I can’t stop thinking about one scene from Season 6 of Orange is the New Black, and what it says about why this Netflix series is still relevant—even if it may not be as good as when it started.
Season 6 of OITNB picks up right where Season 5 left off: riot aftermath. Litchfield has been stormed by riot gear-clad law enforcement, and all the women of Litchfield have been pulled out of the prison that they’d taken over in season 5 and moved into a maximum-security facility.
In episode 6, the inmates who want to see an OB-GYN are lined up for what Alex (Laura Prepon) jokes is a “quality two and a half minutes” worth of medical care. Blanca (Laura Gómez) is afraid her biological clock is running out, and she’s on the examination table trying to make sure that she’ll still be able to conceive when she gets out in a year. The white cisgender male doctor tells Blanca that her eggs are deteriorating at an exponential rate and right now she’d be considered a “high-risk geriatric pregnancy.” Then, in a weird attempt to say something positive, he mentions that Geena Davis had twins when she was 48. When Blanca doesn’t know who Geena Davis is, the doctor cites the 1991 classic Thelma and Louise. “That movie was about a particularly feminist futility and the impossibility of justice for women within a patriarchal court system,” he says.
Read that over and let it sink in because that line is more than just a moment in a Netflix show. It encompasses the challenge of the real-life fight that we’re in right now. Long-time fans of Orange is the New Black might not be vibing season 6. There’s tension that goes nowhere and the new characters we’re introduced to are one-dimensional. But for me, this season is still relevant because it’s about our current political climate in the United States and, increasingly, here in Canada.
As a queer person, I’ve had conversations like this with people my whole life: people who have more power than me, articulating the discrimination I face and the impossibilities of my circumstance, while they do nothing to change it. A few years ago, I had to contact Toronto Police Services police to file a report about a man who was stalking me. TPS sent a couple of big male officers to my house to take my statement, and at one point, one of the cops told me that if I wanted to press charges, a defence attorney would try to paint me as a slut in court. This is a real thing a cop said to me. I know that, much like Blanca’s doctor, this cop really intended the comment to be helpful. But, much like Blanca’s doctor, he just made me realize that the system was not on my side.
The doctor’s mansplaining in Orange is the New Black may be coming from a fictional man in an increasingly-repetitive TV show, but it also expresses the central frustration of the moment that we’re in right now. Even before #MeToo gained new celebrity fervour, the Jian Ghomeshi trail showed us the barriers keeping women from justice within a patriarchal court system. This same message was echoed by the Canadian judge who asked a 19-year-old complainant in a rape trail, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” And it was demonstrated yet again with The Globe and Mail’s “Unfounded” series, which revealed that one in five sexual assault cases are dismissed as baseless. In a system of justice that has been historically designed by men, justice for women can in fact, as the doctor put it, feel impossible.
And yet, propped up on the doctor’s examination table, Blanca gives me life when she says to the doctor, “You’re trying to inspire me by talking about a rape and murder movie that has a tragic ending?” This clapback, calling out the doctor for his pat-on-the-head response to what is a serious problem for the women caged by the (corrections) system, perfectly embodies the moment that we’re in right now.
Scenes like this are why OITNB is still relevant. In these times, we need TV shows with casts full of women, with scenes like this that, yes, may take place in prison, but are also very much a reflection of our day-to-day lives. For me, that’s always been the magic of Orange is the New Black: the women of Litchfield, who are now the women of max, are always an invitation to examine not the differences between our lives and theirs, but instead, to reflect on the similarities.
Blanca sighs at the end of the scene, lies back on the table, and says, “I am full of hope.” She’s being sarcastic, but the scene does leave me hopeful. The next time I’m dealing with a man who thinks talking about the futility of my attempt to find justice is helpful, I’m going to think about Blanca, and smile.