The most essential and compelling read after Orange Is the New Black‘s fourth season was Ashleigh Shackelford’s “Orange Is the New Black is Trauma Porn Written for White People.” It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since last season, especially during the lead up to the U.S. election, and most especially on the day after the election when these two inevitable facts surfaced: 1) It was white women who tipped the vote to Donald Trump, and 2) The only stocks that didn’t plummet on November 10th were private prison stocks. In fact, stocks in private prisons have gone up over 100% since Trump was elected. It’s a game white people play at the expense of the lives of people of color, particularly Black lives. The election, the stock market, television. Riese is right, of course, that abandoning OITNB shuts us out of the critical conversation, and we absolutely must be involved there. And also there’s still no show on TV that employs such a diverse group of actors. But I have not been looking forward to this season, and “F*ck, Marry, Frieda” didn’t do anything to calm my dread.
Right out of the gate Alex becomes the conscience of the audience, stepping in to check Ruiz (specifically) and the Latina inmates (generally) as they “reorient” a group of guards they’re holding hostage in the theater. This reorientation involves humiliating the guards they ways they’ve humiliated these women over the years, and also a horrifying anal cavity search scene. Alex calls it Rumsfeld Dinner Theatre. It’s not written or filmed in a way that’s meant to be cathartic for these women or for the audience; it’s not about them reclaiming the power that has been systematically (and systemically) stripped from them their entire lives. It’s written as abuse, plain and simple. A white woman stepping in to protect white men being assaulted by Latina women ten minutes after Donald Trump won an election by calling Mexicans criminals and rapists is not a good look.
The whole episode represents an unwelcome shift: OITNB has always struggled to balance humor and drama, and while the brief moments of humor have always been dark, they have also almost always highlighted the humanity of these women and acknowledged the various oppressions they suffer. This episode turns the laughter of the inmates into something hard and cruel. As Caputo is paraded through the prison, as Luschek springs a fear boner, as random guards are subjected to various punishments, as Maureen blows air into Humphrey’s I.V. to cause a stroke, the inmates laugh at these men and our sympathy is called into question. “F*ck, Marry, Frieda” takes away our inside jokes with the women of Litchfield and turns their laughter into something for us to fear, to root against, something that puts the audience on the side of these pathetic men.
The heart of the episode — and spoiler alert: the entire heart of season five — is Taystee. She and Black Cindy and Watson and Alison are crushed to find out their video about Poussey’s death hasn’t gone viral and gotten traction with the media or with activists in a way they can hope will create change. Black Cindy has become a meme. Black Lattes Matter. Taystee takes it the hardest, of course, and she finally agrees to team up with the Latina inmates because she believes it’s the only chance they have for the riot to actually create an impact in the world outside of Litchfield. They assemble all the guards, including a revived Humps, in the chapel and take a picture to prove they’ve taken over the prison.
Okay, so: Freida. The episode’s namesake. Turns out her dad was a conspiracy theorist and a survivalist, which makes a weird kind of sense. The flashbacks are great, as most of OITNB‘s flashbacks are, and while they help us understand how Freida is capable of making a couple of blow darts, convincing the guards in the cafeteria they’re poisoned, and walking away unscathed to construct a bunker and nibble on a jar of peanut butter while waiting out the riot, they don’t really contribute to the larger story or help us understand Freida’s motivations or character more than we already did.
If you were to take a peek at some of the more mainstream coverage of “F*ck, Marry, Frieda” you would find comments from a whole lot of people saying what a welcome change it is to be reminded that all humans are capable of great evil and all humans deserve to be treated humanely. It’s not just the women in Litchfield who deserve our sympathy; it’s these guards too.
As I was watching this episode and then reading those comments I was reminded, as I so often am, of Rebecca Traister’s brilliant New York Magazine piece from 2015 called “Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People?” in which she concludes:
It matters because it shows us all the ways in which we live in a world made for and shaped around white men. And in aggregate, when the statues are of white men, the buildings and cities and bridges and schools are named after white men, the companies are run by white men and the movie stars are white men and the television shows are about white men and the celebrated authors are white men, the only humanity that is presented as comprehensible — the kind that succeeds and fails, that comprises strength and weakness, that feels love and anger and alienation and fear, that embodies nuance and contradiction, that can be heroic and villainous, abusive and gentle — is the humanity of white men.
That Orange Is the New Black‘s response to murdering a queer Black women is to try to drive home the point that no one’s really good and no one’s really evil and we’re all just human is really disheartening. We know white men are human; we are reminded every day in every way. It’s why it was so welcome to watch a show that reminded us of the humanity of people who aren’t white men, and why it’s so demoralizing to lose that refuge.