Arts and Culture as Social Justice Critique

Article written by Lauren Hall, a graduate student in the dual MAAA/MPA program at SPEA. She is the Co-Founder of Indy Pulse and is an alumna of Teach for America-Indianapolis. Last summer she interned with The Phillips Collection in Washington DC. Contact her at: lauren.marie.hall44@gmail.com

“This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist for The Atlantic, author of Between the World and Me (which just earned him both a MacArthur Genius Award and the National Book Award for nonfiction) wrote his book as a letter to his son about being a Black man in America. Like Coates’ book, this season of Orange Is The New Black is raw. It is blunt at times, poetic at others; it meanders yet is clearly centered on a specific point/meaning. It is in your face, unapologetic, ready to topspin your sense of morality and make you consider the justice in vengeance. And—it’s content is wholly unavoidable, in this age when Freddie Gray is a household name, Donald Trump is attempting to ban “Muslims” from American, and 1/3 women experience sexual harassment.

So, why am I starting a review of a show about an all-women prison talking about a male author?

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Because race, prejudice, faith, and gender factor heavily into the third season of OITNB. Jenji Kohan, like Coates, is making a statement about bodies—how bodies are systematically, structurally manipulated and marginalized. The character Red puts it best when she explains to Healy why she was flirting with him in hopes to earn her old work assignment as head chef (i.e. her sense of purpose in life) back:

“No one in here is people.
You think this is a normal relationship, human to human?
I hurt your feelings and you forget that when you leave here tonight, you lock me in behind you.

You take a woman’s power away her work, her family…
You leave her one coin, it may be tawdry and demeaning, but if she has to she will spend it.”

Control over bodies takes many forms—of exploiting them for money, i.e. Piper’s panty smuggling—and even the potentially oppressive forces of faith, like that experienced by Black Christian Cindy or White Amish Leanne. The difference in control over bodies is dependent upon ethnic background, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and the intersectionality of these. This season exposes many of them: Boo abhorred by her mother for her sexual orientation, Sophia violently attacked for her gender identity, Soso’s exclusion that leads to depression that leads to pill-induced knockout, Chang’s whole life demeaned because she was not seen as “pretty.”

Interestingly, OITNB creators made an attempt to separate white people from Whiteness—i.e. the political, social, and economic oppression, and privilege used to keep other’ed individuals from equitable opportunities and lives. Piper was, frankly, a bitch this season. She was an incredibly flat character who only appeared three-dimensional when she kicked Flaca out of the panty scheme, or connivingly got Stella sent to max. Piper ranted about how her hard work made her deserve the American Dream, which seemed to evoke the ideology of Whiteness. Pennsatucky’s statement seemed to extend this theme:
“It’s all about corporations because they look after us and you get religious freedom…that’s too bad because if you were Christian then you could tell everyone what to do and then they’d do it so they don’t hurt your feelings because that’s against the law.”

But, Pennsatucky’s statement, when juxtaposed with the trauma and injustice we see her endure, was jolting; it exemplifies just one of the moments when privilege was complicated. Pennsatucky’s statement connotes power, but it what researcher/educator/artist Jeffrey Andrade Duncan terms “False Hope.” This sense that one is free, in control, or has power and determination in their own lives was not true for her.

We saw Pennsatucky raped—three times. Her narrative of backwoods parties, alcoholic miners, and a Mama who forces her to binge-drink Mountain Dew is not a tale of freedom. Her mother explains—in Episode 10’s “A Tittin’ and A Hairin’”—about getting her period in a way that poetically circumscribes the shame or embarrassment that girls are typically made to feel about their period. Her Mama describes the menstrual cycle as, “life coming out of you.” Her mother celebrated Pennsatucky not being “a little grubber” anymore with double fudge chocolate ice cream.

We learn the extent to which the imprisoned women yearn for their motherhood—to right their actin’ up teenage boys (e.g. Mendoza and Sophia), or to give them better options in life (e.g. Ruiz taking Daya to camp). We also go through the entire drama of Bennett proposing to Daya then fleeing after visiting Cesar who pulls a gun out on his son to convince him to eat his fries. Daya wants to give her daughter options too, and her mother undulates between seeing Daya’s baby as a paycheck to a grandchild. Much of Daya and Ruiz’s story attests to how much mothers need their daughters, and the vicious cycle this creates. Daya’s baby gets taken by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) instead of by Pornstache’s wealthy, seemingly-loving mother. Really this is about people needing people.

As much as the women slash each others’ reputation, insult each others’ children, steal each others’ food, or even abuse one another physically, there are moments, quiet or in some way secluded, outside to share an illegal cigarette, or in the kitchen, sitting on a bed when these women’s visceral, vulnerable, yet hardened humanity comes out. Like when Mendoza jokes about Ruiz being a shitty mom to Daya or the sharp-tooth nerve singe when Boo tries to purchase Pennsatucky for a sexual act attempting to get her to admit she was raped. OITNB creators do an excellent job of juxtaposing moments like these, when support or even love contrast with women’s memories of silence, poor influences, or lack of options that resulted in their desperation (or, like in the case of Norma, rage), which led them to prison. The new counselor Berdie’s empathy-creating theatre class only begins to get at letting women express their pain and articulate it, even catharse it some way.

Yet there are so many aspects of these women’s experiences or past traumas that cannot be fully mended. Pennsatucky can always be counted on to say it bluntly in a truth we didn’t know could carry so much meaning and complex implications. In response to Boo’s encouragement that she seek revenge she said she didn’t have rage, but rather “I’m just sad.” No matter if this makes your heartbreak or makes you want to Lysistrata in protest or seek more violent revenge, or judicial ones this sentence is telling. It encapsulates the oppression, carries with it all the deadened silence that too often surrounds sexual violence, or in the case of Sophia hate crimes that get you locked in solitary “for your own protection.”

OITNB women, and we as viewers, are in the throws of contemplating what is purported as “for our own protection.” Cindy’s grappling with faith exemplifies this. She was told to look to her family’s Christian faith as a sanctity, or at least a guide, yet she wanted to convert to Judaism because:

“Honestly, I think I found my people.
I was raised in the church; where I was told to believe and pray and if I was bad, I’d go to hell and if I was good I’d go to heaven, and if I asked Jesus he’d forgive me and that was that.
And here y’all saying ain’t no hell; ain’t sure about heaven,
and if you do something wrong you got to figure it out yourself.
And as far as god’s concerned, it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing.
It’s like a verb; it’s like you do God and it’s a lot of work, but I want to learn more.
I’m a jew.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his son to embrace the “Struggle”—to survive, yes, but also to bring others to witness wrongs and inequities so that someday things will change. As Coates said in an NPR interview, when asked about why his book didn’t describe or inspire hope, he affirmed that if you’re looking for hope you have missed the point.

If you are looking for hope in the third season of Orange Is The New Black, then you have missed the point.

OITNB creators end the season with an ironic statement, when all the women are rejoicing in a still-in-captivity lake, as if it were the idealized white (or maybe just popular?) America spring break. Though they are not free, and so many social, political, and economic inequities are left emblazoned in our hearts and minds after this season, at least Red got to cook, Cindy got her Mikveh (what Ginsberg calls a “Jewish baptism”), and Soso found a prison family.

Go, watch this season, and figure out why it is necessary for us not to hope, but to think, act, interact, vote, and live differently.

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