The Soapbox: On Pennsatucky & Poor, White, Rural Representation On “Orange Is The New Black”

For every story that “Orange Is The New Black” has inspired in the media, I never thought that I would come across one that uses the show as an example of how white women aren’t taken care of well enough. But of course there is one. (Spoilers ahead, FYI.)

“OITNB” has managed to make a lot of sociological points in its three seasons, but not everyone agrees that all of them are accurate. Many believe it depicts our women’s prison system, and the prison industrial complex in general, in a better light than is deserved, for the benefit of a populous who would typically rather put that world out of their minds and go about their unfettered business. Some argue that “OITNB” is too glossy, and sensationalizes a reality that is much darker. More widely appreciated is the fact that the show has given trans and queer actors, as well as actors of color, not just a bigger platform, but a more responsible one. The show has also put a spotlight on just how disenfranchised Black and Hispanic women are.

With all of that tumbling around in the mix, the show couldn’t make it more clear how privileged heterosexual, white women are. Granted, I’m a feminist, and I will argue how fucked all women are until I’m blue in the face. But we can’t ignore intersectionality, and that when it comes to female empowerment there is a hierarchy based on race, gender identity and sexual orientation. All Piper, the show’s primary protagonist, typically has to do to get her way is bat her eyelashes, and if that doesn’t work she uses the outside resources and education that her privilege has afforded her to manipulate the system. Some might try to negate that with the argument that Piper is bisexual, but that point is undermined by the flashbacks that present her curiosities as more of a rebellion against her family than a lifestyle choice indicative of her true self. Others will argue that the show’s central issue is class, and that the constant we should be judging the other variables in the story against is not Piper, but Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, played by Taryn Manning.

This past weekend, Salon’s Emma Eisenberg wrote a piece entitled, “We still don’t know how to talk about Pennsatucky: The reality of rural sexual assault and how class plays out in ‘Orange Is The New Black.’” What obviously began with good intentions turned into an article that somehow argues that we’re not sympathetic enough to “‘rednecks, ‘hillbillies,’ members of the evangelical Christian churches and poor white people in general.” Critically speaking, the collective agreement on “OITNB” seems to be that it’s giving marginalized groups a stage that reflect reality; I’ve yet to read any review or criticism of the show arguing that the queer, trans, Black or Hispanic characters are undermined by the show’s portrayal. But somehow Eisenberg believes that Pennsatucky is both too celebrated and not celebrated enough for her representation of the realities of rural, white, poor America.

First things first, I don’t know how, in light of recent events unmistakably illustrating how deeply entrenched this county is in racial tension (not to mention transphobia and homophobia), anyone could muster an article about how rough white people have it. I don’t want that to be misconstrued as saying that because people of color, gay people or trans people have it worse, it doesn’t matter how white people have it—but I do think it is incredibly short sighted to make the argument that urbanizing rural areas should somehow be a priority over say, getting rid of the Confederate flag, properly training the police, legislation giving trans people the right to use a fucking bathroom or providing women equal and affordable access to reproductive care. Yes, those are things that impact cities more than more sparsely populated areas, but social change in urban areas trickles down.

There is a big to do in the piece about Pennsatucky being stereotyped, and that the stereotypes ruin any of the rounding out that’s been done to her character in the show’s recently released third season. One of the attributes offered as a stereotype is her rotten teeth. If this was merely used as a symbol of her poverty, I could see the point, but the show depicts her as a recovering meth addict in great detail. Rotting teeth are a symptom of meth addiction, and meth is a drug that is more popular in poorer, more rural areas because it can be made from chemicals that are readily available. Pennsatucky having been addicted to meth is not stereotyping her, it’s allowing her to represent a certain demographic within the prison.

Eisenberg fails to realize that there are other drug-addicted and poor white characters portrayed on the show that demolish the pyramid scheme of stereotyping that she thinks the show is trying to do to rural classes. The character of Tricia Miller in the first season is another poor, lower class depiction of whiteness, she just happens to be the urban variety. She too suffers from a drug addiction, and she steals to get by. She accidentally overdoses while in the prison, which is made to look like a suicide. Natasha Lyonne’s character, Nicky, is also addicted to drugs, and if anything, her continued struggle despite her privileged upbringing gives Pennsatucky’s self-imposed rehabilitation a maturity and implied wisdom.

If you really want to get real, and it seems that’s what Eisenberg is asking for, there are uneducated people from poor, rural areas. There are meth addicts from poor, rural areas. And there are bigoted religious zealots from poor, rural areas. To portray one of those people on television is not to stereotype a whole community. And without any reverence to how much all of the other demographics represented on the show have been stereotyped throughout the history of entertainment, Eisenberg’s argument completely misses the point that perhaps the show is trying to be as real as possible, and acknowledging that there are real life Pennsatuckies in this world isn’t to disenfranchise Appalachia.

What is most relevant in Eisenberg’s piece is the issue she takes with over-simplifying the rape culture of rural areas where the conversation around sexual assault is even more sinister than that in more developed areas. She is right that the “provincial attitudes,” as she refers to them, of poorer people should not be used as a crutch to explain away how prevalent and un-policed rape is in rural areas. I understand her point that, based on her experience living in West Virginia, there are many women doing a lot of work to fight against what has become the norm, and even an epidemic. However, this doesn’t change the fact that there are parts of rural America where the cycle of abuse, drug addiction and rape is cyclical and women do not have tools and resources to end it like some other rural women might.

The fact that Pennsatucky is a character on the show undermines Eisenberg’s whole argument that we still don’t know how to talk about rural sexual assault. The graphic way in which her character is raped twice in the series, and that her mother clearly fostered a deep misunderstanding in her of sexuality, is doing just that—talking about it. Also the fact that Eisenberg is willing to pick apart a series that is willing to depict the cruelty of rape in general is counter-intuitive to what she is saying. We are supposed to feel just as empathetic towards Pennsatucky as we are any of the other characters, and Eisenberg suggesting that the show doesn’t intend for that suggests she finds Pennsatucky’s story more important than that of the other characters. The story is not about rural women, it’s about all women, and how our unjust society has led them all to be stuck together despite their vast differences. Most importantly though, television shows are not public service announcements, and it’s not their job to portray the character you hold most dear exactly as you think they should be.