It’s simplistic to boil any TV series down to a one-word theme, but “Orange is the New Black” has always had its mind on one concept in particular: empathy. When the series first premiered, its first season gradually showed us that Piper Chapman’s view of Litchfield Penitentiary was skewed; our initial perceptions of supporting characters came from how Piper viewed them. Suzanne, Taystee, Red — these are all characters who originally came across as one-dimensional threats, but as their backstories unfolded through flashbacks, we came to realize that they were more complex people than we imagined.
If the first three seasons were about humanizing the people we tend to think of reductively, the fourth season tested the limits of that philosophy. Does watching Healy struggle with his mother’s mental illness really excuse the multiple heinous acts he has committed over the course of the series? Does watching the young prison guard Bayley hanging out with his high school pals prove to us that he’s blameless in the murder of Poussey? What about the new correctional officers, whose traumatic experiences in the Army lead them to ruthlessly dehumanize and violate the prisoners?
Emily Nussbaum wrote about this phenomenon, about how the fourth season’s “smartest move was to interrogate empathy rather than treating it as a cure-all.” She notes that “Empathy can be a bully’s demand: Feel my pain,” that the value of this challenging season of TV lies in its refusal to pretend every conflict can be solved with compassion and open-mindedness.
The last season of “Orange is the New Black” aired in June, shortly after now-President-elect Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. It was far enough along that Trump was an obvious threat, but it already seems like so long ago. It was before many of the controversies we think of now — a few weeks before Trump praised Saddam Hussein’s ability to kill terrorists, four months before The Washington Post released the “Access Hollywood” tape, four months before the series of sexual misconduct allegations came out. And the season was written and filmed, of course, much earlier. Filming began on June 15, 2015, one day before Trump formally launched his campaign.
In the month since the election, Americans — particularly liberal Americans like me, people who sometimes can’t help but see Trump supporters as an undifferentiated mass of racists, homophobes and misogynists — have had to consider the limits of empathy. The first day after the election, my friends seemed split; should we unapologetically block our friends and family on social media if they spewed hateful rhetoric, or should we engage with them?
I could, and can, see both sides. Maybe the only way to enact real change is by listening and trying to understand each other. It’s difficult, though, when we’re willing to have a conversation but the other side isn’t; is it only then acceptable to reject their presence altogether and wipe them from our Twitter feeds? Besides, it’s really hard to force yourself to confront someone sometimes. What if I don’t feel like getting in a long conversation with some random jackass I haven’t talked to since middle school, especially when I know he probably won’t budge in his unconditional devotion to a man I unequivocally despise?
In the last month, we’ve had to question how we think about empathy. There are countless articles refusing to grant Trump supporters respect for their beliefs; one article by Vox’s German Lopez asks the question “Should (racial resentment) be disqualifying for outreach efforts?” Another, from MTV’s Jamil Smith, notes that “We shouldn’t make empathy such an overriding priority in politics … I just don’t feel for a white Christian family man who may be down on his luck if he’s voting for white supremacy. That vote is an explicit message that he couldn’t give a damn about me.”
Jenji Kohan and her writers’ room can’t have known just how relevant their exploration of empathy would become in the year and a half since production began. But maybe they were already thinking about similar rhetoric that has played out in the recent past when people demanded empathy for perpetrators of violence. Maybe they consciously amended their “empathy for everyone” creed to include stipulations for unrelenting sadists and virulent racists. Regardless, the show will need to continue to grapple with these issues in the coming years — it’s renewed at least through a seventh season. The growing reticence to extend empathy might require Kohan to alter a significant part of her show’s DNA, to push its message even farther from its founding philosophies.
In a society that’s increasingly normalizing prejudice, liberals will challenge every act of empathy directed toward a malevolent voice. The “Orange” writers’ choice to portray Bayley as a generally unprejudiced, innocent kid was immediately met with controversy, partly because in reality, many of the acts of police brutality and general violence against Black people (those of Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, George Zimmerman, etc.) have clear racial connotations. I don’t personally agree with that criticism — the show doesn’t pretend its empathy is necessarily justifiable, and that’s the point — but the mere suggestion of compassion for a perpetrator can be unthinkable when the issue is so emotionally charged.
But this doesn’t end at “Orange is the New Black.” All art will have to consider these problems. Is it still enlightening to show how the mind of a racist works, or is it unfair to ask us to empathize with a despicable person when they won’t extend us the same kindness? Is it productive to analyze someone’s deeply ingrained, potentially harmful biases, or should we try to minimize the threat they pose by agreeing to discount their opinions altogether?
These are difficult questions, and I don’t have the answers. I generally espouse a belief in widespread empathy; it’s one of the reasons “Orange is the New Black” is one of, if not my single favorite TV show on the air. But it’s become clear that compassion isn’t all it takes, and in some cases, it might even have unexpectedly destructive consequences. In the next year, and in the years after that, it’ll be crucial how we respond to these pressures, and one thing is clear: artists are going to be the first people who form our impressions. The burden is on us, and the stakes are high.