“Orange Is The New Black” Broke Everybody’s Heart To Teach Idiots A Lesson

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.

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2842 articles for us.

230 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I was so enraged after watching this episode that I have been searching for hours for answers or even people that felt as upset as I did. All I could find was how they are fine with it and how it proves a point. But no, the point could have been made in so many other ways, as you pointed out, without killing off so many viewers favorite character and at the happiest we have ever seen her. I am so upset, to the point of possibly never watching the only television show that I watch again. So happy to see someone making such valid points on a subject so important

  2. I’ve gotten really good at avoiding spoilers. When I saw this post go up the other day that was my first and only clue something bad was coming. I didn’t read it so I didn’t know what it was. I don’t know if having known would have helped at all. I’m just sobbing after watching the end of the season just now. I’m so mad. I’m so done.
    Thank you for this space. In the last two weeks, this website feels like the safest space I have. So glad to have a safe space, I just wish the need for it wouldn’t keep building like this. Even the shows I used to love are hurting and traumatizing me now. Where does it stop? Will it?

  3. These are just the things on my mind right now about how FUCKED UP this season was, and if the opportunity presents itself, shit that could have happened instead of what did.

    1. They gave us like 10 literally evil new corporate CO’s and one “good” CO to balance them out. They even went into this guy’s backstory, painted him as a dumb kid from the start (which he was, but whatever), and then let him kill Poussey without getting fired… or jailed… or tried… or convicted. Of course this sparks the beginning of an uprising, but it almost doesn’t matter. The death wasn’t warranted, and the ever-charming “good guy” narrative they tried to write is like a stab in the back. The writers fuuuuucked that one up, big time.
    2. Fucking Piper and Alex get to be a happy (white!!!!!!!) couple now whereas Suzanne and Maureen only get exploited and tortured for their mental illnesses and Poussey is now dead, leaving Soso behind. They were happy previously, despite their (very realistic) issues surrounding Soso’s sexuality and Poussey’s reluctance to participate in a peaceful protest. The very least the writers could have done would be to leave Piper and Alex alone as single people for the rest of the season, but no. They wanted to drive the point home that only white people get to be in loving, functional relationships, apparently.
    3. To that end, Sophia’s wife had been trying to get her out of the SHU all season, and when she finally is released at the end, there’s absolutely NO WORD AT ALL on the status of their relationship or on any legal recourse for the time Sophia spent there. We’re also left dangling for way too many episodes regarding the possibility that they killed her off, too. The blood scene on the cell walls was too much. And then they just left it there as a cliffhanger… why? It’s not humanizing, which is what I thought this show was aiming for.
    4. Bringing it back to Maureen and Suzanne- I could not be more disappointed. The writers just won’t let Suzanne have anything good, no matter what. They’ve played into the fact that she’s mentally ill to the point where it’s consumed her entire character, which is what I thought they were trying to move away from when they stopped calling her “Crazy Eyes.” Guess not.
    5. The new CO’s are fucking gross. One of them made Maritza eat a baby rat. That didn’t need to happen this season, or like ever!!!! We didn’t need to be reminded in that way how evil the guards were!
    6. The writers like, kept peppering this season with what they probably thought was socially conscious language, but it just ended up feeling cheap and like name dropping. They did the actors wrong. They did their viewership wrong. I’m mad because it’s like, not *on* actors of color to expose this shit even in the roles they play. Poussey shouldn’t have been used to further a plot. Why is it a trope to kill off happy queer characters, and queer characters of color no less? It’s not useful, not “edgy,” not nuanced, it’s tired and dehumanizing.
    7. I don’t give a shit about Caputo. The writers should have stopped trying to soften his storyline and character; he’s still a piece of shit.
    8. The neonazi angle really pissed me off. They kept trying to have those characters make fun of themselves by saying obvious shit about how easy it would be to theoretically NOT BE A NEONAZI, but it wasn’t focused enough, definitely won’t be interpreted by everyone in the ways the writers probably intended, and was just generally cringeworthy.

    There’s more, but what it all comes down to right now is the fact that they’re increasingly focusing on stories about the management and staff of the prison, which I could not give less of a shit about. This means that they’re focusing LESS on the lives and deaths of the inmates, which is heartbreaking. I heard that this show was renewed through season 7, but I don’t think I’m going to be coming back to watch. I know that in the grand scheme of things, one lost viewer is a drop in the pond, but it’s not worth it anymore. Fuck this show, and fuck the writers especially.

    #RepresentationMatters
    #OITNBSucks

  4. I used to feel like one of the things OINTB did best was not allow privileged viewers on the show to get too righteous: even if you were in the show and you were the nice white lady inmate, or the nice white dude guard, the show lets you know that you would be doing horrendous and racist things anyway, because that’s the situation prison sets up and you are not above that no matter how nice or ‘enlightened’ you are.
    And now I feel like the show writers have done exactly that; become too righteous about an issue that doesn’t personally affect them and then horribly hurt the people they publicly intend to do right by.

  5. So.Deal is this. Wanna make a statement about a system that fucks over vulnerable people? Kill off Flocka. Honestly, if the writers wanted to make a statement about aggressive policing while also highlighting abuse of a minors being sentenced for petty crimes the may or may not have committed but had no financial means to fight, Flocka would have been on point. Flocka also had a tendency to put themselves in situations that could be combative, while not understanding the consequenses

    I read once that good writing makes you mad at the characters, but bad writing makes you mad at the writers. It might have been a Riece L Word quote…now that I think about it…. Regardless, this was bad writing.

  6. Ever since I saw this post go up, I’ve been wondering what horror was waiting for me at the end of this season – but I NEVER would have guessed it was this. I just finished watching the season, and I’m just really angry and sad, so I’m glad this thread was here so I could be angry and sad with other people. There were a lot of things in this season that were terrible, but this whole storyline can fuck right off.

  7. The biggest foe to black people and the Black Lives Matters movement in America is white liberal men and women who are “trying to help” but do nothing to actually break the system. They just enable it, like that moment where Piper said “I can’t help you but I am rooting for you”. Many black people are unbothered by people who we know are racist because you know where you stand. With white liberal America you really dont. And you really just can’t make them see how they contribute no matter how much we scream and shout. It is the most painful and hurtful thing. Why do you think BLM protested Bernie and Hillary looong before they went in on Trump? People like to separate things into “I’m not a racist, I’m not like trump etc” but you don’t have to be aggressive or outspoken to be racist, simply enabling the system to exist is enough. And that silent consent or consent via inaction is the most danaging. Y’all missed the point completely. It HAD to be THAT guard who killed Poussey. He is the representative of white liberal America- he literally just stands around and watches all the horrors. It isn’t “those guys over there” who are the threat but you too. It was supposed to be a moment of reflection like damn those of us who stand around and watch the continuation of these systems of oppression are complicit. But over the head and out the window…. This article was a very big misstep on intersectionality. Why is Poussey better off as a living representative of lesbians than as a symbol of police brutality against blacks? This is a moment that is really not about you. If you didn’t love her there would be no point in killing her. All those dead black bodies killed in cold blood on camera in front of witnesses and killers getting off with paid leave. Pousseys’s death didn’t start the riot, the fact that they they didn’t charge him or say her name/acknowledge her personhood did. And it is crazy to me that you came away feeling he was a sympathetic character. He was a villain too. If you identify with him it doesn’t mean you should sympathize with him, it is rather a moment for self reflection. He enabled an environment where this happened and deserves to be CHARGED and pay for his crime. How many sad stories have we seen from these women of color on this very show who made a stupid choice when in a very unfortunate circumstance and they have been locked up for god knows how long now. Why was there not one word about his “attractive straight white male good grades from the right socioeconomic status and background” privilege??

  8. Thank you, I needed this so much and I wish I had seen it sooner. I’m a solidly empathetic person, and crying over tv is not a new thing. I shed many tears over this season, over the microagressions, monstrous overt aggressions, pain & suffering of characters I see as so raw and real. My girlfriend teases me about it. She never cries.

    But when we saw her suffocating, saw the struggle, saw Taystee slide between the guards onto the floor next to her, I sobbed in a heavy, loud, painful way I can never remember crying over tv before. My girlfriend held me and cried herself for the first time I’ve ever seen.

    And all of that pain occurred with the assumption that Poussey would recover. Period. It was already awful. I’m still so heartbroken that she was taken and I know it isn’t real but we’re all still struggling with the pain in the real world and I just… It’s so unnecessary to extinguish this bright light of a character.

    Thank you autostraddle for creating a place for our voices. Thank you Riese & Heather for giving voice to this. I’m so incredibly grateful for all of you. ❤️

  9. I understand that they were trying to bring attention to the corruption of the prison system and black lives matter but REAL LIFE IS FREAKING TERRIBLE IN SO MANY WAYS. Did they HAVE to take our one show, the one we trusted to treat women with respect and show their strength and compassion and diversity, did they have to use that ONE show to make those points?
    All I could see watching that scene was Eric Garner. This is real life. They took real life and tried to turn it into entertainment, and don’t think this wasn’t for entertainment, they took a real life story and turned it into entertainment for consumption.
    And that is unacceptable.
    My God, I’ve spent this last month reeling from Orlando and trump and the potential Muslim ban and all the islamophobia everywhere I turn and now this. It’s so incredibly traumatizing to be reminded once again that your particular intersection is screwed, partly because it sends you reeling and mostly because you can see the self fulfilling prophecy they’re trying to force you into.
    I refuse. I refuse to be afraid. I refuse to stand by silently and hope people treat me kindly when they find out I’m gay. I refuse to let the West dictate the future I can have based on their whims.
    and i refuse to consume any more media that treats me like I’m a lesson that needs to be taught to ignorant fools. That includes ointb. Enough.

  10. I had to explain to my mum (who’s hetero af) how OITNB made me feel distraught, not because I was an SJW but the reality was there was just too few queer woc on TV and now they killed P to make an example so some ignorant whites would learn a lesson? Because the news wasn’t enough?

  11. 1. It’s highly problematic to get offended about any number of the queer deaths this year and then give this one a pass. Every single showrunner has their reasons. Jason Rothenberg had his reasons. Ilene Chaiken had her reasons. Jenji Kohan has her reasons. But these shows do not exist in a bubble. And combined, the trend of queer woman being killed off in excessive numbers in 2016 (and in general) is highly problematic and dangerously hurtful to a large group of people. To excuse Poussey’s death but not Lexa’s is saying #LexaDeservedBetter but not #PousseyDeservedBetter. Black lives matter – even and especially on tv shows. Poussey and Orange is the New Black are participating in a larger theme of queer deaths and they do not get some special exclusion because people think they did it better than other shows.

    2. I find it disturbing that OitNB so clearly called to mind Eric Garner’s death and then didn’t seem to give him the respect a real person deserves. They greyed the situation. They tried to make you mad at the institution, not the man. But the fact that the Eric Garner’s of the world are being killed and their killers go completely free IS a problem, and not a grey one.

    3. I find the internet’s reaction of Poussey’s death very reminiscent to the Black Lives Matter issues in general. People are calling it “necessary” to the plot or to the point. It reminds me of how the media and (white) people in general always ask for the details around one of these violent deaths. Were they a criminal? Did they have a gun? No. These questions are offensive and demean the life of the man or woman or child who has just been stripped of life.

    4. I also felt very icky watching this season after I heard the writers room of OitNB was mostly white.

    5. Although this whole thing enrages me, real life and this show, I also think we’re not above learning these lessons of racism or being implicit in a racially biased system. I do, however, think the rest of the season covered that and we didn’t need this death to get the point. Piper standing by is all of us standing by and not speaking up. Being a part of this system makes us the racists too. We need to actively fight against the system that is holding down and killing our fellow human beings.

  12. I never finished last season, and for a couple of weeks I considered catching up and watching this season. Now I’m not so sure. Not because it was spoiled for me, but because I don’t know if I want to put myself through watching this. My heart aches with every real life LGBTQ death, and I’m not sure if I want to watch it played out in such a horrifically realistic way to a character I love.

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