Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers on season four of “Orange is the New Black.”
Season four of “Orange is the New Black” — the highly praised Netflix series based on the true story of Piper Kerman’s 15-month stint in a minimum security prison — was released to wide anticipation on June 17. The show has won countless awards, and The Washington Post calls it, “the best TV show about prison ever made.”
Like many 20-something millennial women, I’m a huge fan of the show. I was popcorn ready when season four dropped — excited to reconnect with my favorite characters (Poussey Washington, Taystee, and Red Reznikov, to name a few) and burning with curiosity about how the cliffhangers from last season would pan out.
The series has been lauded for its realistic portrayal of the realities that women in prison face, racial tensions, questioning of sexual identity, queer relationships, solitary confinement, maltreatment, harassment, and the overall growth of the characters as they try to navigate a disturbingly corrupt system.
After watching the first couple of episodes, however, I found myself disappointed by the portrayal of a group of characters — veterans — who are introduced as a new crew of prison guards.
In the season finale, for instance, one of these prison guards, a fictional Afghanistan veteran named Dixon, comforts a correctional officer who killed an inmate. Dixon tells the man a story about acts of rape and murder he committed in Afghanistan.
“… you just grab a farm kid from a grape field, and you make him juggle live grenades until one of them blows up,” he says. “And then you shoot him, because you don’t want him to grow up without arms or tell on you. Or maybe you just strangle a girl that you had sex with in a small village because her family is gonna kill her anyway, right?”
This behavior is so egregious — so counter to the conduct of American forces in its recent wars — it is unrecognizable to me as a veteran. War crimes have sadly and undoubtedly occurred — they’ve also been widely publicized and prosecuted. People who commit acts as terrible as what Dixon describes are not walking the streets, and they’re certainly not emblematic of all veterans. And yet, “Orange is the New Black” portrays vets as a cohort of bloodthirsty, heartless killers and sexists. For a show that ostensibly prides itself on realism and its ability to encourage empathy from its viewers, “Orange is the New Black” had no problem using veterans as an embodiment of violent, sexist, inhumane behavior.
A little bit of background on how the veterans in the show came to be: during a brainstorming session for the now for-profit prison, the prison leadership devise a plan to save the prison money in light of staffing and budget concerns. Caputo, the warden, suggests hiring veterans, who come with a tax break. An employee responds with, “We looked into using veterans in the past in our office, but, you know, veterans …” as he makes a gun with his fingers and pretends to shoot his co-workers sitting at the table.
Hopeful that the veterans would positively impact the “Orange is the New Black” audience — like so many of the other characters in the show have in the past — I eagerly anticipated the first scene with the newcomers. To my disappointment, I quickly learned that the veterans were the real villains throughout the season.
Other than Dixon, who claimed to have committed horrifying war crimes in the season finale, there’s correctional officer Humphrey, another veteran. He becomes sociopathically obsessed with one of the inmates, Maritza, the prison’s van driver.
Humphrey eavesdrops on Martiza and her best friend while they’re playing a game of “Would You Rather?”
They say, “Gun to your head, what would you rather eat 12 dead flies or swallow a baby mouse whole?”
In the next episode, Humphrey forces Maritza into his home, where there is a cup and a paper towel sitting on his table. In the cup, there is a baby mouse. On the table there are dead flies.
Maritza pleads with him, but Humphrey takes out a gun, pushes it to her head and says, “Gun to your head, inmate.”
At other points in the show, he encourages two inmates to fight each other for his own entertainment (while other veteran correctional officers stand by), he refers to a black inmate as an ape, forces another inmate to decide whether she’d rather eat her mom or her dad, and brings an illegal weapon into the prison for “protection” — all of which is known or suspected by other veteran guards, who say nothing.
For his part, Dixon (and some of the other veterans) sexually assaults the inmates. “You better get a cavity search on that one.. she’s gotta be hiding something in an ass that big,” he says. “It helps to give them a compliment every now and then, boosts morale.”
As if it wasn’t enough — the audience is constantly reminded that these correctional officers are veterans, because they incessantly discuss their time spent in Afghanistan and drop military lingo. The show leaves its audience absolutely no room to empathize with the veterans, let alone experience any type of redeeming qualities from them.
One of the things people love most about “Orange is the New Black” is the fact it sought to challenge stereotypes around underrepresented prison inmates, those who experience mental illness, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and survivors of sexual assault. It troubled me to see that the show wouldn’t extend veterans the same consideration.
Task & Purpose reached out to Bill Rausch, a U.S. Army vet and executive director of Got Your 6, a nonprofit that works to foster accurate portrayals of veterans in Hollywood.
“We are concerned anytime veterans are portrayed as a whole population inaccurately in film and television as it feeds into the general public’s negative stereotypes about those who served,” Rausch said, adding that his group reached out to the creators of the show.
Veterans, Rausch said, are “as diverse and varied as the civilian population they volunteered to defend.”
But a study by Got Your 6 found that most Americans report veterans are portrayed in film and television as either broken or heroic.
In “Orange is the New Black,” the show’s creators went a destructive step further — they portrayed veterans as evil.
We have spent years trying to de-stigmatize the veteran identity, convincing our community that we are responsible, capable, honorable, and sane. If “Orange is the New Black” changes the mind of even one person, it has done our community a disservice.
“Orange is the New Black” had the opportunity to portray veterans in a way that shed light on an identity that’s widely misunderstood; but instead, the show fed into the very worst stereotypes that we’ve been working so hard to overcome.
I’m not saying that the veterans deserve hero status. I’m not even saying that veterans are owed any kind of respect —but don’t portray us as a group of monsters.
“Orange is the New Black” chose to bring in a group of antagonists to drive this season, and the group that was selected was the veterans. When contrasted with every other group in the show, the portrayal encompasses the sociopathic, villainized, and dehumanized perception of vets when we come back from war, and that image is incredibly damaging to our community.
The biggest disappointment for me, as an avid fan of the show, is how great the season was. The plot twists and development of characters kept me occupied for the entire three days I binge-watched the series. But the appalling portrayal of the vets took away from that. They needed a villain for this season and they chose to target my identity. Unfortunately, what once held the promise to function as a critical, reflective and intellectually challenging show has now, in my eyes, been tarnished.