Season Four of 'Orange Is the New Black' Has a Race Problem
When Orange Is the New Black first came out, I fell in love with it immediately.
I loved watching Taystee talk about waking up with barbeque sauce on her breasts; I loved seeing the evolution of the friendship between Flaca and Maritza; I loved following Poussey’s relatable search for love. Sure, the show is set in a prison, but these were characters with depth and wit who looked like me, and that was enough.
Until it wasn’t.
Season four of Orange Is the New Black has forever changed the way I look at the show. As a black disabled woman fed up with the lack of non-stereotypical roles afforded to marginalized people, I have long been drawn to the show’s complex women of color characters. But the constant violence and anti-blackness that defined the most recent season felt less like a valuable examination of issues facing marginalized communities, and more like an affront to them.
To be clear, there was a lot about the most recent season that I enjoyed. The acting was commendable; in fact, it was the only thing that allowed me to finish the season. There were funny one-liners to provide levity amid the despair, and I was particularly fond of the very end of the last episode, when Daya grabbed the gun of one of the most malicious guards, Humphrey. I liked that despite everything that occurred, they all banded together after Poussey’s death.
The latest season deserves some credit for incorporating realistic, challenging themes into the show. But at some point, it crossed a critical line, and went from accurately reflecting racism—to actively perpetuating it.
From its inception, Orange Is the New Black has used flashbacks to help the audience better understand and relate to its characters. When used to contextualize the experiences of the imprisoned characters, this narrative device has helped dispel negative stereotypes about people—and particularly people of color—who end up behind bars. It’s not that these characters are “bad,” the show reveals to the audience, but that they’ve often been failed by a flawed system.
In season two, for instance, we learned that Gloria was arrested for foodstamp fraud, which she engaged in so she could leave her abusive boyfriend and protect her child. Sophia was arrested for credit card fraud, the result of trying to pay for her sex-reassignment therapy and buy sneakers for her son, who was struggling with her socially unsanctioned transition. Poussey—not coincidentally, a black woman—was arrested because cops found less than an ounce of marijuana in her backpack while out in New York City before she was scheduled to go to West Point.
Season four also used this device to make us understand the experiences of some of its other underprivileged characters; we learned, for instance, that fan favorite Suzanne, who lives with an unidentified but clearly stated mental disability, was held responsible for the death of a little boy she met at a park and took home with her for a “weekend video game session” while her caretaker sister, who encouraged her to make friends, was away for the weekend.
Yet this season also used the flashback device in a more problematic way: to make the audience excuse the behavior of racist, misogynistic guards in positions of power. For instance, it was revealed that Sam, the officer and inmate counselor, had a mother who was likely schizophrenic, which was used to explain away his inappropriate need to “save” inmates. Another guard, Baxter, who would go on to kill someone (more on that later), was portrayed in flashbacks as a hapless young kid with troublemaker friends whom he just couldn’t say no to. The show made no effort to reflect on the white male privilege that allowed him to get off with just a stern warning—and later to become a corrections officer—after he broke the law by trespassing.
Using tragic backstory to essentially absolve someone of their wrongdoings can be dangerous, and in this case, it was clearly problematic. It’s one thing to contextualize criminal behavior by exposing systemic issues that drive it; it’s another to suggest that certain circumstances excuse racism, misogyny, and murder.
Similarly, the show’s writers worked hard this season to make us understand, if not outright side with, Piper and her white power movement, which she started in response to the Dominicans mimicking her dirty panty business. As part of this storyline, the black inmates were referred to as “monkey” and “Darkie,” racist comments that did nothing to move along the narrative and which were never properly contextualized. Because they were tossed off and never brought up again, the comments seemed designed for shock value, rather than to add anything of actual value to the conversation about race.
Moreover, instead of highlighting how wrong it was of Piper to get the guards to unfairly stop and frisk inmates of color as an act of retaliation, the writers breezed past the injustice, insisting that Piper didn’t mean to start a race war, and making a black character toss off a line about how black people “can be racist,” too. When Piper was branded with a swastika after these retaliation attempts led to a lengthened sentence for the head of the Dominican panty business, she was coddled and reassured that she was a good person, her friends firmly in her corner. Instead of illuminating her white privilege, the show’s writers presented Piper as the narrative’s victim; the true one hurting, even as she refused to take accountability for her actions.
But the biggest issue of the season was the violence. Violence was the blood running through season four’s veins. There was the time that Officer Humphrey made Maritza eat a baby rat while holding her at gunpoint; the sexual violation of the inmates during stop and frisk; and Humphrey and the other guards forcing Suzanne and Maureen to fight while they placed bets on who would win, with Maureen ending up in the infirmary after setting Suzanne off by calling her crazy.
The most significant act of violence this season, though, was the murder of Poussey at the hands of Baxter during a protest of unfair treatment by the guards. The overeager and green corrections officer tackled Poussey as she rushed to stop Suzanne from doing anything that would land her in psych. He pressed the full weight of his body into her back until she could no longer breathe; her body was then left on the cafeteria floor for hours with only a blanket covering her.
Does this kind of racist violence happen in the real world? Obviously yes—in fact this scene seemed an obvious nod to the high-profile, real-world deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—and it’s a very serious problem that we should talk about. But the relentlessness of the negative storylines surrounding women of color characters, culminating in this harrowing death, ultimately made the season feel oppressively hopeless—while raising the question, Who is all this pain for? Is it productively furthering the national discourse surrounding race and power paradigms—or serving up bleak narratives about the experience of people of color for the entertainment of those who have never lived those experiences?
The writers room looks to have no black writers, a problem that perhaps helps explains why this season seemed to land in the realm of exploitation, rather than thoughtful examination. The racist comments and tragic backstories didn’t seem to serve anyone but the apologists who don’t need another reason to justify their hatred.
As people of color, my friends and I already know what it’s like to live the pain of our modern world—what does it say when in fiction, we also can’t have happy endings? Moreover, what does it say when we’re asked to feel sorry for the people responsible for the racial oppression that not only thwarts these happy endings, but causes the death of people who look like us?
After years building up storylines in which people of color were able to regain control in a system set up to oppress them, this season suggested that it’s not even worth trying to fight back, because the power structure can’t change and those abusing it will not only always avoid accountability, but have their reasons for acting the way they do.
I used to love Orange Is the New Black, but this season just left me grappling with a troubling thought: Can there ever be justice for people of color?