September 8, 2016

The Problem With Poussey: Saying Goodbye To OITNB’s Innocence

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What is the issue?
*CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS*
Netflix / OITNB
Netflix / OITNB

“I talked to another reporter who had just seen the episodes and she said her stomach hurt so bad she felt like she was going to throw up when she watched it. If we’re making people feel like that just from a TV show, then that’s the kind of TV I want to make. That’s the kind of art I want to make. Make people feel things so deeply that it affects them in that way. To know that we might have achieved that this time is awesome.”Samira Wiley

Let’s talk about the most shocking and painful TV death of the year so far – Orange Is The New Black’s Poussey Washington.

Just days after Netflix released all 13 episodes of the hit show’s fourth season, fans flocked online to gush and growl over the major plot twist at the end of the New York skyline. I found myself in the middle of both.

As a writer myself, I can totally get what the writers were trying to say and do. I’ve been rewatching the entire season with my husband (who has not seen it yet), and if you’re armed with the knowledge that this tender character will die, you’ll see the show in a different light. I’ve come to realize the entirety of season four has revolved around, and has always been about, Poussey’s seemingly inevitable end.

That alone deserves praise, how the writers managed to sew all the micro-plots together “cleanly” until the culminating scene. From an artistic point of view, bravo and kudos to the all-white group of writers. In terms of their activism, though, they’ve fallen a bit short.

Artists are allowed to decide whatever they want for their characters or stories, but they are nonetheless liable if they miss more than they hit and, in turn, do more harm than good for several communities.

WAS HER DEATH NECESSARY?

Since the start OITNB’s philosophy has always been that these characters are a victim of their own circumstance. The flashbacks which serve to flesh out characters and provide some respite from the day-to-day of prison life also show us that there is always an explanation or excuse for each person’s misdoings. In this case, the show is trying to tell us that Poussey was no more than a victim of chance (as shown by her dream-like flashback) and of a failed system (MCC) whose monsters are more intangible than douchey correctional officers.

I do not completely buy in to the anger that Poussey’s death was another “meaningless, lesbian TV death solely for shock value.” I disagree on the assumption that the writers solely did this for fun, ratings, or shock. The plot had meaning and the writers had intent, but somehow it got lost in translation and, like the show tries to teach us, that responsibility falls heavily on the writers themselves.

Again, artistically, they used a character they knew we loved and whose murder we would be certainly crushed over. It got us talking and reacting – so there’s a sense of shock there. But on a show where LGBTQ characters are abundant, one can argue it could’ve been anyone. Story-wise it makes sense.

Yet at the same time, we must reexamine the attempts at activism here. The writers could’ve killed any other character and it STILL would’ve made sense. Queer and colored characters, and even real life people, do not exist to die solely to teach white people a lesson.

Does it make for good television? Definitely. But did a black lesbian character have to die in order for you to “make a point”? Um, no. “But her death raises awareness to these social issues we have! It’s great everyone’s talking about it!” You shouldn’t need a TV show to tell you America is racist as heck, the system is screwed up, and it’s murdering and unjustly incarcerating colored people literally on a daily basis.

As we speak there are roughly more than 150 LGBTQ characters who were pushed down the Bury Your Gays trope. There are other ways to deliver a statement on institutional racism and how America has little-to-no regard for black lives.Regardless of context or praiseful writing skills, killing off representation may stoke a reaction from your audience, but ultimately it dampens and cheapens the message.

WHAT IS THE MESSAGE?

We know the machinations leading up to Poussey’s death. Not all the characters in the show, however, do.

Poussey’s best friend, Taystee, is supposed to be some micro-reflection of Black Lives Matter. She’s angry, hurt, and demanding action. She is seen repeatedly insisting Poussey’s death was a murder despite us, the audience, being told it was an accident.

I don’t know what the writers were trying to relay here, but the implication seems to be that BLM is being angry for nothing, that black people’s feelings over social issues are misguided, that the system is so rigged, flawed, and fucked up that eh death is inevitable so it’s not actually the police man’s fault.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But you still gotta wonder wtf the intentions are.

BLUE LIVES MATTER BECAUSE ACCIDENTS HAPPEN

This. THIS. This is where OITNB failed me.

I am not okay with the notion that the mass of black American bodies at the bloodied hands of police was simply incidents gone wrong instead of actual, deliberate disregard for colored lives.

Poussey’s death was supposed to be one collective homage to some of the worst crimes of police brutality:

“Poussey’s death nods toward several high-profile killings of black Americans by those in law enforcement, as well as the aftermath of those deaths. Poussey is restrained and suffocated, like Eric Garner in New York City. Her body is left on the floor for hours and hours, like Michael Brown’s in Ferguson.

And when the prison’s statement to the press on Poussey’s death chooses to focus on Bayley’s innocence, rather than what he did, all the women in the prison storm out of their dorms in outrage, with Poussey’s best friend, Taystee (Danielle Brooks), screaming in anguish that they didn’t even ‘say her name’ — the same rallying cry that emerged after Sandra Bland died while in Texas police custody.

Even outside these very obvious markers, Orange Is the New Black makes a point of showing exactly how screwed up the system is and how little say those in custody, especially people of color, have when it comes to wrongful deaths.” Caroline Framke

And yet the show chose to make her death look as though the system “poetically” failed her. And yet the show chose morally-conflicted, untrained softie Officer Bayley as the one to end her life. Truthfully? The show chose the storyline that would be easiest to swallow by a white CIS audience.

Bayley’s flashbacks force us to sympathize with the person who killed Poussey. Of all the shitty COs that could’ve been a direct parallel to the corrupt, racist, shitty real-life cops responsible for the deaths of black lives stated above, the show chose the one the audience could absolve and not hold absolutely accountable.

If the writers wanted to base the arc on true events then they should’ve been more upfront and honest. You want to drive home that racism, homophobia, corruption, and police brutality exists? Then have Psycho Humphrey, Luschek, Dixon, or Stratman intentionally kill a colored inmate. Or, as someone perfectly worded, Piscatella –

“This whole ‘oh it’s bringing awareness to start conversations’ thing y’all keep saying is utter bullshit… The writers could’ve shown us that gay white men can be just has misogynistic and racist as anyone else. That any cop regardless of their sexual orientation or race or gender can be on a power trip. That’s a conversation piece. Not this. The conversation that is happening is that the writers didn’t quiet understand what they were doing.”

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If the goal was to highlight the grossness of police brutality, they would not have made this into an accident. POLICE BRUTALITY IS NOT AN ACCIDENT and to attempt to make the viewer sympathize with the audacity of Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter in the current social and political turmoil America is still in is a giant slap in the face to the Black Lives Matter movement and the lost lives the writers claim to pay homage to.

It’s lamentable how Americans can watch this show and justify Poussey’s death as “This happens everyday. It’s totally realistic.” Police forces are consciously murdering people of color. The system being screwed up is not accidental. Eric Garner’s death was not accidental. Michael Brown’s death was not accidental. Sandra Bland’s death was not accidental.

Nor was the choice of Poussey’s death and Bayley as the perpetrator.

Orange Is The New Black may be about colored people, but it isn’t FOR colored people. If the show succeeded in anything it’s that it revealed how massively divided we still are in social issues and it’s made us feel the hopelessness and futility of a society indulging in willful blindness towards injustice. Unfortunately, in this instance, there are no MCCs to hide behind or semi-innocent Baxter Bayleys to point fingers at to avoid transparent culpability for a couple of poor avoidable choices.

This time, we know who to blame – the writers.

Accent à droite, bitches.

“This is America. Land of the free, home of the racist.” – Black Cindy TC mark

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