Spoiler alert: OITNB Season three, episodes 10-11
Trigger alert: Rape
It was a long, hot summer, and what with our last child in his last summer before senior year, and my husband’s serious back surgery, I was late to the gate to watch Season 3 of Orange is the New Black. But now it’s October, a month of orange and black, and when I got to the end of the season — well, that changed everything for me.
When Orange Is the New Black’s character Pennsatucky is assaulted in the bathroom of a friend’s house in Episode 10, we’re given a choice on what to think about the character. Pennsatucky, a.k.a. Tiffany Doggett, is a white trash, no-account hillbilly who doesn’t mind, apparently, selling quick sex for a six-pack of Mountain Dew. She also takes Visa and MasterCard, so she says, but pretty clearly that’s a joke. Pennsatucky’s trade of services for goods is not far from paying your doctor with a hog – nyuk nyuk, see what they did there?
When a disgruntled customer, that is, some rube from her town who wasn’t fully satisfied with the last bang, decides she owes him, even though she says no, his sexual assault is almost presented as reasonable, if not justifiable. It’s just another horrible piece of Pennsatucky’s sordid back story – from her lackadaisical mother giving offhand advice to a newly menstruating Tiffany about just giving men what they want, to all the violence in prison that made us hate and then begin to care for Pennsatucky.
Season three brings Pennsatucky back to us in a kinder light, with other villains to take on the show’s dirty work; in juxtaposition to Piper’s hardening character, Tiffany softens. Her kindness – as roughly gentle as a tiger licking her cubs – comes through in her surprising friendship with Boo and her mentorship of sorts helping Charlie “Donuts” Coates, the doughnut shop clerk-turned prison guard. It almost seems, for a while there, that Pennsatucky might find something akin to happiness.
So when Donuts turns a little creepy in the van, and then vents his rage by raping Pennsatucky, our hearts seize up and we’re justifiably outraged. She deserves happiness! She was just trying to help! How could he do that to her?
My feminist sensibilities rear back and take notice of a few things here. One, Pennsatucky is just as valuable when she’s a backwoods hillbilly being raped as when she’s a prisoner at the mercy of a guard. It’s just as outrageous in both sets of circumstances. At no time did she deserve or earn that treatment. I find the choices of director Jesse Peretz, the camera angle, and the follow-up to the prison rape, very telling. These are not accidental plot twists. Peretz and the writers have set up the assaults as parallel, with a direct look at the “she deserved it” narrative that still, disgustingly, lingers.
Second – the look on Pennsatucky’s face in the van during the rape – it says everything about dissociation, PTSD, and survival when this kind of thing has happened before. She didn’t scream, she didn’t even fight very much, and later, when Boo presses Pennsatucky on what happened and pushes her get angry, Pennsatucky responds, “I’m not even angry. I’m just really, really sad.” As well she would be.
Pennsatucky’s dead gaze, her solitary teardrop, is spot-on for a person dissociating during violence. “In very simple terms, dissociation is a detachment from reality,” according to RAINN, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network. “Dissociation is one of the many defense mechanisms the brain can use to cope with the trauma of sexual violence. It’s often described as an ‘out of body’ experience.”
So here’s where it gets personal – my proverbial two cents. I was assaulted in college (in that six-week Red Zone they talk about as being most dangerous for new college students. Just about this time of year, in fact – October. I’m a statistic.) About a year later, after I had given birth and had a newborn to care for, my downstairs neighbor – the adult nephew of my then-husband – got into our upstairs flat while I was napping, and on three separate occasions raped me. I didn’t fight him off. I didn’t even know how. Between untreated PTSD and my postpartum depression, it just didn’t matter, I didn’t feel it, I wasn’t even there. I recall looking to the side, up at a crack in the ceiling, and just being somewhere else. That’s what dissociation feels like, or what it felt like to me – unable to move, unable to react, pinned by invisible forces, with no agency of my own.
When I saw Pennsatucky’s face in that scene, it was just like being there again. And for the first time in something like thirty years, I could watch a rape scene without being triggered. Because this time there was no Hollywood drama about it. It was quiet, violent, and over quickly. And no one would ever believe the story because we didn’t fight. That’s the face of rape that I know. And that’s the face of rape I saw for the first time on television in a way that actually made sense.
Dissociation is not a copout. It’s a survival method. It’s something that the character Pennsatucky has clearly absorbed in her rough, short life. But I appreciate that Netflix got it right – for the days when I think I must’ve gotten it really wrong. A little external validation goes a long way sometimes.
Julia Park Tracey is a journalist, blogger and author of the mystery series, Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop and Veronika Layne has a Nose for News. Find her on Twitter @juliaparktracey and at www.juliaparktracey.com.