WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black Season 4.
Unlike last year and the year before, when I binge-watched the newly release seasons of Orange is the New Black in a weekend, this year I have a seven-month-old baby and I’m behind on my pop culture. So when my friend texted me saying, “OITNB Season 4 is emotional torture porn,” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“The worst thing that could possibly happen happens,” she said.
“What?” I asked. “Does Poussey die?” Pick an outlandishly terrible worst-case scenario, and whatever the bad news really is, it won’t seem quite so awful.
“Yes,” she said.
I raced through all the stages of grief in five seconds flat: denial, frantic Googling, anger, vaguebooking, depression, and finally I arrived at the final stage, known as Fuck This Shit.
“Well, I’m not going to watch it,” I replied.
That quickly and that easily, I walked away from what has been one of my favorite television shows since 2013. And judging from my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I made the right choice by not subjecting myself to this season, which, by all accounts, hit a new low of trauma voyeurism.
I haven’t watched a minute of Season 4, and I don’t intend to. I don’t have an opinion on whether Poussey’s death was handled with sensitivity or whether it was tasteless and exploitative. I don’t know whether Jenji Kohan achieved her goal of making an artistic statement about Black Lives Matter. All I know is I will not turn on my television and watch a queer Black woman die.
LGBTQ people, especially women, have been crying out for months against the disproportionate death rate of gay and bi women on the small screen. The death of Lexa on The 100 marked a breaking point for many LGBTQ viewers, who are now demanding real accountability and change, but so far TV isn’t delivering. Every showrunner has a reason for killing off a queer character, whether it’s to raise awareness or as a necessary catalyst for another character’s development or because “everyone dies” or whatever. No one intends to participate in the Bury Your Gays trope, yet somehow gay and bi women end up on the chopping block more often than they should. People of color also tend to be especially mortal onscreen–there’s a reason “the black guy dies first” has become a running joke in horror movies. Poussey, uniquely vulnerable at the intersection of these two marginalized communities, is the person most likely to be seen as dispensable, but she’s also the one the show–and the viewers–can least do without.
There aren’t enough LGBTQ characters on television, much less dynamic, complex LGBTQ characters who don’t just exist as props for straight people. There are even fewer LGBTQ characters of color. I couldn’t say, off the top of my head, how many Black lesbian characters played by Black lesbian actors are currently on TV, but it sure as hell isn’t so many that we can spare one.
And Poussey Washington isn’t just any character. Portrayed with grace and heart and an absolutely dazzling smile by Samira Wiley, Poussey was the emotional center of Orange is the New Black, at least for me (and pretty much every queer woman I know). She was funny and complicated and smart and honest and drank too much and wanted more than anything to be loved. She was gay and Black and androgynous and real. She resonated with viewers the way privileged white femme Piper, for all that she was supposed to be an audience surrogate, never did. Poussey helped at least one queer woman I know come to terms with the intricacies of her own orientation. She was the character you either wanted to be, date, or be best friends with.
For LGBTQ viewers, queer characters who are believable and well-rounded are so rare that when we come across one, we see them as a friend, as a real and necessary component of our lives. Every time one is taken away, it is a genuine loss, and every one of us has already lost too much.
Sure, the people who make Orange is the New Black didn’t know that this spring, the simmering resentment of LGBTQ women toward the televised lesbian death epidemic would come to a boil. They didn’t know that every time a lesbian or bi character died after Lexa, it would feel like another grain of salt in a wound that never has time to close. They also didn’t know that this season would air only a week after the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. in more than a century, a shooting whose targets were mostly LGBTQ people of color, and that watching a Black lesbian character die on screen would be freshly traumatizing to a community still in shock.
But they certainly knew that Orange is the New Black would be released in a world where racism and homophobia and violence permeate the very air we breathe. If the new season hadn’t coincided with the Pulse shooting or the murder of Black trans woman Goddess Diamond, it would have been something else. The trauma of endless news stories about violence against LGBTQ people and people of color never has a chance to get old, to fade into memory. And the writers and producers knew that. They knew how much viewers loved and related to Poussey, and how much losing her would hurt, on top of all the other pain we navigate daily. Causing that pain was a deliberate choice.
I understand the rationale behind the death–to exemplify in one shocking incident the racism and dehumanization inherent in the prison industrial complex. But that’s what Orange is the New Black has been doing for four seasons now–was it really necessary to add the graphic, on-screen death of a beloved character on top of every other piece of evidence the show has offered that this country’s prison system is unconscionable? I’d argue that it’s not. We’ve seen senseless death before on this show (most notably the death of Tricia, another lesbian). We’ve seen violence, alienation, rejection, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and the absolute erasure of identity. Anyone who’s been watching Orange since season 1 without understanding that mass incarceration is the Big Bad isn’t paying attention, and Poussey’s death will not be the thing that finally jolts them awake. Anyone who was unmoved by the death of, and subsequent lack of justice for, Eric Garner is unlikely to be heartbroken by the same thing happening to Poussey. To those who are numb to violence against LGBTQ and Black bodies, Poussey’s death will not be a catalyst for enlightenment; it will simply be another plot point–one that comes at the expense of re-traumatizing marginalized people.
“I’m like, legitimately fucked up over that whole season and especially [Poussey’s death],” says my friend Sarah, who is Black and queer. “Like triggered fucked up. Like my 17-year-old and I were sobbing audibly and shaking while watching it. I don’t know how to feel about that, that kind of mirror of what we already experience as fear in our day to day lives.”
No one who already lives with this horror needs to see it again, in full color and vivid sound, on their TV. I don’t know if Jenji Kohan imagined that her viewing audience is solely composed of clueless, privileged white people who will respond to Poussey’s death by saying “Wow, I never thought about it that way, I guess prison is bad!” But as far as I can tell, the people who have been watching and taking comfort in Orange is the New Black all this time are marginalized people who already experience enough violence, vicariously and firsthand, just by existing in the world.
This could have been avoided. There are ways to engage with violence and trauma through art without re-violating and re-traumatizing viewers. Black-ish had an episode about Black Lives Matter that was nuanced, thoughtful, and featured no onscreen deaths. Jessica Jones explores the long-term effects of PTSD, abuse, and rape without including graphic sexual violence (something else Orange indulges in too frequently). It’s possible to use media to tackle pressing current events and political issues, but any attempt to do so must prioritize the safety and well-being of those in danger over the opportunity to shock the complacently privileged.
Simply put: If a Black lesbian has to die onscreen so that straight white people will reach a political epiphany, that, for me, is too high a price to pay. I already know the kind of violence white supremacy and homophobia can wreak on LGBTQ people of color (the victims of the vast majority of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes are not white). I don’t need to consume images of that violence for my entertainment, my education, or any other reason.
LGBTQ people are hungry enough for representation that we’ll watch shows and movies brimming with hurtful tropes just to see someone who we can relate to getting a little airtime. Showrunners know this, and they exploit it, using LGBTQ characters as fodder for shocking plot twists because they know we have nowhere else to go. But I’m done. If Orange is the New Black and its ilk are the only game in town, I’m taking my ball and going home. I believe Poussey deserved better. I think we all do.