Actually, "Orange is the New Black" is Doing a TERRIBLE Job of Portraying and Discussing Sexual Assault

It’s no longer enough to present sexual violence in a way which creates empathy for the victim.
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Marissa Higgins
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It’s no longer enough to present sexual violence in a way which creates empathy for the victim.

Orange is the New Black is widely praised, and I can understand why: they have a diverse cast, women writers, and you can binge watch the entire show on Netflix. Their cast includes many queer characters, played by actual queer actors, which is cool: notably, they even have a transgender character played by a transgender actor, which is a huge milestone in the media. The show is female driven, and overall, I think it tells women’s stories in a real and relatable way. 

Orange is the New Black truly disappoints me, though, in an area where I think it should excel: discussion of sexual assault.

In the first two seasons, we see sexual assault in a strange way: we have an inmate-guard relationship between Daya and Bennett, who while they have consensual sex, do not really have consensual sex, because prisoners cannot consent to sex with guards. Daya also has sex with Mendez (“Pornstache”), who she does report for rape, and he goes to jail on felony charges. So we have a female character who consents to sex (but not really, legally speaking), then consents to sex with a different guard (but again, not really, legally speaking) and she reports the latter for rape, but not the former, because she loves the former.

I know this plot threads much of the drama throughout the three seasons, and a lot of viewers are invested in watching it unfold. To me, it feels like addressing the issue of sexual assault by making it a non-issue: viewers are made to feel that Daya isn’t really being sexually assaulted because she’s in love with Bennett. Ignore the power dynamics. Ignore the hierarchical structures of the prison system. Ignore the numerous issues with cross-gender supervision in prison.

Daya and the other characters discuss her pregnancy, but not her actual sexual experiences or feelings: there’s no discussion about consent, or pressure, or her processing of emotions. There’s no counseling, even after she does report the rape. Viewers see that Daya consents (again, not really, legally speaking) to sex with Mendez and then “tricks” him by going to report it, so she can “blame” her pregnancy on him. Whether she initiated or not, in prison, it is actually rape. But for viewers, it’s just Daya being strategic and trying to keep Bennett from going to prison himself.

Needless to say, I find it disappointing to have this scenario be our only discussion of sexual assault in the show. Orange is the New Black has a cast full of women: we know, statistically, that 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And yet none of the other characters have been assaulted? If not in prison, during a flashback? I don’t buy it.

That is until we reach season three. Episodes 10 and 11 -- entitled "A Tittin’ and a Harin” and “We Can Be Heroes” -- attempt to fit an entire season’s worth of plot into about two hours. We see our newly developed and humanized Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett sexually assaulted. Again. And again. And again.

I cringed. I looked away. I felt sick. I watched it again to process my feelings on the story arc. I paused it, worked on other things, and resumed it. I watched it again to write this article. In truth, I still feel nauseous from it.

Orange is the New Black failed women in these episodes. In a show written by women, about women, for a largely female audience, they should have set the bar for how we talk about sexual assault in the media. Too often, sexual assault is used as a plot-device in our books, movies, and television, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

It’s not enough to show sexual assault. It’s not enough to show sexual assault the “right” way. We need to talk about sexual assault, talk about recovering, talk about the emotional and physical healing. Depicting sexual assault in a way that is realistic and sympathetic to the victim is not enough - that’s the minimum, not the goal. And what better show to tackle the issue head on and handle it with grace and nuance than Orange is the New Black?

The fact that 29 out of the 39 episodes in Orange is the New Black have actually been directed by men doesn’t get a lot of attention. In my research, I discovered both episodes dealing with Pennsatucky’s rape were directed by men.

What is a man doing directing an episode about sexual assault against women?

We’ve seen this fail before. In Mad Men (a show which is male written and male directed), Joan’s character is raped by her fiancé. During the assault, we get a close-up of her face: she, like Pennsatucky, looks distant and disconnected. My issue is not with showing sexual assault in the media as a principle: in my opinion, it’s okay to show these scenes and these authentic and poignant reactions. After Joan’s assault, she marries him and we see no discussion of it. She confides in no one. She gets no help. Initially, I was disturbed as to why they showed her assault if they weren’t going to do anything about it. But hey, I told myself, Mad Men is set in the 1960s. Of course that’s how they’ll handle sexual assault in the show. Orange is the New Black will do it better. Right?

Wrong. Pennsatucky responds to her numerous assaults in a similar way to Joan: limp body with a dead, disconnected expression. It’s heart-breaking, chilling, and haunting. In her interview with Vulture, the actress who plays Pennsatucky, Tayrn Manning, discusses the prison rape scene, saying, “For me, you don’t need to see the kicking and the screaming. I think that’s shown by [her] checking out [while being raped]. It’s a mechanism for people who are abused.” 

And I agree with her -- though painful, and haunting, it’s important and humanizing to see the blank expression, the quiet tears, and the paralysis. Too often, when we discuss sexual assault, people still imagine a rapist jumping out of the bushes and attacking a stranger who kicks and screams for help. The reality is, like in Joan and Pennsatucky’s experiences, 82% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger and many victims disconnect to survive the encounter.

When we see Pennsatucky experience sexual assault as a teenager, I am saddened, but not surprised there’s no discussion of her experiences. Given that Pennsatucky’s mother tells her sex is like a “bee sting” and advises her to let boys “get it over with,” we understand she would not be a supportive character. We assume that the resources for her to come forward and receive support in her rural area would be minimal. In the present day of the show, I think Coates safely sets off predator alarms for all viewers, so I saw it coming: this is how they’re going to bring sexual assault into the show again.

Orange is the New Black does what every other show does: they show the assault. The audience feels sick and sad and heart-broken. Then Orange did what every other show does: they didn’t talk about it. This is what disappoints me. Sure, Big Boo stumbles upon Pennsatucky in the hours after her rape, and they have a conversation where Boo surmises what happened. Then, they have another “conversation” where Boo throws candy at her friend and yells at her to “lick [her] pussy.” This is, I gather, her way of getting Pennsatucky to understand she was raped.

The cardinal rule of how to respond when someone’s been sexually assaulted? Listen. Don’t put words in their mouth. Don’t pressure them into talking about it, or reporting it, or labeling it as anything. Listen. Don’t bring in your own issues, perspectives, or ideologies. Listen.

Given that 1 in 8 lesbians have been raped in their lifetime, I thought we would see that discussion with Big Boo. Perhaps she’d been the victim of sexual assault herself, and can therein relate to Pennsatucky. Perhaps a girlfriend of Big Boo’s had been assaulted, and that’s why Boo reacts with so much anger when she realizes Coates raped her friend. Instead of any kind of a discussion -- instead of listening -- Big Boo reacts with explosive anger and makes a revenge plan to drug and rape the rapist. While it’s obvious to the viewer, and to Big Boo, that Pennsatucky was raped by Coates, it wasn’t obvious to her, and even after opening up to Big Boo, she still seems unsure and uncomfortable with calling it an assault. Pennsatucky is essentially voiceless, even with the one friend she confides in.

Thankfully, the pair doesn’t go through with raping her rapist. The time spent on this raping-Coates-with-a-broom scheme really saddened me because it was a huge waste of opportunity in the show. Yes, this plot point shows that Pennsatucky (and Boo) rise above their emotions and are the better people: they aren’t rapists.

You know what the plot line also shows? Writers, directors, and producers still aren’t ready to talk about what comes after sexual assault. You know what would have taken as much time in the show, and actually been relatable to viewers? Pennsatucky going forward about the assault and no one believing her. Pennsatucky going forward about the assault and still having to drive the van with Coates. Pennsatucky talking to another inmate about the assault and that person making her doubt herself. Big Boo blabbing about it to another inmate - whether to spread rumors, or to get advice - and that person spreading it like wildfire around the prison. Pennsatucky discovering she’s pregnant, or contracted a sexually transmitted disease or HIV from the assault (to be fair, these issues could come up in the next season, as the show does not move through time very quickly). 

The point is, these are real situations people deal with while also dealing with their assault, and it’s all painful. It’s all real. What isn’t real? A far-fetched revenge plot to drug and rape your rapist.

Orange is the New Black didn’t accomplish anything with their portrayal of sexual assault. It’s no longer enough to present sexual violence in a way which creates empathy for the victim. The media must rise to the occasion and discuss sexual assault, and the aftermath: the feelings of self-doubt, the fear, and the sadness. Pennsatucky literally tells Boo, “I’m not angry. I’m just sad.” Sorry, Pennsatucky: you’re just gonna have to be sad alone, because short of raping your rapist, the writers are all out of ideas on how you can process what happened to you. 

Eventually, Pennsatucky fakes a seizure to avoid driving the van with her rapist: it’s an unfortunate truth that many women quit their jobs, move to new locations, or otherwise change their routines to feel safer after their assaults. But is this really the most Orange is the New Black can show us? Don’t rape your rapist, get a new work assignment instead? Until writers can really engage in the aftermath of sexual assault, I see no point in them depicting it in their media because viewers deserve more.