June 19, 2015
Orange Is The New Black: Sexual Violence and Trigger Warnings
Amongst the hype of the release of the third season of OITNB, it becomes all too easy to forget that this show portrays issues much more serious than Ramen packets and Piper’s capitalist panty pursuit (although both important in their own ways).
As someone who accesses a lot of media through social justice forums, I have become accustomed to reading articles and watching videos that are paired with appropriate trigger warnings. I appreciate trigger and content warnings because they let me know what to expect out of a piece of media, and more importantly, they allow me to decide for myself whether or not I want to view or read something that might evoke an emotional response.
Despite portraying graphic and violent imagery, Netflix does not provide trigger or content warnings on its programs. In turn, it fails to provide its viewers with the tools to decide for themselves which episodes contain content that is appropriate for their wellbeing.
The audiences watching OITNB are guaranteed to include sexual assault survivors, self-harm survivors and survivors of transphobia and transmisogyny – all of which are issues brought up in season 3. The effects of triggers vary vastly between survivors, but can often involve disassociation, panic attacks, depression, self-harm, and in some cases suicidal ideation.
A TV show shouldn’t make someone who is recovering from trauma move backwards in their recovery process. Adding trigger and content warnings to series such as OITNB would help millions of survivors of violence and oppression, and honestly, it wouldn’t be that hard.
I found episode ten in season three to be particularly triggering. The rest of this blog piece will be a trigger warning and explanation of why it might not be a suitable episode for all viewers.
*Trigger warning: sexual assault*
The episode culminates with two scenes of sexual assault.
The scenes begin at 56:00 minutes and go until the end of the episode. They were short, yet left me with a pit in my stomach and an overwhelming sense of empathy towards Pennsatucky.
The first scene occurs through a flashback of Pennsatucky. She is at a party saying goodbye to a man she has fallen in love with, who is moving out of state. After they say goodbye, Pennsatucky goes inside to get a drink from the ice tub in the washroom. A man who previously traded her soda for sex complains that ‘she owes him one’ and corners her in the bathroom and rapes her.
The second scene occurs directly after the first, and is set in present day Litchfield. Officer Coates blames Pennsatucky for making him late for count in a previous episode (which resulted in him being put on probation). Pennsatucky sincerely apologizes and says it won’t happen again and that she can help him get off probation. Officer Coates picks her up and throws her onto the backseat of the van and rapes her, repeating “this is what you wanted, isn’t it?” and “I love you, Doggett.” The camera focuses on a close up of her face as tears stream down her cheeks.
In episode 11 there is a scene between Pennsatucky and Boo that is both heartbreaking and incredibly important as it portrays an aspect of sexual assault that is often underrepresented on television: its effects on the survivor.
Boo observes that Pennsatucky isn’t acting like herself and that she’s wearing a new bracelet around her wrist. After taking a closer look, Boo realizes that the bracelet is attempting to conceal bruises on her wrist from the assault. Boo asks Pennsatucky if Coates forced himself on her, but Pennsatucky insists that she’s to blame, as she was flirting with him and leading him on. Pennsatucky seems to be in a state of shock. She’s overly enthusiastic and apologetic for flirting with Coates.
Boo looks on with tears in her eyes.
I appreciate the writers’ attempt to address victim blaming and self-imposed guilt after a sexual assault. Media such as TV series can be a powerful avenue to confront violence and oppression. However, in confronting the realities of violence and oppression they need to be approached thoughtfully in order to avoid doing more harm. Part of this approach needs to include trigger and content warnings to allow people impacted by systemic and interpersonal violence to make informed choices about what they watch. In that spirit, below is a list of trigger and content warnings gratefully borrowed from the tumblr ‘goldenheartedrose:’
Episode 1 – Transmisogyny
Episode 5 – Suicide Attempt
Episode 6 – Transphobic Slurs/Transphobia
Episode 7 – Antisemitism
Episode 8 – Transphobia
Episode 10 – Sexual Assault
Episode 11 – Transmisogyny/Hate Crime/Purposely Misgendering/Transphobic Slurs
Episode 11 – Revenge rape plans/discussion of rape/pushing the victim to talk about it/drugging with the intention to sexually assault
Episode 11 – Infant Death Mention
Episode 12 – Suicide Attempt