Netflix’s most watched original series Orange is the New Black has done a lot in four seasons. And while the show receives scrutiny for romanticizing and idealizing prison life, after all, prison is not in any way a comedy-drama, the show has managed to do a lot right. It has increased trans visibility, hosted a slew of people of color at the frontline of the series, and most importantly, has revealed the horrors of our criminal justice system in ways most of us never knew existed. Statistics alone regarding abuse and mistreatment probably wouldn’t have the same effect on people as relating to and sympathizing with characters before seeing them suffer unjustly in emotional, social, and physical turmoil.
I argue that OITNB has outdone itself by flirting with blurry lines of moral reasoning in socially complex environments, particularly in the recently released Season 4 of the series. And there are two acts in particular that stand out as some of the most heinous and how the show has dealt with them this season in particular speaks volumes: rape and murder.
This season manages to do something incredible with these despicable acts, it humanizes them. It sets them in tricky circumstances when we know both aggressor and victim, and questions of accountability and blameworthiness aren’t as stark as we’d like.
Born-again Christian Tiffany Doggett at one point in the series is assigned van duty, driving alongside correctional officer Charlie “Donuts” Coates, a friendly-faced man with whom she becomes friends. They take trips to a nearby pond, she imitates a duck, and the friendship grows, or so it seems. After getting disciplined by superior Caputo, Coates lashes out in rage and rapes Tiffany in a horrific scene, one in which we are reminded of her past, when she was frequently abused and raped, to the point that she became complacent in this act of savagery.
Most viewers initially despised Doggett, the character who ended the Season 1 finale by brutalizing the protagonist, Piper Chapman. Her over-the-top devotion to the hate-filled God above terrified most. Yet seeing a character like Doggett raped in this intense scene is difficult to ignore. And despite what one may think of her, it becomes clear that this is wrong.
In Season 4, Doggett would occasionally interact with C.O. Coates, exchanging brief snippets of conversation, but nothing like before. Everything has changed, and while neither can fully express themselves, the relationship’s dynamic has turned entirely upside-down, with the victim finding herself having to see her rapist on the regular.
At one point, after many, many uncomfortable exchanges, Coates finally approaches Doggett and apologizes. He says that he regrets doing what he has and if he could do it over again he would want their relationship to have developed very different (i.e. not raping her), which he never seems to bring himself to say aloud, either because of denial or shame we can never say for sure. Doggett seems rather receptive to his apology and forgives him. That is, until Boo finds out and states that regardless of what he has said, in her eyes, Coates will always be a rapist.
Boo ultimately, I argue, represents femme rage. She embodies a sort of straightforwardness with her gender identity and her sexual orientation that may be more clearcut than that of most characters. And along with that comes an unwillingness to equate rape with any other crime. It isn’t as petty as stealing, nor as arbitrary as drug possession, nor as final as murder. It is a grotesque physical and psychological invasion of one’s bodies, something that scars the victim on multiple levels, and it seems as though Boo is well aware of this. As such, she has the most difficult time accepting Coates’ apology, thoroughly and completely disgusted with him, and only seems to forgive him after letting herself lash out and hit him, a correctional officer, a crime that undoubtedly carries with it a hefty penalty. But Coates doesn’t retaliate or give her a shot; he accepts it and the show continues.
Rape nearly always involves a drastic power dynamic between the aggressor and victim. Being in social states of determined power dynamics (i.e. teacher/student, officer/prisoner, etc.) only amplifies an already tense and exploited power imbalance, especially considering that the victim in this case is physically trapped in an environment in which she cannot escape, receive the help she needs, even think about reporting the crime, and to top it off, must confront her rapist on the regular. But OITNB forces us to ask ourselves: can they too, the worst of criminals, be worthy of forgiveness? And given the two opposing attitudes of Doggett and Boo, it seems that the answer ultimately must be something we have to think about and decide for ourselves.
Murder is often fairly clearcut. There is the killer and the killed. And more than often it is quite obvious who is at fault. And often to counteract that lopsided scale of blameworthiness, aggressors (oftentimes law enforcement) will construe stories to make the victims appear more blameworthy and sketch a story to make it seem as though the killer had no choice in those circumstances, such as claiming the victim appeared more threatening than they actually were (almost always a tactic used exclusively for younger black males).
This is exactly the case when Poussey was killed by C.O. Baxter Bayley, the somewhat lovable guard (if there were to ever be one) who was struggling on top of Poussey with Suzanne on his back. The combined weight utterly crushed and eventually killed the 90-something-pound Poussey, a beloved character, which would eventually incite the riot that ends the season.
In this case, however, Baxter is clearly distraught, if not entirely traumatized by the events that took place. It is easy to question his culpability and level of responsibility in the act. But instead of focusing on the sole act that killed Poussey, it may be important to take a step back and contextualize the events preceding this. Correctional Officer and Captain Piscatella called to disrupt the peaceful protest, a character known to embody the worst in law enforcement, and began to literally manhandle the inmates, tossing and throwing them off the tables upon which they stood in protest. His direction and command, in a sense, embodies the militarized law enforcement, one which seeks order and authority over concern and compassion. What law enforcement ought not forget, as exemplified in this episode, is that their order and authority are meant to serve the people, not ultimately defeat and crush them.
Orange is the New Black offers a brief window into the criminal justice system, albeit a brief and idealized one, one that cannot possibly capture all the horrors of the reality of prison life. But what it does succeed in doing is presenting an otherwise unknowing audience and generation with raw stories to expose the ongoings and struggles that fellow people go through, and reminds us of the terrors of an unjust legal system that commodifies, dehumanizes, and slowly destroys human beings in what we can finally now come to fully understand as a broken system.
This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine.