Orange Is the New Black Is the Only TV Show That Understands Rape

Photo: Netflix
‘Orange Is the New Black’ Is the Only TV Show That Understands Rape
Grab a notebook, Game of Thrones.

I’ve spent a week dragging my feet on writing about Pennsatucky’s two (two!) heartbreaking rape scenes on Orange Is the New Black. They certainly deserve attention, as does Taryn Manning’s performance. But as I’ve learned while procrastinating a ton in this writing process — wow, do I dislike having to think about rape. Rape is horrifying and dehumanizing. It is the betrayal of what should be an intimate, connective act. It is a violent invasion. It is ultimately about power.

Our natural instinct is to look away when confronted with something that ugly — and that’s why it’s so important for our television shows to hold their gaze. What’s most striking about Orange Is the New Black’s treatment of rape, and what separates it from any other current TV show, is not Pennsatucky’s ordeal, which is all too common and which I’ll get to later, but director Jesse Peretz’s simple, bold decision to keep the camera close and steady on Manning’s face. The struggle is over, and she has lost. She is trapped in a box of the camera’s static frame, her head inching back-and-forth along the horizontal plane of the backseat of a prison van, a lone tear trailing down her cheek as her attacker thrusts from behind — greasy and grunting, dipping in and out of view. As long as she has no escape, as long as she must endure this horrible thing happening to her, we, the audience, will have no choice but to stay with her. She did not invite this. She did not deserve this. This is not her shame; it is ours.

“It made me cry,” said a young woman I just happened to sit next to at my local bar when I told her I was writing about Pennsatucky’s rape scene. The woman was beautiful and just out of college. She was also a rape survivor whose sister researches rape for a living. “I think they captured the lifelessness,” she told me, “that happens when you decide to stop fighting.”

The last time I remember seeing a rape scene that disturbing was in the 2011 movie Martha Marcy May Marlene. The circumstances are different — a cult initiation — but the visual is almost the same: The edges of the frame closing in on the face of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) stripped of volition, her head creaking along the floor as a powerful force behind her exercises his will. It’s as if we’re watching her from the inside of a coffin.

“A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane, and ill-advised, and the whole species’ existence counts on them doing it! I don’t know how — how do women still go out with guys when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the No. 1 threat to women, globally and historically, the No. 1 cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them. That’s true! You know what our No. 1 threat is? Heart disease.” —Louis C.K.

I can’t speak to the experiences of survivors, but I do know what it feels like to have your life coated in a patina of fear and suspicion that you could be next. That’s not paranoia; the alarming odds of a woman getting raped in her lifetime are one in five, and that’s based on vastly underreported numbers. We’re taught at a very young age to practice hypervigilance, and by taught, I don’t mean in a classroom (though that happens, too, of course). My education came by way of aggressive catcalls that started in puberty, getting sexually harassed in high school, and a man who followed me home one night 10 years ago and rushed me as I put my keys in the door. He didn’t get whatever it was that he wanted, but an instant can bring me back to those minutes of terror, staring at his hand wedged in the door frame as he pushed on the glass and I pushed back, screaming from some guttural depths I didn’t know I had. The sound of footsteps behind me still makes me jump. And I know my experience was an anomaly; your rapist is far more likely to be someone you know. Which is a whole other breed of nightmare.

Rape isn’t a freak thing that happens to an unlucky few. It’s something that follows women around every day, a sense of perpetual physical vulnerability that’s not always conscious, but is ever present, like a shadow, governing what time we feel we can safely walk home at night by ourselves, or even the simple decision to get a drink with a guy we don’t know very well. You don’t have to be a survivor to appreciate what a singularly traumatic event rape is, or how much it sucks that a part of growing up female (and yes, gay or trans, too) means developing survival instincts to avoid being prey.

So why do so few TV shows seem to get that?

We seem to have entered a dismaying era of TV in which rape appears more frequently onscreen than ever, and yet rarely is treated as the abomination that it is. Salon TV critic Sonia Saraiya seems heartened by this: At least we’re talking about it. But if graphic rape scenes can be triggering to survivors of sexual abuse, then showing them for the sake of showing them is highly irresponsible. Realism isn’t the issue; lack of purpose is. The best of television ought to reflect some version of our world back to us, and in real life, we can’t pan away from rape. Rape is not sexy, or a plot point, or a shocking secret to be set up for a dramatic reveal. The reason — the only reason — to film a rape scene is to make the audience dig into that feeling of discomfort, to force us to be witnesses to the torture we are capable of inflicting on one another and come away with a deeper understanding of who we hurt and the depth of their pain. TV shows don’t all need to delve into Hard Truths; Lord knows we need our sitcoms and competitive cooking shows, too. But if a show is going to go there and put a character through something as awful as rape, it better be brave enough to depict that horror without flinching.

And when it comes to showing violence against women, flinching, or putting it out there and moving on immediately, is tantamount to sensationalism: Sally got raped and then you won’t believe this other crazy thing that happened! That’s why feminist entertainment site The Mary Sue recently declared that it would no longer write about Game of Thrones. The last straw was a scene this season in which Sansa Stark’s sadist husband Ramsay Bolton rapes her on their wedding night. Sansa was a teenager and a virgin whom audiences had been following for five seasons, yet instead of focusing on her pain, we heard only her screams as the camera panned away to the horrified reaction of a male bystander, Theon Greyjoy. It was a choice by the show’s creators, Dan Weiss and David Benioff, that made Sansa’s rape less about her than about the men in the room. The season before, Jaime Lannister forced himself on his sister and lover, Cersei, next to the body of their dead son, Joffrey, as she repeatedly told him to stop. And somehow the scene read as kind of hot, with the episode’s director stating that “it becomes consensual by the end” and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays Jaime) suggesting that it was only rape until Cersei gave in and then it wasn’t. In the GOT pilot, Daenerys Targaryen is married off to a tribal warlord who rapes her on her wedding night while she weeps. Then she falls in love with him. Is it Stockholm syndrome? Or is the show trying to tell us that rapists aren’t so bad as long as they’re nice to you afterward?

These are just the three most prominent rapes on what is by far the rapiest show on TV, possibly ever. Nary a prostitute nor a queen is safe, and viewers understand that that’s the way of this fictional world, where women are treated like property — an attitude that mirrors history and still operates in certain parts of the globe today. The problem, though, is that the show, for all the laudable complexity of its female characters, rarely acknowledges the trauma of sexual assault. Ned Stark’s beheading drove his wife insane, caused his son to start a war, and set in motion events that five seasons later prompted Sansa to marry Ramsay. But a woman’s rape is over and forgotten by the next scene. Then, consider the fact that both Cersei’s and Dany’s scenes were consensual in the books, and that Sansa’s rape happened to another character. Weiss and Benioff looked at George R.R. Martin’s source material and added more rape.

It’s easy to pick on Game of Thrones, but even shows with nobler intentions tend to get murky about sexual assault. Anna’s devastating rape on Downton Abbey, while at first a window into the plight of female servants of that age, became a soap opera about Bates and whether he might go to jail for avenging her. Many felt that Mellie’s rape on Scandal at the hands of her husband Fitz’s father, Big Jer, was a ploy by creator Shonda Rhimes to make the character more likable. My colleague Margaret Lyons disagrees, and I’m with her; my issue is the way it’s revealed to Fitz, in yet another dramatic argument with Olivia in which she tells Fitz he needs stop icing Mellie out because she was raped and kept it a secret in order to protect him. Fitz rushes to Mellie and holds her close, and we all finally understand what she meant when she kept telling him about the sacrifices she’d made. It’s rape story as couples counseling, as an explainer for bad behavior (she’s a broken woman!) and a launching point for a new crazy guessing game about the paternity of their son — and Mellie’s PTSD gets lost in the process. (Elsewhere in Shondaland, though, Charlotte’s brutal rape on Private Practice still haunts me to this day.)

What Orange Is the New Black gets right is in never losing sight of Pennsatucky’s experience. The show’s format helps; dropping 13 episodes at a time on Netflix means the writers have to be purposeful. Plus, these women are in prison; all they have is time, which makes possible and organic a patient and non-judgmental exploration of their backstories and lives on the inside. This is a show that cares deeply about telling the stories of a variety of very flawed women, and perpetuating a female POV.

Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is one of the characters we’ve come to know best. Over the course of three seasons, we’ve watched her morph from scary meth head evangelist to endearing underdog. We know from season two that she has a history of being loose with sex; she wound up at Litchfield for shooting an abortion-clinic nurse who’d made a comment about her getting her fifth abortion. By season three, she’s seen her grabs for power result in a brutal beating from Piper, and the loss of her laundry-room friends. She’s a calmer, sweeter Pennsatucky, yearning for companionship.

She finds that companionship in a budding friendship with cute newbie guard Charlie Coates (James McMenamin). Like his fellow part-time hires at the now-privatized Litchfield, he’s untrained and totally incompetent at guarding prisoners, but comes off as a decent guy. He and Pennsatucky strike up an easy rapport that buds into a mutual crush, wherein the two play hooky from van-driving duty (and the guard-prisoner supervisory relationship) to grab doughnuts from the shop where Coates used to work, and run down to a pond to feed ducks. The only break in the fun comes when Coates, making a play on Doggett’s name, throws a doughnut into the mud and commands her to pick it up with her mouth on all fours like a dog. Then he pushes her up against a tree and kisses her. She’s upset, and the next day he apologizes for how weird things got; women are just so hard to read, and he really likes her. Pennsatucky softens and asks, “Are you saying you like me like me?”

We learn from her backstory that Pennsatucky was raised southern and poor by a momma who hyped her up on Mountain Dew to make her seem like a problem child and get more money from the welfare office. When, at age 10, Pennsatucky comes running to her mama with bloody underwear, afraid she’s dying, her mom sits her down and explains the ways of the world. Now that she’s “A Tittin’ and a Hairin’” — also the episode’s name — boys are going to start looking at her different. “Best thing is to go on and let them do their business,” says her mama. “If you’re real lucky, most of 'em will be quick, like your daddy. It’s like a bee sting, in and out before you knew it was happening.”

Cut to a teenage Pennsatucky who will screw any guy who gives her a six-pack of Mountain Dew (or the generic soda equivalent). The concept that she, or any woman, could derive pleasure from sex is so foreign that she finds it gross when her first boyfriend, Nathan, shows her a porno with a woman moaning like she likes it. When he reaches for her clit, it’s clear she’s never felt that sensation. Nathan brings out her self-worth in bits and pieces, but he’s not around to help her when a previous Mountain Dew–bearing customer shows up to finish a truncated transaction from before she met Nathan. She knows she doesn’t like this, but telling him she has a boyfriend and hitting him and repeatedly shouting, “Fuck your mama,” doesn’t stop him. She stops fighting it and takes the bee sting, a dead look in her eyes.

When Coates comes at her, mad that their jaunts to the duck pond made him late and got him in trouble, and throws her against the van seat and rips her pants down and thrusts into her, asking, “Is this what you wanted?” — knowing that the answer is no — the pain and confusion runs deeper than the violence. She goes limp and lifeless in that moment because her friend has ceased to treat her as a human. This is a man she really liked. He didn’t seem like that kind of guy. But that’s the thing about rapists, isn’t it? They don’t reveal themselves until they’re nearly impossible to stop.

Pennsatucky doesn’t understand the concept of rape. She fights back because she knows she doesn’t want it, and that it doesn’t feel good, but she is a product of her upbringing, of being raised to see herself as a vessel for men’s whims, so inured from kindness that she doesn’t even experience forced sex as anything other than routine. That’s part of the beauty in the storytelling on Orange Is the New Black. It’s not the character’s job to be clear, and the rape is not her fault because she's murky. But there’s no ambiguity for viewers about what’s happening to her, and that it is very, very wrong.

Her rapist may have dehumanized Pennsatucky, but the show never does. When Big Boo, like any good friend would, concocts an elaborate revenge scheme and drugs Coates unconscious so Pennsatucky can shove a broomstick up his ass, Pennsatucky opts out. “I’m not angry,” she tells Big Boo. “I’m just sad.”

“It is sad. Rape is fucking sad,” said the rape survivor I met at my local bar. It was the main emotion she felt, she told me: sadness for herself, and then a confusing sadness for her attacker. He was someone she knew, and she was watching him become the worst version of himself, someone she didn’t know he could be. In an instant she’d lost the relationship, and her ability to ever look at him the same way again.

My hope is that going forward we can have a Pennsatucky Test for rape scenes much like the Bechdel Test. Is the victim’s point-of-view shown? Does the scene have a purpose for existing for character, rather than plot, advancement? Is the emotional aftermath explored? As long as sexual assault continues to be a scourge of our society, TV shows ought to mine the subject; it’s important we keep the conversation going. Just take care of your characters. Don’t rape 'em and leave 'em. They deserve to have their trauma acknowledged. They deserve to have their stories told.