Power, Privilege, and the stories we tell

On the one hand, my house is an absolute wreck of laundry piles and dirty dishes. On the other hand, I managed to effectively spend any spare time I had this weekend plowing through season 2 of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black.

I have such a love-hate-relationship with the show. It is at once entertaining and deeply unsettling (and not just because it embraces what we might delicately term “explicit” content). It is convicting, for lack of a better word. While the series highlights the stories of people from marginalized groups–many women of colour, and even one transgender inmate–it nevertheless mediates those stories to us through the lens of white, educated, eminently privileged Piper Chapman. What does it say about us as a society that these marginalized voices are only heard because the pretty white girl got a book deal out of her time in prison? Building on my post from last week, how can we hope to achieve any meaningful change in the status of marginalized groups when those of us holding positions of privilege do not actually want to hear those stories.

It is on this point that the second season of Orange is the New Black surpasses the first. Not just in the fact that the show as lifted its emphasis on Piper’s (it has to be said, unsympathetic) story and has created more space to subverting our presuppositions about the varied cast of characters. Instead, a consistent (albeit subtle) theme of season 2 has been to place front and centre how profoundly voiceless the women inhabiting fictional Lichfield penitentiary truly are. Fuelled with the naivete that only privilege provides, Piper is outraged by the abuses she witnesses in prison. Surely, Piper tells a reporter hoping to use her as a spy to track down financial irregularities, people need to know that elderly prisoners are cast out on the street in the name of “compassionate release.” No, she is informed … no one cares. No one cares about the hunger strike several inmates organize to protest the unfair and arbitrary disciplinary actions taken by prison guards. The 24-hour news outlets are too busy covering an oncoming storm to be bothered by a prison demonstration. These women are alone, voiceless, forgotten.

And here is where that unsettling conviction comes in for the viewer. Lets face it, if you can afford the time and the money for netflix (not to mention a device to stream and view its content) … you’re probably a person of at least some degree of privilege. We are the larger society that has failed to give these women a voice. We are the culture that provided no outlet for this drama until it could be at least nominally couched as a “fish out of water” tale–the “relatable” Piper thrust into that unrelatable context of prison. There was much outrage around facebook a couple weeks ago as reports surfaced of a mass grave in Ireland, containing the remains of nearly 800 children thought to have been dumped in a septic tank because the children of unwed mothers did not deserve to be cared for properly. Even if that narrative has been somewhat deconstructed in the last couple days, it puts us in mind of the recent film Philomena in which an young unwed mother has her child forcibly taken by the church and adopted out to another family. What sort of society would inflict such torture on a young woman? Except that our society does that. All the time. Pregnancy and childbirth are all too common in prisons. Not only are these women denied basic prenatal care, they often have to give birth in chains–after which they are allowed AT MOST 24 hours with their newborn. If they cannot find someone to care for their child outside the prison, the child can be given over to the states and the mother can lose all parental rights. (To contrast–the condemnation of the pregnant Sudanese woman who converted to Christianity was undoubtedly barbaric, but even under Sharia law she would have been able to spend two years caring for her child before the sentence would have been carried out.)

Orange is the New Black makes me uncomfortable because it establishes over and over again the spiritual reality the guilt and innocence, sin and righteousness are not individual realities. Prisoners are convicted for crimes which may or may not be wholly their responsibility, while others on the outside bear their own hidden guilt. I may not actively ignore the needs of prisoners (I may even pray for those in prison as we often do in our shared intercessions). But how often does my own complacency–my desire to sit comfortably at home watching a dramatization of the marginalized–contribute to the suffering of others. How can we work to change that? I am not sure. As we await the full realization of God’s kingdom of love and justice here on earth, I am hopeful that something like this show may help poke us a little way toward more humane treatment of prisoners in our own society. As we begin to hear their stories more and more, it will be harder to ignore the voices of those least among us.

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