If you deny something from a group of people for a really long time, they'll be happy with any morsel you throw their way.
That's why "Orange Is the New Black," Netflix's hit comedic drama about women held in a minimum security prison, Litchfield Penitentiary, was so successful in the first place. It offered up an idea that was so crazy that it just might work. But the novelty of seeing—gasp!—women in prison has faded. And so has the allure of seeing—gasp!—women of color on television.
The recently released fourth season tries and fails to be as explosive as the first season. Moreover, its attempt to acknowledge issues in the United States and the prison system in the era of Black Lives Matter feels less like a powerful statement and more like sitting in Sociology 101 at an predominantly white institution. This season seems intent on teaching white people about society at the cost of black and brown lives by exploring a number of scenarios in which white inmates exploit and harm inmates of color. Why is this a problem? Because black lives don't exist for the sheer entertainment and education of white people, and that's what the show suggests.
Not that this is the first time "Orange Is the New Black" has worked with this kind of politically-oriented plot device. That's kind of the premise of the show: Piper (played by Taylor Schilling), incarcerated for her ties to a drug ring via someone she was dating, is the oblivious white woman who couldn't possibly survive in jail. But once she's there, she learns how the "real world" works from a rag tag crew of urban black and brown women and meth-dealing hillbillies. But those characters really only exist to add contrast and show just how white and privileged Piper is. In a sense, the show—created and written by white people—seems self-aware of how it uses its non-white characters as mere props—interesting and adorable props, but props nonetheless.
It's important that non-white people enjoying the show keep this dynamic in mind while watching the new season, which seems to be a case study in institutional whiteness and power dynamics. Here, the show's white characters embody the varying ways that whiteness and its privileges strip white people of their compassion and humanity in society.
For example, Piper, drunk with power and warring with the Dominicans, snitches to the new guard captain and plays on his blatant racism and gets an "anti-gang" movement started, complete with stop and frisk points only targeting black and brown inmates. This anti-gang group naturally turns into a neo-Nazi gang. And while Piper condemns the movement, she never actively tries to stop it. She merely cries when things go horribly wrong. In the most glaring expression of white privilege, she frames Maria, the Dominican competition in the panty trade—Piper's claim to fame last season—and gets a few years added onto Maria's sentence. When Maria retaliates by branding Piper with a swastika, the already crazy-racist guards up the ante and make the prison even more unbearable for the women of color.
In many other ways, this season exposes the ideological and ethical limits of even so-called "woke" white people. Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman) becomes exactly what many people think skinny white women who practice yoga religiously and denounce capitalism really are—in denial of their own racism and intensely ashamed of it, but unwilling to do anything to actively change it. Judy King (Blair Brown), the newest and most famous inmate, literally uses black culture, food, and people as props to get what she wants. King is like a southern Martha Stewart who winds up in Litchfield just as a video from the '80s surfaces showing King putting on a racist puppet show with a character called "Watermelon Sam." In a comical turn of events, she manages to use the black inmates' desire to sell pictures to the paparazzi in her favor and spins the story to make it seem like she's in a redeeming interracial relationship with a prominent black character. But when things get tense, King always manages to desert her new "love" interest.
Meanwhile, Soso (Kimiko Glenn), a profoundly privileged Asian girl, assumes her girlfriend Poussey, the most educated person in the prison, is the child of a crackhead because she's black. It's like racists gone wild this season.
Rarely has a show so blatantly explored privilege and exposed white culture for what it is, and that is admirable. But ultimately, we are watching black and brown characters suffer over and over again to the point of the pattern becoming a trigger, making you wonder what intentions the writers have in showing us what "the real world" is like. The white characters—no matter how terrible they are—are always humanized and still win. This isn't true for the black inmates, and that sentiment is confirmed by the death of a major black character.
The popular reading of "Orange Is the New Black" after this season is that it's black trauma porn for white people, but that was also true before this season. And honestly, what isn't black trauma porn for white people in media right now? The show is written by well-meaning white people. And well-meaning white people are the same ones who passively call police on black people walking down the street, or say nothing when they see police harassing people of color, or historically participated in photographing lynching back in the day. It's a well-meaning white character that causes the death of a black character in "Orange Is the New Black," and it's the well-meaning, all-white writing team that attempts to humanize the killer for the sake of "discussion." But for how long will white people need to use the blood, sweat, and tears of black and brown lives to learn how evil they can be?
So, fair warning, non-white people who dare watch this show—especially this season, in which all the little white lies come to light: This show is about white people dealing with their whiteness and in order for that to happen, you have to view people of color suffering as a result. Watch at your own risk.
Season four of "Orange Is the New Black" is now streaming on Netflix.