Warning: This story contains spoilers for Season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.
Of all the heartbreaking moments on Orange Is the New Black, of which there have been so many, the rape of Tiffany Doggett — aka Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) — in the back of a van by CO Charlie Coates (James McMenamin) still stands out as one of the most devastating. When the show's third season aired back in 2015, that scene was hailed as a promising example of the right way to depict sexual assault on TV. Rather than focusing on the rapist, the camera zoomed in onto Doggett's face, giving us insight into her experience, her trauma. Combined with her backstory, which revealed a history of repeated abuse, it also deepened our understanding of her as a character. As Lauren LeVine wrote for Refinery29 at the time, "OITNB was able to demonstrate both the short and longer-term effects of sexual violence on a character in a way that didn’t feel exploitative or shortchanged."
The Netflix series added a layer of nuance in season 4, when Doggett confronted Coates about the assault, and eventually made peace with both herself, and the man with whom she had been enjoying a troubling and problematic relationship even before it turned violent. It was a controversial story line, but it worked, because it challenged our assumptions of what "appropriate" responses to trauma are. Sexual assault isn't black and white, and every woman deals with it in her own way. The season ended with the pair kissing in the prison kitchen, a semi-sweet moment that was marred with Coates' attempt at dirty talk. She “should” be afraid of him, he tells her because it’s “taking everything [he’s] got not to throw [her] down and fuck [her] right now.”
So, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when, three episodes into OITNB's fifth season, Doggett and Coates appear to have gone even beyond simply burying the hatchet. But I was nonetheless disturbed.
Some context: The ladies of Litchfield are rioting. A guard has been shot, his colleagues rounded up and forced to strip for a hostage photo that goes viral online. It's pretty much mayhem. Doggett, who was hiding out in the commissary with Boo, has managed to trade a bag full of candy bars for a phone. While the other inmates are busy enjoying this small respite from day-to-day prison life, Doggett sneaks off to her bunk for some alone time with the vibrating function.
Meanwhile, Coates, who has been lurking in the ceiling in an effort to elude capture — and also following Doggett around the prison — comes across her masturbating. And... it made me really uncomfortable.
Unlike the assault, which respectfully focused on Doggett's eyes, this scene is shown from Coates' perspective. It's a lascivious moment — as she climaxes, she opens her eyes and sees him, holding his gaze. It takes what should have been a personal moment for her, and makes it about his pleasure rather than hers. In fact, her facial expression almost gives off the impression that she's been performing for him.
Is this supposed to be romantic? Cheeky? Consensual? Because the only thing I got from it was slight nausea. I understand that this moment is supposed to set up what comes later, namely Doggett allowing Coates to escape from the prison unharmed, an action for which she is later put "on trial" by her fellow inmates. But since their relationship was already veering into friendly waters, was it really necessary to violate her further? Does this indicate that the two are ready to put the rape behind them, moving instead toward a real relationship? Are we supposed to conveniently forget that as an inmate, Doggett can't legally consent? And if that's the direction the show has chosen to go in, is that really the kind of thing we need in a TV culture already brimming with problematic depictions of sexual violence?
Part of what makes Orange Is the New Black such a powerful show is its consistently honest and respectful portrayals of women's struggles. And that's why this particular moment, short as it is, was so disappointing.
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