“Orange Is the New Black” Episode 502 Review: White Male Lives Matter

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.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 863 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. thank you for naming one of the many many many ways this season of ointb has made me so incredibly uncomfortable. i did enjoy frieda’s flashbacks, but everything else so far has been emotionally exhausting.

  2. Another thing about this season’s flashbacks is that they seem to have abandoned entirely the idea of leading us to knowing the crime that landed each inmate into Litchfield, which is relevant information for us to have, w/r/t character development!
    I know they won’t do that for every character, but the seeming complete abandonment of that enterprise this season just added to the situation of the flashbacks being interesting and enjoyable, but not particularly relevant to the story as a whole. In some cases it made me feel like the writers don’t know for sure how each of these inmates landed in prison, and I’ve never felt that way before about this show! (unlike, say, The L Word, throughout which it often felt like everybody was just making shit up as they went along.)

    This was my least favorite episode of the season. Regardless of these guards being assholes — AND! AND! these specific guards were so new to the show that I hadn’t even come to hate them yet (great that Coates was absent for this. :-/) and I felt like some of them were really just mediocre humans who got a shitty job. (at least as far as I can remember.) I didn’t want to see Maria up there leading her people to do what they did, and I didn’t want to see Alex have to be the one to say it wasn’t okay.

    Also I became obsessed with the fact that they took away Davis’s insulin, which is like, a very bad idea! He could’ve actually died or gone into diabetic ketoacidosis by day two and I’m surprised that he didn’t.

  3. I’m really loving the links y’all included in the last two recaps/reviews, esp. the Blavity piece by KJ. Something from their piece that really resonated with me and summed up my endless frustration with Poussey’s death and the fallout:

    “Bayley is not a victim of the system. He is a participant in the system, reinforcing it. I don’t need to see the guilt in his sad, puppy eyes, hiding underneath a hoodie for an entire episode to understand that he’s sorry. He should be sorry. I don’t need to see his privileged, white-boy behavior, like egging a house or having a beer on top of a water tower to remind me that he’s human. His humanity is not the one in question.”

    I honestly feel like this could be broadened to apply to Caputo and Healy (and a bunch of other guards”, who routinely get to do gross, inappropriate things in the name of fetishizing the inmates and pursuing their own gratification, and then are pushed on the audience as these poor, misguided white men who have really good reasons for being slimy and/or have redeeming qualities that eclipse their abuses of power.

    I get it, they’re people. Their humanity was never in question, though, and I wish this show could remember it’s better moments (like Miss Claudette’s story), and the fact that it’s meant to represent those whose humanity is constantly questioned.

    I’m sure I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but there is a reason they picked Poussey, and a reason they decided that her death would hurt more than any other black character’s. Those writers, those 12-ish white folks and that 1 non-black person of color in the room, were too lazy and unimaginative to conceive of a world where any of their other existing black characters could be martyred as effectively or impactfully for a mostly white audience looking to feel comforted in their self-proclaimed wokeness.

    Poussey was the gentlest, most thoughtful, most selfless, most honorable of all their black characters, and they wouldn’t have attempted this story line with anyone else. The couldn’t have attempted it, because the writers couldn’t have empathized with anyone else without putting in some serious work, and they knew their audience of mostly white progressives (the dangerous ones, the kind we’re warned against in Jordan Peele’s Get Out), for all their declarations and Obama stickers, probably wouldn’t have empathized either.

    I worked my way through days of discourse on AS last year. I watched white progressive queers fall all over themselves to justify this death, and I read plenty of arguments claiming that it was appropriate for Poussey, specifically, to die, because Black Cindy, or even Taystee, wouldn’t have affected the audience the same way. To me, that’s white people acknowledging that worth and humanity have to be earned by black folks, earned in blood or in compliance to the most palatable of personalities and struggles (you can be a person if you’re educated, if you’re from a certain background, if you don’t have and mental illnesses, if you’re soft-spoken, if you drop literary references on the regular).

    It was gross and disheartening and tiring to be told over and over again that my sliver of beloved queer black representation was an acceptable sacrifice for white people to start some half-assed discussion on the real-life trauma and abuse my people have always been subjected to, even when white folks had the luxury of looking away.

    It feels worse to see the writers pretending that the powerful white man who snuffed out her life is a victim of the same system that continues to cater to and protect him from so much as facing legal consequences.

    I was really hoping the writing team would at least half-heartedly try to find and consult (if not hire immediately) one of the many willing black writers who would love to help them avoid being gross, but…maybe it’ll happen in season 6 I guess?

    Until that happens, I’mma keep being exhausted by this white nonsense, i guess.

  4. TBH, I’m having a hard time getting through the reviews/recaps the same way everybody is having a hard time getting through this season. I realize that Riese acknowledged that she was writing the first episode and heather the following two with the rest being written by queer women of colour, but I don’t understand why we are having white voices writing about this season at all–especially the ones first out of the gate as well as Riese’s issues about the finale.

    With Riese’s call for more black writers on the show, I just see a lot of pot meeting kettle.

    Heather and Riese, I read everything you write (and have been known to cry) and I realize you have a large readership and experience with television reviewing. But I’m going to pass on any more of your writing about orange is the new black for the foreseeable future.

    • the reason is logistical — because the first three posts had to be written over the weekend since we didn’t get screeners and therefore had to wait for the show to actually come out first, and the only people we can force to write television reviews over the weekend are us.

      (and my post about the finale was just ’cause my friends hadn’t finished watching it yet or weren’t watching it at all and i wanted somebody to talk to! it’s not an official post that was on the schedule. somebody else will be reviewing the finale when we get to it.)

      • We’ll all I’m saying is that the first four articles after the release of the season that follows up a majorly problematic moment on television (that you have been rightly critical of) have been written by white authors–and you have referred to the show as tone deaf for its lack of women of colour in the writer’s room. You will both have had two articles by the time a black voice is posted, one of which because you simply couldn’t wait.

      • I probably go on to autosteaddle a dozen times a day to read content that I appreciate existing and love a lot of writing that comes out of here including Riese and Heather’s pieces that are often clever, funny, beautiful, etc.

        It’s not about winning. I’m usually on Autostraddle’s defence. That doesn’t mean I think it’s uncriticizable.

        • Katie, with respect, I think you should seek the opinions of the black writers who are about to pick up on these reviews and our black readers to find out how they feel about this. The overwhelming majority of women and nonbinary people of color I reached out to to write about OITNB turned me down flat, not because they don’t love writing for Autostraddle, but because they feel betrayed by this show and are tired of doing the emotional lifting for a show that doesn’t seem to be listening. Many other writers of color wanted to wait and see what this season had to offer before agreeing to join the review schedule. Riese and I agreed to do the first three episodes because they landed on Fri, Sat, and Sun and we wanted our writers to have a chance to watch as much as they needed to before beginning their critiques. I understand what you’re saying but this isn’t Riese and I seeking to silence or speak over WOC. This is Riese and I doing the job of senior staff to give our writers and freelancers a minute to get their thoughts together. Additionally, I know you’ll agree with this; I can tell by the nature of your comments: Sometimes it’s essential for white people to step up and speak truth to other white people (for example the entire OITNB writers room) so all that labor doesn’t fall to POC.

  5. I knew that white guys have feelings because unlike you people who have been told that all of your problems come from the “white man”(which isn’t true btw) I actually don’t care for gender or race when I look at people,just there character

  6. I had to stop watching mid-way through this episode, for good. I used to watch this show religiously, staying up all night to binge watch new seasons the day they came out. It meant so much to me. This show used to thrill me, tug at my heart strings, open my mind. I loved learning about the different women in the prison, and getting a window into the minds of some amazing characters (namely: Poussey, Taystee, Sophia, Red, Suzanne, Nicky, and others). That’s just not what the show is anymore. I could not stand to watch the way they treat the guards and I hate the writers for forcing me to feel bad for people this show didn’t even used to be about. What I love about the show isn’t there anymore, and what it’s become almost feels like a violation. I won’t watch another moment unless something changes. I’ll read recaps here so I can be up to date without having to witness the horror of everything this show is going into.

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