went unfinished, Coates has not only managed to avoid punishment for his crime, but is being rewarded with Pennsatucky’s affection. Rapists in Orange is the New Black need to be condemned, from Alex’s threat to assault Pennsatucky in the first season to Leanne’s sexual assault of a guard in season five.

Condemning other crimes but remaining unbiased on sexual assault shows a lack of responsibility on behalf of the writers, one which I hope they will attempt to correct in the following seasons. Orange is the New Black is a rich, diverse show, standing as one of Netflix’s most successful originals, and it would be a shame for this to tarr an otherwise excellent program.

Nevertheless, I implore that you watch this season – and if you’ve never watched before, give the show a chance. For its faults, it still remains one of the most poignant and important shows currently being aired.

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