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Redefining “Torture Porn”

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One of the big conversations about the new season of Orange is the New Black has revolved around whether or not the show has descended into “torture porn.” Personally, many scenes made me feel physically sick or psychologically disturbed me long after I finished watching, and there’s been a lot of debate about whether that makes good television or means that its been taken too far.

But Orange is the New Black, like other cable shows, doesn’t want you to enjoy watching this pain. It wants to make you uncomfortable. And that, I think, is part of a general shift to a new kind of “torture porn,” where shows compete to horrify the audience as much as possible in the name of serious storytelling.

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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?

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The “Pills are Evil” Trope

Although I mostly enjoyed Brooke Soso’s plotline in the latest season of Orange is the New Black, the narrative arc exploring depression had one major flaw: it suggested that a therapist giving Soso a prescription for anti-depressants was dangerous and negligent, and that only therapy could possibly help her.

And this is a common problem even in progressive fiction. Therapy gets a pretty fifty-fifty treatment — some stories present it was pointless and weak, while others invoke it in a more positive way — but prescription medication for mental health is almost always presented as a bad thing. Anti-depressants, according to these stories, numb your emotions and transform you into a different person. They are not treatment but torture, and no one who actually wants to “be themselves” will take them.

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(Un)likeable characters in Orange is the New Black

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Nothing is simple in Orange is the New Black.

The show has received a lot of praise for its diversity, but it’s just as noteworthy for the complexity and moral ambiguity of its characters. We’re used to seeing male characters like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White walk a path of questionable-at-best choices and to rooting for them despite the terrible things that they do, but female characters are usually forced into much narrower moral narratives. They’re good or they’re bad, the hero’s girlfriend or a bitch, and one questionable decision or moment of weakness can catapult them into the realms of the unlikeable “annoying bitch.”

Not so with Orange is the New Black. Moral ambiguity is the name of the game. And, aside from a couple of villain characters, likeability doesn’t really play into it.

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Orange is the New Black

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It’s been a long time since I was as excited over as show as I am over Orange is the New Black. It is, at its heart, a show that tells the stories of women whose stories are never usually told.

If one of Orange is the New Black‘s inmate characters appeared in a show on a traditional channel, I would be smothering the show with praise. Even Piper, the white female “Trojan horse” that made the show more appealing to executives, is bisexual and deeply flawed, two things that are pretty rare for female characters on TV. But Orange is the New Black doesn’t only give us one or two of these “untraditional” characters. It gives us an entire cast. We have old women and young women. Straight women, gay women, bisexual women, women whose sexuality never comes up at all. Obsessively religious women and atheist women. Black women and Latina women. Women with mental problems. The show even includes a transgender actress playing a transgender character.

And every single one of them is flawed. The show’s protagonist, Piper, gets a lot of criticism from viewers as the “spoiled princess” in the prison world, but I think that’s somewhat unfair. Piper is terribly privileged. She’s selfish and self-absorbed and says the most ignorant or oblivious things at times. But her story arc is all about recognizing that and growing from it. She can do terrible, selfish things, but she can also do selfless things. She’s willing to help others, she’s willing to learn, and she develops self-awareness as the show goes on. And even though she continues to screw up right through to the end of the season, that’s kind of the point of the show. All of the characters screw up. They’re human, with multiple dimensions and the capacity to be both wonderful and horrible. And, as a result, their relationships with each other are equally multi-dimensional. They defend each other and sell each other out. They hurt one another, accidentally and on purpose, and they support and comfort one another.

And these characters allow the show to explore some really serious and heavy issues, but issues that you rarely if ever see explored on TV. What happens if you’re a transgender woman in prison and the government stops your hormone treatment? What happens to women when they’re released from prison and have nowhere to go? These are realistic female characters telling realistic female stories.

It all makes using the Bechdel test seem like some kind of ridiculous joke. Only two women? Who have to talk to each other once? About anything other than a man? Please.

Depressingly, Orange is the New Black is a show that I could never see airing on a mainstream channel, or even on HBO. But thanks to Netflix and the rise of Internet TV, it does exist, and it’s amazing.

I’m going to have a lot more to say about this show in the next few weeks, especially about specific character arcs, once I’ve had the chance to rewatch it and really take it all in. In the meantime, I highly recommend that everybody gives watching it a shot!

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Women’s Faces, Women’s Stories

It took ten seconds for me to realize that Orange is the New Black was something special. 

Maybe it’s because the last show I watched on Netflix was The Tudors, which literally uses headless women in cleavage-revealing dressing standing around Henry VIII as its promotional image. But the moment the opening credits of the show started, I was practically bouncing with excitement.

They show women’s faces.

Zoomed in close, the credits show women’s eyes and women’s mouths. And not just a couple of women. A huge range of women. Women of different races and ages. Women with acne and freckles, women with tattoos and scars. Women with makeup and without makeup, with glasses and piercings and wrinkles and gaps in their teeth. While Regina Spektor tells us to “Remember all their faces, remember all their voices,” we are shown a multitude of women and their expressions, their features and their feelings.

Even better, those aren’t actresses’ faces, but the faces of women who have actually been to prison, including Piper Kerman, the author of the memoir on which the show is based.

It’s somewhat depressing that something as simple as showing women’s eyes in a credit sequence could get me so excited. But it is the antithesis of so many other shows, and the general attitude to women in media in general. We’re not seeing them through the male gaze. They’re not background scenery or props. They’re not tokens or there to tell anyone else’s story. Body parts are isolated, but it’s their mouths and their eyes, how they speak and how they see, that we’re shown. This show, we’re told instantly, is about women. Not women as TV would normally depict them, fitting into a narrow box of how they are supposed to be. Realistic, three-dimensional women, with struggles and flaws and emotions of their own.

And luckily, the show itself lives up to that promise.

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