Last night, I watched the infamously heartbreaking penultimate episode of Orange is the New Black‘s fourth season, regarded by many (including myself) as a return to form after season three’s arguably middling storylines.
In the episode, beloved character Poussey Washington, played by the three-time Emmy-deserving Samira Wiley, gets tackled by one of the guards and accidentally held down until she asphyxiates. Ripped straight from the headlines, the incident was supposed to be OITNB’s take on the “Black Lives Matter” movement as a move to enlighten those viewers who may not understand the… uproar, the reasons that we as Black Americans continue to fight inequality in this “post-racial” society.
Now, while I was spoiled to the fact that Poussey was killed off, I was blissfully unaware as to the circumstances behind her death, only seeing the Tumblr backlash to yet another LGBT death in a major television show. I was ready to grab the pitchfork that I’ve had readily available for the last year now and storm the gates of the OITNB writers room. I’d already written a chant. “Hey ho, ho hey, stop killing off our gays!“
Having seen the episode in question (and the heartbreaking episode that followed), I’ve realized the situation is a bit more nuanced than that.
For one, Poussey’s lesbianism was not called into question or even referenced. She wasn’t killed because she was gay; she was killed because she was black. She was killed because the system is broken and she (and her murderer) fell prey to the monster Warden Caputo had mentioned earlier.
Now, does that assuage my indignation? No, sirmam. If anything, it makes it more complicated.
The number of LGBT deaths, particularly lesbians, throughout the history of television is staggering to anyone paying attention. None of those characters were necessarily killed off because they were gay, but in a world where LGBT representation is still incredibly low, the statistics get skewed a bit. Imagine of millions of characters on television, twenty of them are gay, ten of those twenty are women. Five of those women get killed off. That’s 25% of the LGBT population and 50% of the female LGBT population.
So I’m not saying that writers aren’t allowed to kill off gay characters anymore. Instead, I propose that for every gay character that dies, two more should be introduced. Like a big gay hydra of representation. It’ll up the stats a bit.
Another fact drawing the ire of the interwebs: Poussey was black.
I know! Not only did they kill off a gay character to progress the straight storylines, they killed off a black gay character to progress the straight, white storylines.
Ain’t that a blip?
From a different perspective, I can understand why Poussey Washington was chosen by the mighty hand of the all-powerful, rather white Writers Room Gods. Her character was the most radiant, gentle, unequivocally good character you’ll ever come across on television. There are worse characters on the show, characters over who I myself would have thrown literal parties to have been crushed by Gerber Baby’s knee. Hell, I’d pay money to swap Poussey for Healy.
God, I hate Healy.
But no other death would have been nearly as evocative. No other death would have pulled the same emotions showcasing the indignities that people like Eric Garner and Michael Brown had to suffer at the hands of police brutality.
And I get that, I do. But the way the picture is painted opens the door to another interpretation: nothing in life, including race relations, is black and white.
Caputo seemed torn when it came down to whom he should throw under the bus, a good kid or a great woman. The media would never accept “it was an accident” as viable reasoning. We need to blame SOMEONE, dammit!
And to that, I call bullshit.
There is no other side to police brutality; there is no nuance. For millions of Black Americans, there is only injustice. For millions of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders, there is only inequality. To kill off a fan favorite for both groups for the sake of pushing an agenda seems gimmicky, if not a bit disingenuous.
I get the attempt to educate viewers on the Black Lives Matter movement, but it was handled very poorly and it was handled seemingly without the involvement of any actual Black voices.
For some people, television is the only exposure they have to other cultures, so if they are consistently seeing black people and gay people getting killed off, what message does that send? For those still struggling with their own identities, what are they taking away from this? “Even my favorite show doesn’t want me around.” Can you imagine the damage that does?
A few years ago, there was a rash of gay teens committing suicide at what seemed epidemic-level proportions. One district in particular, Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota, became famous for having the highest number of LGBT or LGBT-related suicides among grade school students in one area. Like a scene straight out of Contagion, LGBT youth were dropping like flies, trying to rid themselves of themselves, having been told by their parents, by their pastors, by their peers that being queer was just a thing they would not abide.
Coupled with the fact that suicides among Black men is also steadily increasing, this information certainly makes for some detrimental evidence toward the damage our current societal makeup is having upon its residents.
What’s the alternative, then, when you want to enlighten a television audience about a topic that bothers you but doesn’t actually affect you? The answer is and always will be diversity behind the camera. Only when non-straight, non-white voices start contributing to the conversation, offering their insight about a topic that actually does affect them—before it airs—will there be a complete, whole, perfectly nuanced picture of a problematic subject.
And don’t even get me started on how Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren’s mental illness was used as a convenient plot device to move that story along. Talk about grinding my gears.
Until the next binge,