This essay is a collaboration between Riese Bernard and Heather Hogan.
***BE ADVISED THIS POST CONTAINS EPIC SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 412 OF ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK***
Brook Soso: “It’s like we’re in a horror movie.”
Poussey Washington: “The kind you watch at sleepovers when you’re a kid and then you have to run to your Mom at the end to hug you and tell you it was all made up?”
Soso: “My Mom wasn’t a big hugger.”
Washington: “My Mom was. She had really long arms, too. They could almost double around you.”
- Orange is the New Black Episode 412, “Animals”
I’d only gotten to episode four when I saw the spoiler — some ambitious marathoner had already completed the season and then gone directly to the Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters list to summarily break our collective hearts: “Poussey Washington, 2016, strangled by a guard.”
I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. Poussey is instrumental to the ensemble! She’s a fan favorite! She’d finally found love this season! She’s probably the inmate least likely to end up in a conflict with a guard that’d lead to strangulation and death!
Samira Wiley’s girlfriend literally writes and produces the Orange Is the New Black. Surely… surely no.
But it happened.
We feel that the death of Poussey Washington will be remembered as the most devastating lesbian or bisexual TV character death since the death of Dana Fairbanks in 2005, which was the most devastating lesbian or bisexual television character death since the death of Tara Maclay in 2002. But maybe it wasn’t for you. Maybe it was Lexa for you. Maybe it was Cat MacKenzie, all the way across the pond. Maybe it was Silvia Castro León, gunned down on her wedding day. Maybe it was Root or Charlie or Tamisn or Maya or Kate or Naomi or Shana or Tosh or Snoop or all the ones played by Lucy Lawless, including Xena herself.
158 dead lesbian and bisexual characters. But those aren’t the only numbers we know, and TV doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Poussey died on our TVs the week after a man walked into a gay night club and shot over 100 people, killing 49, the majority of whom were queer and Latinx. 5,462 single-bias hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2014, and more than a fifth of those targets were LGBT people. 47 shootings, 15 stabbings, 13 beatings, and 13 “other.” 13 other. There are endless ways for gay people to die; TV has made damn sure we know that’s true.
This matters because we are very raw right now, not because Poussey’s sacrifice had anything to do with her sexual orientation. It didn’t. (Neither did Dana’s.) There’s no sub-conscious bias at work, no showrunner more invested in a fan-favorite heterosexual romance while unconcerned about ending a lesbian one. This show takes place in a women’s prison, a land (more or less) free of heterosexual romance.
But like Dana, a beloved fan-favorite sacrificed by Ilene Chaiken to raise awareness about breast cancer, Orange creator Jenji Kohan had a Cause in mind when she made this decision about her own beloved character, and it’s one in dire need of increased awareness. The American Criminal Justice system is racist, inefficient, inhumane, corrupt and often deadly. Especially at the intersection of power-hungry poorly-trained white men employed by a for-profit corporation and a young black lesbian incarcerated for a low-level crime that white people commit in droves and are rarely apprehended for. Let alone punished for with the death penalty.
But we knew that. I don’t mean “we” as in the collectively queer, collectively liberal, hyper-socially conscious readers of Autostraddle dot com. I mean “we” as in “viewers of Orange Is the New Black.” Sure, the show used a white woman as an entry point into a deeply corrupt prison-industrial complex, but the writers made a hard and almost immediate pivot into examining the lives of women who have been victimized by the system way worse than Piper. Pennsatucky: raped by a guard. Alex: nearly killed by a guard. Watson: sent to SHU by a guard for refusing an invasive pat-down. Trish: exploited and killed by a drug-dealing guard. Nicky: same, except no murder. Daya: impregnated then abandoned by a guard. Sophia: forsaken by the warden in solitary confinement for the price of one tacky suit. Over and over and over again, we see the women on this show abused and discarded by the incompetent, misogynistic, power-hungry men who run the system. In fact, I’d argue it’s the central theme of the show.
There are people who don’t know or care who Eric Garner is. There are people who have (inexplicably) never heard of Black Lives Matter. But are those the same people who will watch a black woman be brutalized by a white man on the 38th episode of Orange Is the New Black and finally get it? Did this show need to sacrifice one of television’s few black lesbian characters in order to teach incredibly ignorant white people a lesson they really should’ve already learned by now?
But the white guard. Bailey. I’d expected Humps, of course. He was evil, although they all were, in a way, but Humps’ evil was a drawling yo-yo of psychopathy. Humps is harsh on the surface and rotting inside, an intestinal cesspool of misogyny and racism wound up like a fist. Not Bailey, though. Like a lot of Litchfield’s male employees, including but not limited to Caputo and Healy, Bailey’s been socially conditioned to feel entitled to women but can’t figure out how to get women to feel obligation on par with that entitlement. He’s not quite as depraved as his superiors, though. He’s also as tender as his cherubic face implies, and nervous and mostly well-meaning, desperate for acceptance while moronic about who he chooses to require it from. He’s gullible and inadequate on just about every level, meanwhile floating along waiting for another jerk to pluck him out and pull him in, easily seduced into bullying because he’s lacking a basic sense of self. He’s malleable and easily manipulated, which’s one of many reasons this boy should not be working at Litchfield, where he’s surrounded by keen manipulators, both those who control him and those he is in charge of controlling.
See how easy it was for us to write a paragraph about him? We could write more. We could write a thousand words in ten minutes about #NotBailey. Sure, Bailey was just an instrument Piscatella was playing, but that lost life rests on Bailey’s shoulders. It is Caputo’s compassion for Bailey that inspired him to turn on the women he’s allegedly been employed to protect. Bailey is a sympathetic character and he should not be. He is sympathetic to the point where we have overheard multiple people and even professional TV critics say that Poussey’s death was really Suzanne’s fault. She was melting down. He was trying to subdue them both. There should be no question about who’s fault this murder was, the brutalization visited on the body of a black woman as brutality is visited on black bodies all across this country by white men in uniforms.
We already know the system is capable of murdering Poussey. That point has been proven for many seasons now. If we’re going to have to watch it, we shouldn’t be forced to empathize with the white man who wrought it. This loss is too devastating to also be grey. It’s too much to take in. We resent this story for not letting us rage with pure, unfiltered fury at Poussey Washington’s murderer.
Because damn we love Poussey. (Do with that sentence what you will.) We feel like we’ve lost a friend, and one of only a few black lesbian lead characters on television, and a character played by a lesbian actress at that. Somehow having to divorce Samira Wiley from Orange is the New Black stabs in its own way, too. Poussey is our heartthrob! She’s the best one we’ve ever had, she’s better than Shane. Litchfield is full of deeply flawed humans but Poussey, she shines like a diamond, shines like a roman candle, all that. Flashback episodes reveal each character’s darkness, their fatal flaw, the insecurity that combined with structural inequality to land them in jail and repeatedly pits them against their own self-interest while incarcerated. Some manifestation of “pride” gets most of ’em. But Poussey’s only flaw is that love makes her do crazy things, things like bring a gun to confront her ex’s father and/or whatever it is she did to get kicked out of West Point.
She doesn’t hurt people and never has, she’s lived a life of relative privilege, she’s sweet and physically very small. Last season we saw prison eat her up from the inside, this season we saw her bounce back and fall in love and find a little sliver of happiness amid endless chaos. She was loved, and then she died — that’s the way this trope crumbles.
Poussey’s death wasn’t empty; it was enormous and not unrealistic. It wasn’t a stray bullet. But was it necessary? It was not. The scene could’ve still packed a punch if she’d been assaulted but survived, and the show never needed to pack this particular punch for the vast majority of its audience. Orange has been honest in the way Litchfield has gotten worse and worse every season, like if American Horror Story never left the Murder House. The system remains a horrible disease, darkness giving way to more darkness. This is it, though. This is the darkest. This is the absolute darkest thing this show could have done. The hardest to watch, hardest to swallow, hardest to reconcile. We sobbed with our entire bodies, covered our eyes, burrowed into our couches when it happened, felt broken and traumatized afterwards in a way television rarely makes us feel. And although it’s important to tell a disgusting story about prison because every voting citizen of this country needs to know how disgusting prison is, maybe this calls for a pivot, an opening toward a path into tentative lightness.
There’s immense value to showing how bad it is and we know this show will and should continue to do exactly that. But hell, something good has to come out of this wretched death, capping off a dark season of women getting beat down again and again and again. We’re holding out hope for an inmate uprising that inspires real change rather than serving as a gateway to yet another chamber of horrors. We’ll be watching, because this show and these characters have so much more to say. And we hope if they continue to engage with Black Lives Matter, that they do so deliberately and carefully, and in (paid) consult with the queer black women at the helm of BLM.
There’s a value in that too: alongside the disgrace, also providing the audience with some small examples of how things could potentially get better, of what activists have to say about it, and what we need to do as citizens to shed some light into these dark places.
It’s like we’re in a horror movie. The kind you watch alone and at sleepovers and with lovers and best friends. I wish I could wrap my arms around you right and tell you it’s all made up. These 158 character deaths are. Poussey’s is.
But this is real life too.
This essay was co-written by Riese Bernard and Heather Hogan.