by Rebekah Mays
I recently finished watching the first season of the new Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The hilarious, steamy, and poignant show tells the story of Piper Chapman, a woman who goes to prison because she helped her girlfriend carry drug money several years prior.
OITNB is worth checking out for a number of reasons, one of which is that the show has a great sense of humor. The cast of characters Piper meets (and becomes friends and foes with) is diverse, fascinating, and hysterical.
The show can also be quite serious at times, and it touches on a number of tough social issues – America’s severely flawed criminal justice system, addiction and substance abuse, sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, abortion. Religion, and the bigotry that can come with it, is also on the list of topics the show sets out to investigate.
Without too many spoilers, I want to examine two of the main religious plotlines in the show. The first is the more central, in which Tiffany “Pensatucky” Doggett, a former meth-addict turned completely-insane-Bible-thumper, starts terrorizing Piper for exploring her sexual identity while she’s incarcerated.
Tiffany is an interesting, if revolting, character, and is as hilarious as she is frighteningly hypocritical. She gains a flock of devoted followers who marvel at the healings she performs in the name of Jesus; meanwhile, she spews terrible homophobic slurs against the other inmates, also in the name of Jesus. As the season continues, she grows increasingly psychotic and violent, a gripping warning to anyone who would simultaneously defend Christianity while hating others.
In her slightly less evil phase, she tries to baptize Piper, and while Piper at first goes along with it to keep the peace, she eventually sticks up for herself and defends her own beliefs. Piper describes herself as a sort of humanist, saying, “I believe in science. I believe in evolution. I believe in Nate Silver and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Christopher Hitchens… I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get whacked with machetes.”
I nodded along during Piper’s speech, even if I disagree with her ultimate conclusion. In my book, her point of view is a lot closer to reality than Tiffany’s distorted vision. But I think I’d be disappointed if Tiffany’s version of Christianity and Piper’s version of humanism were the only two religious perspectives we saw in the show. While, sadly, homophobic Jesus fanatics like Tiffany are all too real in our world, it would be unfair to suggest that this is what Christianity looks like across the board.
Thankfully, the show doesn’t stop there.
Perhaps the more complex, if not quite as dramatic, religious plotline is the relationship between Sister Ingalls, a nun who we are told is in prison for some kind of political activism, and Sophia Burset, a smart, sweet, and gorgeous transgender woman who is the prison’s hair stylist.
Their relationship starts out on a bad foot, with Sophia cozying up to the sister to gain access to her estrogen pills. But what begins in an awkward, manipulative encounter develops into a genuine friendship. Sister Ingalls is a modest, strict, and stereotypically devoted Catholic in most ways, but shocks the audience a few times with some glorious zingers. She encourages Sophia to “be strong” for her family and adds, “Inside, you already have the Playboy body.”
And Sophia, though she originally only feigns interest in faith and the Church, begins seeking out the sister for real counsel. When Sophia’s wife Crystal gets lonely and develops a crush on their pastor, the nun gives Sophia some surprising advice, encouraging her to do the right thing and give Crystal her blessing to pursue the relationship, since marrying another woman is not what Crystal signed up for.
Sister Ingalls is probably not anyone’s favorite character in the show, and she’s certainly not a perfect human being, either, sometimes coming across as snobby and judgmental toward the other inmates. But despite her clear flaws and moments of self-interest, (which every character in the show possesses) it’s very refreshing to see the writers of the show not just attack bigotry, but demonstrate some kind of desirable alternative that is much more faithful to what Christianity, and religion in general, claims as its essence.
Like any good piece of pop culture, OITNB made me stop and consider my own place among these different perspectives. Sister Ingalls’ behavior made me wonder if I would be as kind and accepting to someone who was outside my experience and frame of reference as Sophia was to hers. Meanwhile, Sophia’s backstory helped me sympathize with the struggles and heartbreaks of going through gender reassignment surgery. Surely, these are very tiny steps to becoming a better, more loving human being. At the same time, I wonder if the show is working a similar transformation on others’ perspectives of the Church and/or religion, offering them a new possibility to see with renewed eyes. It’s worth hoping. Or, as one inmate says when comforting a friend, “there’s always hope—tomorrow’s taco night.”
Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in Prague, Czech Republic. You can find more of her writing on her blog Iced Spiced Chai or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.
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