Friday, February 5, 2016

A different perspective on Orange Is the New Black – Part I

Orange Is the New Black (OITNB)—the Emmy-award winning Netflix show—has received critical acclaim and rave reviews. More importantly, it’s prompted people to talk about women in prisons—a topic that isn’t exactly commonplace in most American households.

Despite the fact that on any given day an estimated 200,000 American women are behind bars, most of us haven’t thought much about what life is like for these women—who they are, where they came from, and types of struggles, humiliations, heartaches, and indignities they face on a daily basis.

But, since OITHB's release in July 2013, people all over the country are talking about just that. Talking about important, and historically neglected, issues like abortion access, sexual assault, treatment of transgender inmates, shackling of pregnant inmates during labor and delivery, and pregnancy related health care in correctional facilities.

In 2013, The New Yorker’s television critique, Emily Nussbaum, praised the show, noting that “for all its daffy, dirty ways, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is more strongly rooted in the real world…it intends to illuminate injustice by using stories so bright that you can’t ignore them.” I was intrigued.

Over the next year, it seemed as if everyone around me was singing the show’s praises. “You will love it,” friends told me. “Get ready to binge watch, because you won’t be able to turn it off.” My experience was rather different — I did not love it, and I did turn it off.

These stories have certainly drawn attention to critical social justice issues, but they have also, on several notable occasions, missed the mark. These are stories that aren’t “rooted in the real world,” misrepresent key aspects of the issues, and perpetuate dangerous and already deeply rooted stereotypes—stereotypes, that in a time of unprecedented attacks on women’s reproductive rights and access to care, do incarcerated women — and us all — a tremendous disservice.

One such issue is that of anti-abortion violence and harassment. While the show raises the issue, it distorts it in a way that is insulting to women and abortion providers — many of whom risk their lives every day to ensure that American women continue to have access to safe, comprehensive, and essential reproductive health care.

The first season’s primary antagonist, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett, is incarcerated for murdering an abortion provider. Episode 12 includes a flashback of her in an abortion clinic, as a patient — shortly after receiving an abortion. While recovering from the procedure, a nurse looks at her critically and with disdain tells her “Number five, huh? We should give you a punch-card, get the sixth one free.” Pennsatucky then storms out of the clinic, grabs a gun from her friend’s car, storms into the clinic, and shoots the nurse.

Harassment and violence towards abortion providers is a real issue in this country, but when we portray it, let’s get it right.

Every day in America, intimidation, harassment, and violence endangers the lives of both clinic staff and patients, and it is severely interfering with and compromising access to reproductive health care.

Including the November 2015 attack in Colorado, there have been 11 murders and 26 attempted murders due to anti-abortion violence. These horrific crimes were perpetrated by fanatic individuals who oppose abortion. Not one of them was a patient.

In addition, abortion opponents have directed more than 6,948 reported acts of violence against abortion providers since 1977, including bombings, arson, death threats, bioterrorism threats, and assaults, as well as more than 194,615 reported acts of disruption, including bomb threats, hate mail, and harassing calls.

Patients are not the perpetrators of these crimes. They are, along with clinic staff, the victims.

As a former employee of a reproductive health care provider, I have experienced these threats first hand. And, I have seen the devastating effects they have on women’s ability to access health care, and the experiences they have when they do. They are called offensive names, harassed, and photographed when entering clinics. And, for many women, the massive groups of protesters and the harassment they are subjected to, prevent them from receiving the care they need.

This care could be an abortion. But it might also be prenatal care, or a breast exam, or even a visit with a primary care provider. The fact is, abortion is a health care service, and it is part of comprehensive health care. Many clinics that provide abortions also provide other reproductive health services, and some offer primary and pediatric care. Often they are community clinics that serve low-income individuals and families— so when harassment and intimidation keeps patients from accessing care, some of them have nowhere else to go.

But in portraying Pennsatucky’s abortion experience, OITNB paints a different picture. Instead of being harassed by protestors outside the clinics, she is mistreated and disrespected by a staff member. And, instead of fearing for her own safety or witnessing violence and harassment at an abortion clinic, she commits it.

The portrayal of the clinic worker is also problematic. OITNB depicts her as unprofessional, cold, and judgmental. Why? If this is really an attempt to raise awareness about abortion access and anti-abortion violence and intimidation, why portray the clinic staff in this way? What value does it add to the show? None.

Every day, the brave men and women who work in abortion clinics face threats of murder, violence, and intimidation. Threats, that are as we have seen, very real. And yet, they continue to provide care — even when this requires wearing a bulletproof vest to work and spending their days in buildings that receive bomb threats.

Given the severity of anti-abortion violence, it’s no surprise that there is a shortage of abortion providers in the U.S.. In some states there are none, and doctors fly in from other parts of the country. They risk their lives to ensure that women in America continue to have access to their constitutionally protected right to abortion.

These people aren’t villains. They are heroes. To depict them as cold, unprofessional, and judgmental is not “rooted in the real world.” It’s disrespectful and insulting.


Courtney Hatchett said...

As someone who generally enjoyed most of Orange is the New Black, Pennsatucky was difficult for me as well. The show got so much praise for its semi-diverse cast and how it tried to be delicate with racial issues, yet at the same time it actively made Pennsatucky (not Piper) the villain. Pennsatucky is the racist, homophobic, bible-beating, uneducated, "crack head" white girl. Her name itself is a pejorative term for poor, rural "white trash" people who live in western Pennsylvania.

Moving on, I wonder if the show is trying to point out the hypocrisy of the right to life groups or their exploitation of women like Pennsatucky. Either way, I still feel very strongly about how messed up the abortion clinic scene is. There is absolutely no reason for the punch-card joke. For a show arguably aimed at exposing a broad audience to incarcerated women's issues, I don't see why they feel the need to be so grossly inaccurate about women's health providers.

If I were able to rewrite the show, I would have had Pennsatucky (with another name) struggling with addiction, unable to access an abortion provider, and then prosecuted when she gave birth to a child that tested positive for methamphetamines.

Amanda said...

I completely understand your response to Orange is the New Black and its inaccurate depiction of clinic staff. I have met abortion providers whose work is of heroic proportions. I have also witnessed the inexcusable intimidation and violence by anti-choice clinic protestors. Abortion providers do not get adequate praise for their incredibly important work. But even so, I don't condemn Orange is the New Black for its handling of Pennsatucky's story.

First, health care providers can be sources of extremely damaging and hurtful prejudice. Even at the UC Davis Student Health and Wellness Center, doctors and nurses have approached my care based on the assumption that I'm an irresponsible, female college student. This source of discrimination was particularly shocking given the clinical environment.

I also think Orange is the New Black was trying to insert some empathy into the story of a rural, drug-addicted, and poor white woman—a group Americans quickly categorize as unworthy of sympathy.

Although I agree it was unfortunate that part of Pennsatucky's story threw clinic workers under the bus, this was part of a greater story attempting to examine untold sources of discrimination and pain in America. These stories won't always be pretty.

K. Russell said...

I agree with your criticism of the way Orange is the New Black depicts the abortion provider in Pennsatucky's storyline. I also found it frustrating and potentially dangerous for any young person who may need to access an abortion.

I remember watching the scene and, at first, I didn't see it as anything other than another intense, entertaining way the writers were trying to get the audience engaged in Pennsatucky's back story. However, after reading your post and thinking more critically of the scene, I believe it works to discourage people from obtaining an abortion while at the same timing misrepresenting the issues with abortion accessibility.

To plant the idea that not only would the patient have to walk through the typically ever-present picketers and protesters, but once they got inside, they would also have to face the judgement of their provider is dangerous. If I were in the position to need an abortion and I saw that scene, I would be immensely worried about being judged at a clinic.

I also agree with Courtney Hatchett that a better, and more realistic, way to write the scene would be for Pennsatucky to be unable to access an abortion. The realities of abortion for a low-income, drug addicted person in Western Pennsylvania is that getting an abortion would not be something that would have been readily available to Pennsatucky, let alone 5 abortions.

The show had the opportunity to expose the true issue with abortions; not that they are abused by racist villains like Pennsatucky, but that they are not easily accessible.