Review

“Orange Is the New Black” and the Difficulty of Portraying Prison Religion

By | June 3, 2014

(Netflix)

This Friday, Netflix is going to drop 13 new episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” in our queues, and we’ll find out if Piper killed Pennsatucky after beating her to a bloody pulp outside a Christmas pageant in the first season’s final episode. If you’ve been reading casting news, of course, you already know.

As with all of the Netflix original shows, many viewers raced through the last season, some binge-watching the entire thing in a couple of days, a factor that worked in the writers’ favor as they stirred the prisoners’ racial, religious, and personal tensions to the point of open war. Litchfield Prison is a place where arbitrary-seeming rules are determined by an absent and invisible Warden, a collection of petty tyrants trade official and unofficial power, and the residents—some of whom are violent or mentally unstable—navigate as best they can with people they’d ordinarily be able to avoid.

According to the show’s creators, that fractious intermixing is meant to simulate something of real life. Jenji Kohan, the executive producer and creator of the show, said in an interview with NPR, “We talk about this country as this big melting pot, but it’s a mosaic. There’s all these pieces, they’re next to each other, they’re not necessarily mixing. And I’m looking for those spaces where people actually do mix— and prison just happens to be a terrific one.”

In response, the writers have given us an entire gallery of portraits of deep feeling and frailty: the trans woman, Sophia, who loses access to her hormones while in prison and whose son won’t speak to her; Tricia, a homeless girl with a drug problem who loses her friends in their misguided attempt to get her clean, and who later dies of an overdose; Miss Claudette, a woman who was sold into slavery in the U.S. to pay off a family debt; Taystee, who gets out on parole only to find out she has no family or friends outside of jail and reoffends in order to come back to the only place that feels like home; and Yoga Jones, tortured by the neighbor child she killed, thinking she was shooting a deer. One gets the feeling, watching the show, that each of these characters has been created to show a particular truth about the difficulty of escaping painful and unchangeable circumstances. Culture, race, gender, poverty, family: each pulls with its own type of gravity.

Yet one of the primary vectors of this pluralistic world—indeed, the nominal reason for the cliffhanger of that final episode—has been painted with the crudest brush strokes. It’s a curious thing: in a show meant to portray the richness and diversity of the American experience, why is the show’s only serious religious character a whackadoo murderess?

Pennsatucky, or Tiffany Doggett, is a fundamentalist crusader with five abortions and at least one homicide under her belt. As we see in a flashback, she was addicted to meth during her most recent pregnancy, which is why she aborted over her boyfriend’s protests; she was afraid that she would get arrested for endangerment. After the procedure, when a clinic worker makes a smart comment about her frequent visits (“Number 5, huh? We should give you a punch card. Get the 6th one free.”), she pulls a shotgun out of the cab of her friend’s truck, goes back into the clinic, takes a shot. She later stands trial for murder.

By the time we see her in jail, the person we see is a radically different one from the pre-arrest flashback. Incarcerated Pennsatucky spouts Scripture, tries faith-healing on her fellow inmates, and collapses the chapel ceiling by hanging an enormous, against-the-rules handmade cross from a flimsy beam. She’s emotionally unstable, she threatens and punishes other inmates, and she’s ignorant, racist, and homophobic.

We eventually find out that her flip towards fundamentalism is the work of her pro-life defense lawyer, who made her a crusader for the religious anti-abortion crowd—somehow hiding her own abortions—by picking up her case and painting her as a warrior for justice for the unborn.

The moment when she switches allegiances, from a woman who shoots a clinic worker to a patron saint for a religion she barely understands, is one of the most important moments of the series. Pennsatucky—poor, cynical, meth-addled and proud in the way of someone who has nothing to lose—walks into a courtroom to find dozens of people are shouting her name in support and feels a system galvanize behind her, perhaps for the first time in her life. Actress Taryn Manningdoes a beautiful thing with her face in this moment: it’s as if she’s never felt full before, and now that she is, her only thought is to find a way to feel this way forever.

Small wonder, perhaps, that she latches onto this possibility of salvation, eternal or otherwise, with as much fervor as she can summon from her wiry, undernourished body. Her lawyer, who occasionally visits her in prison, is as much her pastor as her counsel, and feeds this newfound passion.

But her passion makes her dangerous: once she’s tasted adoration, she can’t let it go. It’s what makes her such a good target for pranks, and why, after she gets Piper sent to solitary, the other inmates’ gaslighting retaliation is so effective. In convincing her to believe she’s become a healing instrument of God, they give her more of the power and justification she was craving when she first picked up that shotgun. What started as an opportunistic act that benefited her in court, and propped her up in jail as she received letters from supporters on the outside, became a part of her identity, perhaps for first the time in reality. It’s clear that nobody knows how violent or unstable she can be.

It’s also clear that we’re meant to sympathize with those around Pennsatucky. She reads as deluded, callous, perhaps even evil.

This is exactly where the show’s blindspot around religion makes itself the most apparent: Is Pennsatucky meant to be truly religious, in actuality trying to reform—as her ungraceful attempt to reconcile with Piper might show—and hiccupping along the way? Or is she an egomaniacal con artist wielding belief the way she does a shotgun?

Tanya Erzen, a 2013 Soros Justice Fellow and the executive director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, has worked extensively with women in prisons. “There’s the way the religious space in the show becomes strategic space,” she says. “It’s where you meet your girlfriend, where you find privacy, where you jostle for various things. Belief itself is really caricatured, when it’s not totally absent.”

Part of this, Erzen says, is the sitcom quality to the show, the madcap plotlines and zany predicaments of Litchfield. “I have students come up to me and say, ‘I totally relate to this show, I know just what it’s like to have a roommate you don’t like!’ The whole ethos of the show is that what’s happening is scary, but not actually.”

But the sense that religion on the inside isn’t legitimate—that it’s faked, or that the believer hasn’t quite figured out the difference—is the real thing.

It’s an attitude that exists outside television, too. Josh Dubler, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, says the image of Pennsatucky fits with common secularist imaginings of religion, in which piety, particularly in prison, is either a con or the last defense of the pitiable. Dubler, who wrote a book called Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, describes in an interview with C-SPAN2 these two types as the “bad man”—the murderer and rapist who is faking his fidelity to a god—and the “poor man,” whose belief is seen as a lamentable condition, explained away by a lack of freedom and options. “That secularist idea lines up with a kind of well-intentioned, progressive notion of what a prisoner is, which is essentially a victim of the system, which is someone born into the wrong body, usually black, brown, and male, into the wrong circumstances, often urban poverty,” Dubler says. With the bad man of religion, it’s “they can’t possibly mean it. But the poor man, it’s ‘they mean it, but they probably shouldn’t.’”

Pennsatucky, both white trash and a schemer, gets to be both.

That’s where we come back to Piper. Piper, through whose eyes we’ve seen the prison all season, has the same casual disdain for religion that Dubler describes. While she is remorseful enough about getting Pennsatucky stuck in psych to admit to the prank, she doesn’t find a graceful way to resist Pennsatucky’s attempts to baptize her. Instead, she gives a lecture about the stupidity of belief, alienating Pennsatucky further just when her persecution complex has hit its apex. It’s this disrespect that leads up to the brutal fight in the yard that ends the season:

I don’t believe a billion Indians are going to hell, I don’t think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don’t believe that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it’s just bullshit, and on some level, I think we all know that. I mean, don’t you? Look, I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all the random shitty things that happen to us and I wish I could get on that ride. I’m sure I would be happier. But I can’t. Feelings aren’t enough. I need it to be real.

The question of what’s real and what isn’t gets at the heart of what makes religious life in prison such a difficult thing to portray. Dubler said in an interview, “It’s easy to get tripped up on the implicit Protestant theory of religion, which is of faith, and what one holds in one’s heart. Because when we’re thinking about prisoners and their religion, it all becomes mere performance. We tend to stereotype prisoners on the basis of their crime.” At the same time, the ostensibly rehabilitative purposes of prison demand a transformation—a transformation that can perhaps never be truly proven. Even Piper, in the speech above, can’t decide if religion is a thing that can be real, if it could be possible for her to feel it and be happier, or if Christianity truly is bereft of substance, a lie that Pennsatucky manages to tell herself and simultaneously believe.

Of course, the whole season’s trajectory might be significantly more tenuous if Pennsatucky were perceived to be truly converted. And insofar as individual characters are chess pieces in service to the narrative of the larger show, so far, so plotted. But in a landscape that is otherwise populated by people that seem like representative of themselves, not stereotypes, it’s a strange about-face, and an unfortunate hinge on which to place the major conclusion of the first season.

We don’t get much from any of the other believers, either. Take Sister Ingalls, a Catholic nun whose backstory hasn’t been explained. She floats around the prison, saying grandmotherly things and occasionally reading Scriptures with the other inmates. We know she chained herself to a flagpole at a nuclear test site, but rather than demonstrating the kind of political commitment and fire one might expect of such a character, the most controversial thing she’s said all season is, “I like to think of myself as more of the Pope’s homie.” Instead of Megan Rice, we get a cool, unthreatening icon with none of the violent convictions of Pennsatucky, but no fuller, more dimensional Christianity, either.

We also have Yoga Jones, a Buddhist who leads yoga classes in the rec room, and references to Sophia’s church, which is likely Baptist, and whose pastor begins dating her wife. Both faiths are rarely cited, and exist mostly to situate the characters’ emotional states, not their religious ones. A group of pagan worshippers are mentioned by the prison’s chaplain, but never seen, and Piper’s fiancé’s Judaism seems to be largely cultural. Pennsatucky is the only character whose religious affiliation—no matter how newly assumed, how suspect, or how opportunistic—seems to be a real driving force in her life.

It’s unclear whether the show, by placing Piper as its surrogate, is trying to escape responsibility for religious stereotyping, or if the writers haven’t realized they’re doing it. From the moment of arrival, Piper is clueless about nearly everyone and everything in the prison, so why not Pennsatucky? Her disdain is something that we, the viewers, are meant to see through, by virtue of the fact that we know more about all these characters than they know about each other. But if it were all Piper, why is Pennsatucky unable to escape the trap of the sociological lens, in which her religion is only ever a tool, an escape, a delusion, or a performance? It’s a cynical view that seems out of place on a show that otherwise deals with its characters’ identities in ways that are sensitive and unexpected.

The question of how to deal with inter-religious conflict could be a perfect one to pose in Litchfield. The self-contained microworld, the non-denominational, soulless worship spaces, the missing Warden, the overlap between the progressive aims of criminal rehabilitation and Christian self-improvement, the fact that no one gets to leave.

I asked Erzen what it would take to approach religion with seriousness on a show like this one. “What it would take is highlighting the other religious characters in a way that shows something about their theology or their inner life. You could talk about the death penalty in a nuanced way, or about how prisoners connect with the outside world and find support as they transition back out into it, and how religion or religious groups function in those spaces.” She added, “But maybe that wouldn’t be very funny.”

Probably not. Then again, neither is most of Miss Claudette’s story, or Taystee’s, or Red’s. Rumor has it that we’re getting the backstory for at least one nun in the second season. Maybe this one will ask some better questions.

Xarissa Holdaway is a writer in New York. Follow her @xarissaaaa.

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