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Criminal Empathy in Orange is the New Black

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This post contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 4 of Orange is the New Black.

Well. Season Four of Orange is the New Black sure messed me up.

I managed to get through it without being spoiled for anything, but I almost wish I had known what was going to happen. Or maybe I don’t, because I don’t think I would have watched certain scenes, or the season as a whole, if I’d known what to expect. The gradually building intensity of this season literally gave me a stress headache, but the most horrifying moments still completely shocked and disturbed me, in part because I never really saw them coming.

The season left me with a lot of thoughts and a lot of questions, but right now, let’s talk about show’s obsession with empathy.

Orange is the New Black always walks a fine line between critiquing issues like racism and misogyny and perpetuating them. The show has a clear message about abuse in the prison system, focussing particularly this season on the problems caused by privatisation, and it goes out of its way to humanize every character and paint even horrific acts with shades of grey.

Sometimes, this makes for an incredibly thought-provoking (if deeply upsetting) story. But when the show potentially extends its empathy to the abusers, as it did quite extensively this season, things become tricky. Is it nuanced to consider the humanity of all of the show’s characters, or is it simply feeding into a system where victims are ignored and abusers are given more sympathy than they could ever deserve?

Normally, when a show considers the possibility of being sympathetic to a rapist, it’s about as far away from feminist as you can get. So when Orange is the New Black forced us to grapple with the idea of Pennsatucky forgiving Coates for raping her last season, it was challenging to say the least.

Honestly, I’m still not sure what the show wants us to think about Coates. I’ve heard some people comment that it was a critique of the “but he’s a nice guy and he’s sorry!” argument, with his violent words to Pennsatucky in the final episode, but on first watch, I didn’t get the sense that Pennsatucky had decided she was wrong to forgive him in that moment. And even if I missed the obvious subtext there, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard for any show to explore that theme when this idea of “he didn’t know what he was doing” and “he’s a nice guy really” is so common both in fiction and in real life.

Because, you know, ignoring the way he threatened, abused, demeaned and eventually raped Pennsatucky last season, he’s a relatively nice guy. At least, the show lets him have passably decent qualities. He’s one of the few guards we see who tries to speak up against all the abuses going on. He doesn’t push back very hard, making him a culpable bystander in everything that happens, but he takes a backseat in evil this year. He seems genuinely confused why Pennsatucky is avoiding him, and seems to actually believe that it wasn’t rape because he told her he loved her. He even apologizes to her. The show never suggests that he shouldn’t be viewed as a rapist, and the trauma of Pennsatucky’s attack doesn’t go away. But he’s given a gentler portrayal this season, and as we see Pennsatucky try to forgive him, we have to struggle with the idea that we should forgive him too.

And honestly, I still have a headache from the way the show seemed to challenge me to consider him complexly. Now I have chance to reflect on it, I think it is likely that we were supposed to realize that, “nice” person or not, he’s still abusive and a rapist. He seemed nice last season, until he showed his dark potential, and he seemed potentially sympathetic this season, until we saw a situation where that darkness could come out again. But this show is built around making us empathize with characters we’d never expect to empathize with, perhaps most notably Pennsatucky herself. That, combined with current common narratives about rapists, means that we’re predisposed to believe the show wants us to sympathize with him again.

Of course, the show offers Boo as a counterweight to this. Her insistence that Pennsatucky should never never never forgive him felt like the voice of the audience — I was certainly joining in her chorus. But again, the show walked a fine line here over what message we take from Boo. From a more nuanced perspective, and the one I think the show was aiming for, Boo is right that Coates doesn’t deserve forgiveness, and that she can never trust him again, but that doesn’t mean she can steamroll Pennsatucky’s feelings or tell her how to heal. There’s something skincrawlingly awful about seeing Pennsatucky talk to him and forgive him, but if this helps her to come to terms with what happened and move on, isn’t it wrong for other people to argue with her? It was certainly unfair for Boo to shut Pennsatucky out for dealing with her own trauma in her own way.

But things could easily be interpreted another way. It would be easy to think that Boo was entirely wrong, with some fuzzy message about everyone deserving sympathy and forgiveness. I think the show was aiming for far more nuance than that, but considering how the common narrative about rape usually goes, it’s far too easy for it to leave the audience with that much simpler, harmful message. It is, after all, the one we’ve grown to expect.

And it’s not the only “social justice” plotline this season that dances dangerously close to forgiving abusers. Poussey’s death has caused a huge online storm, with some people praising its dramatization of the Black Lives Matter movement, but many others criticizing it for, among other things, giving far too much sympathy to her killer.

Poussey was murdered, and she deserves justice. Considering the building tensions of the season, it would have been easy to have an overtly racist, sadistic and/or violent guard be the one to suffocate her. It would have been easy to have it done at least semi-maliciously, and to make a really powerful statement about racist cops in the US in the process.

Instead, the show had her suffocated by Bayley, one of the “Nice Guards.” Again, that’s a pretty relative term in this show, and he was far from a saint, but he viewed the inmates as human beings, which is a step above almost everyone else, and tried to help them, in his own inept way. He was still kind of an idiot, but he was never properly trained, and he was put into a powderkeg of a situation. It was his incompetence, not his maliciousness, that killed an innocent person.

We’re obviously supposed to feel some sympathy for him, and I found it difficult not to. He was presented as unsuitable for the job, but not cruel. He was in complete shock over what happened, traumatized and wrung apart with guilt. MCC wanted to use him as a scapegoat, and so we’re supposed to think of him, too, as a victim (although a far, far less serious one) of MCC’s greed and incompetence. But he still deserves some blame. When we hear Caputo blame Poussey for her own death in order to save Bayley, I don’t think we’re meant to think that Bayley deserved to be the scapegoat, but we’re certainly supposed to join Taystee in her disbelieving rage that they would fail Poussey like that in order to protect him.

Again, I think the show was reaching for nuance. Bayley wasn’t an evil person, but he ended up doing a horrific thing because of a situation engineered by other people’s cruelty and failings. And his pain is definitely secondary to Poussey’s, as the entire final episode explores her backstory, the other inmates’ grief, and the myriad of disgusting racist ways that she is failed and disrespected in death. But this is another situation where reaching for “nuance” only ends up perpetuating harmful real-life narratives.

Poussey’s story echoes real murders committed against real people, and in those cases, even the most extreme and blatantly racist perpetrators receive undue sympathy and forgiveness. Theoretically, it fits in with the show’s general moral complexity to tell this particular story — how the rising pressure of the prison system might make a murderer of a generally decent guy — but in context, it becomes just another story of us being asked to empathize with the poor innocent white cop who somehow “accidentally” killed a black woman.

In order to explore nuance, we need a clear moral baseline first, a black and white view that feels familiar to everybody. It’s difficult to explore the idea of Pennsatucky forgiving her rapist without a baseline where everyone believes that rape is terrible and that “oh I didn’t mean to” isn’t an excuse. It’s pretty much impossible to explore the idea of a cop accidentally killing Poussey when cops murdering African Americans still isn’t considered a serious crime. We need to fix our automatic assumptions before we can dig into the nitty gritty of situation-specific hypotheticals.

Orange is the New Black wants to challenge its viewers, but by considering empathizing with the perpetrators of crimes that aren’t taken seriously, it ends up challenging the wrong viewers. People affected by these issues don’t need to see a more nuanced consideration of the perpetrators, because the world already asks them to empathize with the attacker over the victim, and people who might buy into those problematic views are unlikely to see the nuance at all, and instead think of it as a statement in support of their beliefs.

In fact, although this season was very emotionally affecting, I’m left wondering whether it counts as some kind of torture porn. Because yes, shows need to depict real abuses if they want to challenge them, but they need to do so with sensitivity, and make sure that those moments are vital to the plot. And I’m not certain that was always the case here. Maritza was forced to eat a live baby mouse while a guard held a gun to her head, and in the end, that scene wasn’t even that important to the overall arc. Not a changing point, but another mark on the list of abuses. We watched a white male guard torture a hispanic woman that he had a lot of power over, and its only real impact was that I still want to throw up or cry every time I think about it. Yes, the show has a lot of things to say about the abuse of marginalized people, and about the problems of the prison system in general, but is it really saying anything new with those scenes, or is it simply disturbing the viewers for the sake of it?

Orange is the New Black is notable for telling the stories of marginalized members of society with great empathy and depth. But when it extends that empathy and depth to its more powerful white male prison officials, or when it inflicts pain on those marginalized people without any real plot significance, it ends up undermining its own message — that these women matter too.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

5 thoughts on “Criminal Empathy in Orange is the New Black

  1. I think that we are being shown that ‘nice guys’ still aren’t good enough to be decent people – that it is frequent to find a man who considers himself to be one of the good guys, and to be seen by many others as the same. I have certainly known a few, and people have enormous difficulty in reconciling the rape/ assault/ abuse that he has perpetrated with the ‘nice guy’. It is very very crappy to have to acknowledge that your friend or relative is capable of such violence or abuse.

    And let’s not forget that many Christians are taught that if they do not forgive they are not good people. I know Pennsatucky renounced her faith long ago, but indoctrination is hard to shake off.

    I agree that the other abuses and violence are descending into torture porn type territory. I haven’t seen the episodes that you describe, but they sound problematic, not entertaining, but salacious to a certain type of viewer. I have had issues with abusive/ exploitative behaviour in OITNB before, but this sounds like it is on a whole new level, and might alienate me more from the series than Piper already has.

    1. OITNB has always been emotionally affecting, but I thought this season was much more disturbing than previous ones. It was gripping, but after I finished, I had to wonder whether it was gripping in a good way.

      It’s all still something I’m trying to puzzle through, then. I think a lot of people got the “nice guys aren’t good enough to be decent people” message from the Pennsatucky storyline, but I’m still finding it ambiguous. There’s something about seeing Boo push against Pennsatucky’s forgiveness, and knowing she’s in the wrong and only hurting Pennsatucky more with her resistance, that makes the “he’s still not decent enough” storyline feel a little muddy. It’s morally complex, but I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not considering how society often views rapists already. Almost a week after I finished the season, and I still don’t really know entirely where my feelings fall on this.

  2. Thank you for this excellent analysis. It almost made me cry, mainly thinking about all of the narratives in which this is the case. And I think you really hit the nail on the head with your observation that these “nuances” are challenging the wrong audience. Sympathy for (especially white, male) rapists certainly isn’t a marginal opinion in the United States, unfortunately; so what is the narrative or social use of encouraging said sympathy?

  3. “Challenging the wrong people” is a very perceptive and guttingly accurate analysis. I have to keep reminding people that any show that aims to support/empower a group but still insists on graphically depicting their original traumas and sufferings is NOT empowering to any actual victim.

    Like, there are countless stories out there of “empowered” abuse survivors, but many survivors can’t watch them, because to get to the empowerment you first have to be triggered by being forced to watch graphic scenes of the abuse itself. The alternative is that you wait until recovery is far enough along that you can stomach it — but then you’re in less need of that empowering message.

    1. That’s a really good point. I always struggle with this topic, because if these things really happen, then surely TV shouldn’t shy away from them? But there are different ways to handle them, and retraumatizing survivors in order to educate other people or make them think is definitely not the right way to handle things.

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