Art That Hurts (and Why That’s Good For You)

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched the 2016 season of Orange Is the New Black (and are interested in doing so), be warned: this post contains spoilers.

The week began with the release of cellphone video documenting the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA. It was quickly followed by a live Facebook stream of Philando Castile being killed by police in Falcon Heights, MN. These two incidents were just the most recent in a long chain that has become more visible after the advent of social media, but certainly litters the whole of U.S. history. Protests followed, one of which was interrupted by a sniper who targeted police, injuring several and taking the lives of a handful of officers in Dallas, TX. Sidestepping due process after two hours of negotiation, the suspect was bombed.

Against this background, I finished watching the current season of Orange Is the New Black.

The series takes place in Litchfield, a women’s prison that has recently been privatized. The drama has multiple levels, the most visible of which is the inter-relationships among the female inmates. Much of the action is about how different populations coexist behind bars. The first season was dominated by a powerful coalition lead by Red, a Russian woman played by Kate Nelligan (best known as Captain Janeway from Star Trek Voyager, a role which she obliterates with this portrayal), who was in charge of the kitchen and ran a profitable smuggling racket. Year two followed tensions between the main character, the WASPy, privileged Piper (Taylor Schilling) and a ruthless gang of ignorant white meth addicts lead by Pensatucky (the excellent Taryn Manning). Last season saw the rise of a violent coalition among the black inmates manipulated into action by a new arrival. This year, an influx of prisoners tipped the scales in favor of a group of Dominicans, but also more vividly outlined the rise of a white power group and the necessary reaction of increased solidarity among the black inmates.

Meanwhile, the show vividly describes the relationships among the prison staff, while outlining their own personal hopes and foibles, which color interactions with the prison population. This season began with a staff walk-out and lock-out. After Litchfield was privatized, working conditions worsened, hours increased and salaries and benefits were cut. New guards were brought on board, but the money and time to train them was severely restricted, resulting in a dangerously under-qualified group of officers. The original staff saw themselves as compromised and took action, resulting in their firing and replacement with a group of former military personnel.

Finally, the show outlines some of the corporate intrigue that goes into the generation of profit from the running of a prison. This level of the drama takes up the least amount of screen time, but is, in my opinion, the most important part of the series. And it is where the Black Lives Matter movement and a TV show intersect.

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In this year’s final few episodes, the power structure among the prison guards that fostered sadistic treatment of the inmates delivered two lovable, mentally unstable prisoners into inhumane situations and ended with the death of a gentle young black woman at the hands of an under-trained guard.

What makes Orange Is the New Black brilliant in 2016 (it has had weaker moments) is its nuanced approach to the situational. The show demonstrates that there are no innocents. Every action comes freighted with history and consequences, but what has become abundantly clear is that underneath all the surface activity lies a supremely corrupt system that turns the incarceration of human beings into corporate profit. This is the necessary first act of dehumanization that allows all subsequent injustices to take place. In a brilliant illustration of how those at the bottom of the class system are often pitted against one another in competition for crumbs off the corporate table, the newly privatized prison enables disturbed guards to devise tortures for the people over whom they have direct control. In one scene, the result is a cage match orchestrated by a particularly malicious guard who forces a mentally unstable woman to fight her former lover. (Uzo Aduba continues to devastate as Suzanne, AKA “Crazy Eyes”.)

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Meanwhile, the show demonstrates how the underprivileged are easily swept up into a system that converts them from a perceived financial drain into a source of income. In one vivid example, Lolly (Lori Petty should win every award there is for her amazing work), a schizophrenic woman’s weak family support structure results in her being tossed out into the streets. Once there, she does her best to create a life for herself, but remains vulnerable to the various forces, most specifically gentrification, that are aligned to make her already tenuous existence impossible.

Without care or treatment, the method she has devised to ward off the voices that swell inside her head whenever a situation becomes too stressful — waving a baton of bells over her head — is mistaken for an attack, which lands her in prison. There is no due process, she is presumed guilty because of the way she looks. She is presumed violent because of her condition. She will end up in prison because there is no one there to prevent the discrimination that is driving her there. Once inside, her illness remains untreated, though she clearly struggles to remain in the world everyone around her has agreed is real.

There is no profit in her treatment, so she will not receive it. Instead, she will ultimately be delivered into the prison’s psych ward, which is a form of hell devised purposefully by one set of human beings not for the necessary treatment or betterment of another set, but for their continued isolation and torture.

Orange Is the New Black powerfully develops characters and reveals situations that we have heard about and know exist, and are probably much more widespread than we would have the stomach to face.

Orange Is the New Black demonstrates how the making of profit off the incarceration of individuals inevitably leads to prison overcrowding and how those people are turned into ledger numbers for a group of fund managers. Equally dehumanized are the people who appear on the other side of the balance sheet; the prison staff are under-trained, overworked and allowed free reign as long as profits continue to flow. This same system creates police officers who are so easily frightened they can shoot dead a 12-year-old African American boy for playing with a toy. Within current capitalism, nobody wants to pay their fair share of taxes to alleviate such inadequacies. Why should they, when the people at the top routinely and apparently legally move their money into offshore accounts to avoid paying what they owe?

This is the problem with late — global — capital: We are free to take but have no obligation to give back. Inhumane inadequacies are just part of the equation. The result is the abomination of the “self-made man” who believes that he alone is responsible for his success, never mind the many invisible and interdependent privileges that aided him along the way. This perspective inflects the way he addresses the world, and the actions he takes to “make it a better place.” Anyone who is unable to acknowledge the structures that made possible their own position and success will surely have a suspect vision of the world’s ills and how to solve them. Several characters within and outside of Litchfield’s prison walls demonstrate the negative impact of this worldview in action.

As a resident of San Francisco, the word used in tech culture that bothers me above all others is “disruption.” In her New York Times op-ed piece, “Solving All the Wrong Problems,” Allison Arieff describes how the term functions: “Products and services are designed to ‘disrupt’ market sectors (a.k.a. bringing to market things no one really needs) more than to solve actual problems, especially those problems experienced by what the writer C. Z. Nnaemeka has described as ‘the unexotic underclass’ — single mothers, the white rural poor, veterans, out-of-work Americans over 50 — who, she explains, have the ‘misfortune of being insufficiently interesting.'” In this formulation innovation has become “predicated on undoing the work of others,” and the good is defined as anything that makes life more convenient for an increasingly small sliver of the population. While there are definitely people using technology to do good in the world (using cellphones to conduct remote eye exams or deploying 3-D printers to produce artificial limbs), the majority of the apps Arieff describes “conflate toothbrush delivery with Nobel Prize-worthy good works.”

It’s a turning away from the greater good, ignoring the well-being of those unlike oneself and somehow believing that one’s own obstructed view is an accurate vision of the world as a whole. This perspective allows venture capitalist Marc Andreessen to unironically tweet: “The perpetually missing headline: ‘Capitalism worked okay again today and most people in the world got a little better off.’” I wonder how the victims of human trafficking would feel about that statement, or child laborers working in foreign factories. Or even the American middle class who don’t seem to have warranted a pay raise for the last thirty years, while their bosses’ salaries have grown exponentially.

“Disruption” pretends to be a revolutionary act when it isn’t one. Real disruption would not be based on the outmoded operating system of early 20th-century (robber baron) capitalism. One would think real change, a real revolution, a genuine break would necessarily also overturn the existing outmoded system of exchange. Many in the tech industry spout utopian ideals, but deep down lack the courage to change a system they know is no longer working and of which they are the most substantial beneficiaries. Instead, they use the word disruption to pretend such courage. It’s easier to break than to build, especially if you don’t have to live with that which is broken.

To be fair, I am not sure I would — or do — have the courage to cast off my own beneficiary status (despite my position toward the bottom rungs of the economic ladder) in favor of an unknown world that would make my existence even more precarious. We hold tight to the devil we know, because life could be much more uncomfortable under the boot of the devil we don’t.

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Orange Is the New Black‘s inmates debate exactly this point in the season’s penultimate episode, though they all step up when a revolt against a petty dictator begins. Under his command, a brutal culture has developed, inmates were profiled and routinely harrassed, the small things that made their existences bearable removed. The protest is broken up and within the chaos Pussey (Samira Wiley), a small black woman is pinned to the ground by an untrained guard. During the resulting melee, she is suffocated. It’s that easy to take a life, and knowing the character of the guard in question, this action will crush him. He has been struggling to do right within the increasingly hostile environment.

In this season, several of the guards have had their consciences tested and broken by the actions of the paramilitary group that has come to dominate them. That group is made up of former soldiers who have consistently reflected on their time in Iraq or Afghanistan, two locations where they learned to think of other populations as not human, in service of what? A culture that generates profit from the ongoing war machine.

This is the underlying mechanism that must be disrupted, but it is a structure that controls most of western civilization. How do we make a system of exchange that is based less on maximizing profit and more on fostering humanity? What does capitalism look like if it is allowed to be questioned and modified? Can it be forced into serving more than just a few? Or is that question ignorant and contrary to capitalism’s very nature? How have we come to agree to serve such a perverted and perverting tool? Why are we in its service, rather than it being in ours? How is it possible to feel so powerless to question a means of social organization?

It might be weird to say, but these are the questions at the root of everything that unfolds this season on Orange Is the New Black. I know, it is a corporate product, too, developed for corporate profit. There are benefits to the way western society is organized and this is one of them: art that hurts.

The people and situations portrayed this season on Orange Is the New Black are refreshing because they demonstrate how comedy so easily resides next to tragedy. You have to laugh to avoid crying. This message is delivered by a group of tremendously gifted actresses who have created subtle and nuanced characters. The situations they are in and how they got there are all too real because they are not easy; each has been faced with difficult choices and, given circumstance and character, did what they knew how to do.

Orange Is the New Black clearly and intentionally echoes real lives being lost in the streets. In doing so, I believe it also lays the blame at the feet of a form of capital that is corrupt and corrupting. We all have to ask ourselves to honestly evaluate where we are within this structure. What are our privileges and responsibilities and on what do we depend?

I have been thinking lately that the painful truth is that I am struggling to survive from the crumbs of a murderous system that I feel powerless to modify. And I don’t know what to do with that realization.

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