We need to talk about the ableism of Orange Is The New Black

[Image: character Suzanne from OITNB, a Black woman with her hair in Bantu knots, wearing a beige prison jumpsuit over a long-sleeved grey undershirt. She is looking directly into the camera with a slight smile, and pointing at the camera, just below eye level, with her right index and middle fingers.]

[CW: ableist slurs, ableist abuse, ableist violence, filicide]

In addition to its horrific racism, we need to talk about the rampant ableism of this season of #OITNB. (Spoilers, obviously.)

First, though, you need to read the following pieces:




which provide an excellent rundown of the disturbing way in which OITNB has handled storylines centred around its Black characters, particularly over the past two seasons.

OITNB has always been problematic in terms of its disability representation.

Despite the fact that Bureau of Justice statistics estimate that 20 percent of inmates in the United States are disabled, the propotion of disabled characters on the show is substantially lower than that. We have, of course, Suzanne and Lorna, both of whom are regularly subjected to ableist nicknames that cause them distress. (Notable that so many abled reviewers, recappers and fans insist on referring to Suzanne by this ableist nickname — a clue that the real-world effects of the show’s disability representation are by no means benign.) In Seasons 1 and 2 we had Rosa, who was killed off in the Season 2 finale. In Seasons 2 through 4 we had Lolly, who was sent away to Psych after being blamed for a murder committed by Alex. We have the older woman with sleep apnoea and some kind of joint issue, who is such a sideline character I can’t remember or find her name. And arguably, we have Nicky who deals with addiction — but her addiction is always written as a moral weakness rather than an illness. And that’s about it. (And of course, all of these characters, with the exception of Nicky, are played by abled actors who are ‘cripping up’.)

But, as with the show’s racism, its ableism seemed to be particularly pronounced this season. The white supremacist characters casually throw around ableist slurs like r***** and M******** and it’s treated entirely matter-of-factly. Those characters do, of course, throw around racial slurs as well — which, if anything, raises the question of why it’s necessary to include white supremacist characters among the main cast, particularly when they’re going to be given the same adorable, humanising treatment that’s been heaped on the guards. I’m quite happy to leave my Nazis dehumanised, thanks.

But it’s also worth noting that whereas the white supremacists’ use of racial slurs was invariably met with pushback from the show’s POC characters — notably, a small riot breaks out after Brandy uses a slur against Ouija — use of ableist slurs goes unremarked upon. The disabled characters on the show are so few and so isolated, that they do not have the power to object to their own abuse — and no one else bothers to intercede on their behalf.

There is also a bizarre focus on Humps’ facial paralysis following his stroke, which is more often than not coded as humorous. Most notably, there is the fact that his hemiplegic facial paralysis remains inexplicably prominent more than a day after his death — and that the camera invariably trains on the ‘paralysed’ side of his corpse while inmates comment on how freaky his face looks.

Maureen also gets some disfiguremisia thrown at her when she is referred to as ‘Elephant Man’ — another slur that goes unremarked upon.

Then there is the use of a guard’s diabetes — and the inmates’ confiscation of his insulin & withholding of food — as a plot point, meant, I guess, to reinforce the All People Are Evil theme that drove so much of this season? But bizarrely, this plot point was completely abandoned after the second episode. There is no mention of the potential harm that might come to this character as a result of locking him in the outhouse with no medication for hours — nor does he seem particularly concerned, despite the fact some people had been confined to ‘The Poo’ for more than 24 hours at that point. This underscores the fact that the writers of OITNB view disability as nothing more than a plot point — and a disposable one at that — and creates the harmful impression that disability is something that can just be magicked (or ignored) away.

But by far, the most disturbing ableism this season occurred with the portrayal of Suzanne — and of course it’s no surprise that the worst ableist violence in the show was levelled against a disabled Black woman.

It’s also unsurprising that in the midst of a riot, Suzanne’s mental health goes uncared for. (Hell, isn’t this the sort of thing disabled activists are constantly having to point out to the abled #Resistance folks who think healthcare is an acceptable sacrifice in the name of Revolution?) But, rather than explore the personal trauma Suzanne is experiencing, from her point of view, the show focuses instead on how her increasingly erratic behaviour is a burden to the riot’s organisers — and on how the organisers opt to use torture and abuse to eliminate that burden.

Ouija and Pidge handcuff Suzanne to her bed using zip ties as Suzanne melts down. There are lingering shots of Suzanne kneeling on the hard floor, cuffed to her bed, weeping as everyone goes about their business around her. Later, Black Cindy administers lithium to Suzanne, lying that they are her meds, in order to calm her down. Suzanne ends up catatonic, and the characters begin to fear for her life.

Prior to the lithium, there are so many long, close-up shots of Suzanne screaming, perseverating and self-harming while in meltdown that it was difficult for me to continue watching. For an #ActuallyAutistic person (& while it’s likely that Suzanne’s character also has some form of mental illness, she is absolutely coded as autistic) watching graphic depictions of a meltdown is traumatic and triggering AF. The inclusion of these scenes makes it very evident they were written & filmed by people who have no idea what it means to be in meltdown. Allistic people love a graphic meltdown scene.

As Poussey’s death (and so much else in seasons 4 and 5) was Black trauma porn for a white gaze, the show’s treatment of Suzanne has become disabled trauma porn for an abled gaze. Moreover, the emphasis on Suzanne as a danger and an inconvenience to the organisers of the riot — and the uncritical portrayal of her near murder by Black Cindy — is incredibly disturbing in the context of a society where governments are enacting life-threatening legislation grounded in the rhetoric that disabled people are societal burdens, where abled activists insist that disabled lives are an acceptable forfeit in the name of social change, and where parents are routinely acquitted of filicide of their disabled children, on ‘compassionate’ grounds.

Much as this season has made clear OITNB must hire Black writers, it is clear they must hire Black women writers, it is also clear they must hire disabled women writers — or better yet, why not some Black, disabled women writers?

Author’s note: I am adding this note because evidently many people are disinclined to distinguish between critiques of what a show is portraying and how that show is portraying it. I do not have a particular problem with the idea of Orange Is The New Black ableism within a prison context; I agree that prison environments are absolutely places where the ableism and racism of our societies are further magnified, and that it would be wrong for the show to gloss over or erase these issues. What I have a problem with is the ways in which those issues are portrayed in the show, and the characters who are centred in those portrayals — and these problems are the focus of this piece.

Disability-led design & health justice. Director of Communications for The Disabled List. They / theirs. Tip jar: paypal.me/alexhaagaard