In a series that boasts one of television’s most diverse casts, the overstuffed, white-privilege nightmare that is Season 4 of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black is downright disgraceful. Over the course of 13 episodes, we get stories involving big-time issues such as Black Lives Matter, prison overcrowding and rape—and not one of these is given the time or attention it deserves. And as always, the show marginalizes its most human, relatable characters—its LGBTQ and people of color.
Take the story of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), who we last saw as the victim of rape by a prison guard. After deciding against revenge, Doggett tries to come to terms with what happened to her and even to make peace with it, in a deeply flawed kind of way. She confronts the guard, who is then humanized in his ham-fisted attempt to make amends. The truth is that she can never be his equal, and must live with seeing him every day. We end up with him nearly raping her again, and this time, Doggett is the one apologizing. As Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) would say: Fuck that.
We see Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) put in isolation for weeks on end, as the prison’s corporate bosses try to fix the PR nightmare arising from a transgender inmate getting nearly beaten to death by a group of prisoners. The opportunity to explore important issues for incarcerated trans people becomes a smaller and smaller story, with fan-favorite Cox absent from several episodes altogether. Burset’s wife is reduced to an annoying nag, even after white corporate shark Linda Ferguson pulls a gun on her. That moment—when a powerful white woman aims a gun at a black woman who dares to ask about the safety of an inmate—is merely a pivot point for the season’s long-con storyline about corporations taking over prisons and turning them into chain gang-like factory farms. (That idea is worth a deeper, more thoughtful look than OITNB gives it.)
In an era when black people are killed by police for carrying toy guns (Tamir Rice) or go from a traffic stop to hanging in a jail cell within 24 hours (Sandra Bland), the visual of a white woman aiming a gun at a black woman is evocative. But rather than use it as a breaking point in the plot to free Sophia, the series turns its eye to white-privilege snowflake supreme, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), and her neo-Nazi gang. It’s just another example of the way OITNB humanizes and coddles its white, cisgendered characters, while its people of color and LGBTQ individuals face harsh, even deadly consequences.
In this season alone, white prison guards rape and physically assault people of color (one is forced to eat a live baby mouse); force inmates into a fight club against their will; and are ultimately portrayed as sympathetic after killing one of the show’s most popular black, queer characters in an Eric Garner-style suffocation. These white characters, unquestionably guilty, are excused from culpability. This could be taken as a critique of white privilege run amok, but when do we say that it’s not a story hook, but the nature of the show’s writer’s room?
After four seasons, Orange Is the New Black is not a modern Paradise Lost; it is white privilege writ large. This trajectory should feel familiar to anyone who watched Jenji Kohan’s other famous creation, Weeds. These stories are presented as liberated, feminist pushback against patriarchy and systems of oppression. That’s not what they are. They are stories that not only enable the misogyny they purport to upend, but they exist in created worlds that are predicated on it. I won’t be back to watch them unfold.