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‘Orange is the New Black’s’ Exploration of Religion in Season 3 Shows How Often it Fails Women

'Orange is the New Black's' Exploration of Religion in Season 3 Shows How Often it Fails Women

Netflix’s
hit women-in-prison dramedy dealt with its characters’ socio-economic and
racial differences throughout much of its first two seasons, but the spiritual lives
of its inmates weren’t tackled to the same extent. Religion came up in “Pennsatucky”
Doggett’s determined Evangelism, the occasional spiritual slogan from Yoga Jones
and in the backstory involving Sister Ingalls’ excommunication. But religion,
and more specifically how religion has a tendency to fail women, became a much
bigger factor in Season 3, as it played a major part in dividing the women into
even smaller social groups, while also bringing others together in new faiths.

READ MORE: What ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Gets Right and Wrong About the Criminal Justice System

As many of
Season 3’s flashbacks used religion and spirituality to deepen a beloved
character’s story, they also showed that women often get the short end of the
stick when it comes to some of the world’s major faiths, whether through
oppression, abuse or societal pressures. Like many people who are incarcerated,
the characters of “OITNB” turned to new religions, or to each other,
for spiritual growth this season. Though much like in their previous lives,
religion didn’t always work out they way they hoped.

Abandoned
by the Amish

Leanne, whom audiences had pinned as a white trash meth
addict when first introduced as one of Pennsatucky’s lackeys, got a surprising
history this season. Her backstory started out as we might have expected, as
she sat around a campfire with other drug users, generally wasting away their
lives. But Leanne’s story took a quick turn when it was revealed that she was
actually Amish, and that her time doing drugs and drinking around the fire was
part of her “Rumspringa,” an Amish right of passage for adolescents
who take a period of time to leave the isolated community and generally get into
some debauchery before committing to the Amish lifestyle through Baptism.

Leanne returned to her family and was Baptized, but her
Rumspringa caught up with her in the form of the police finding her hidden
backpack containing drugs, and a subsequent set up wherein she informed on
other Amish teens who were the brains of the drug operation, leading to their
arrest. That’s when Leanne’s community turned on her. Instead of embracing the
child who returned from Rumspringa with a newfound devotion to her faith, the
families of those she put in jail shunned her and her parents. When Leanne
eventually abandons the community, there’s no doubt she returns to the life of
drugs that eventually landed her in Litchfield. Just as she was trying to continue
a life of devotion, the very community to which she had devoted her life
betrayed her.

Creating
a Charismatic Leader

Leanne clearly craved the kind of structure and
spirituality that the Amish community provided, which is
why she became so strict and controlling when it came to the religious group
that formed around Norma in Season 3. Norma, the silent kitchen assistant,
became a religious figure of her own after years of being ignored. Her
flashback episode this season revealed that she had remained in silence for
years because of her stutter, and as a young woman had joined a hippie-style
cult with a guru named Mack who encouraged her to stay silent, if she so
desired. But Guru Mack turned out to be your typical charismatic cult leader,
marrying multiple women within the cult and having that generally creepy vibe
of considering himself some sort of prophet. Guru Mack was just another dirty
scammer who tricked women into sexual devotion. Decades later, when Norma was
the only follower left, and Guru Mack insulted her, she promptly pushed him off
a cliff.

During Season 3, many of the young women at Litchfield
gravitated to Norma’s loving and peaceful nature, and began semi-worshipping
Norma as a spiritual figure who could make them feel better or understand
themselves more with a single silent look or strong hug. While Norma didn’t set
out to be a cult leader just like her former husband in faith, she didn’t
exactly try to stop it from happening either.  Norma embraced not only being the center of attention but
also her ability to help others. She never really stopped believing in the
kindness-centric teachings of Guru Mack, deciding instead to start silently
preaching on her own. But like Guru Mack’s downfall, Norma’s ascension didn’t
stick. While she just wanted the inmates to be kind, the other women who
followed her resorted to bickering, fighting and even wretched acts against one
another. Norma had tried to be a leader just like her mentor, but it became
clear to her again, just as it did on that cliff side, that no one is God.

The
Lilith Effect

Leanne and Norma had the biggest spiritual flashbacks this
season, but they weren’t the only ones for whom religion came as a
disappointment. Gloria, long-time practitioner of Santeria, chastised Norma for
co-opting her rituals, but found herself disillusioned with the process
anyway.  Meanwhile, it was revealed
in the finale that the character Janae, known for her history of running track,
had a strict Muslim father with a misogynistic disapproval of her
“revealing” running attire, which might have led to her missing out
on college. The butch lesbian Big Boo considered joining Pennsatucky’s Evangelical
church to siphon funds for her commissary, but couldn’t bring herself to
embrace the homophobic teachings of the church. And Red, a child of atheist
Soviet Russia, looked on in skepticism at all of the religious on goings
throughout the season.

READ MORE: Lea DeLaria Refuses To Be Invisible, In Life and On ‘Orange is the New Black’

The trouble for these women is that far too many of the
world’s religions consider them daughters of Eve, born of Adam’s rib and his
natural subordinate, rather than those of Lilith, the mythological first woman
who was created of the same Earth as Adam and was either cast out of or
voluntary left Eden after refusing to be subservient to Adam. The show seems to
be presenting the idea that religion has been a hurdle for these women in their
past lives; for some it was even the thing that landed them in federal prison.

For many, their religion turned their backs on them, so
they’ve turned their backs on their religion and look elsewhere while inside
for spiritual growth. This reflects the true reality of many inmates who
convert or find a new religion while incarcerated, but in a series that prides
itself on its depiction of diverse women from multiple backgrounds, more often
than not, their religion failed them. This is not only true for women in
prison; news stories about how various religions oppress women around the world
surface every day.

Washed,
Rinsed, Repeated?

The one exception in Season 3 is Black Cindy, for whom a
new religion came as a hopeful transition in her life. In a quick flashback,
Cindy’s father was presented as an angry, hateful man who screamed scripture
over the dinner table — it was clear that Cindy’s Christianity was one that
centered on fear.

At first, Cindy began her conversion to Judaism for the
more delicious kosher meals served in the prison cafeteria. But throughout her
study, she found herself legitimately drawn to the faith, and found a spiritual
home she could call her own, rather than the one forced upon her. Cindy’s speech
to the rabbi requesting conversion, and her Mikvah in the lake during the
finale was some of the most touching moments of the season.

But how will Cindy’s Judaism unfold in Season 4? Will she
stick with it as long as she gets to keep her kosher meals? What are her hopes
for Judaism? Will it disappoint her just as much as Christianity? People are
usually inspired to convert to a new religion when something about it speaks to
them in a way that their current faith doesn’t. It will be interesting to see
what that might be for Cindy and her continuation with the faith. Season 3’s
religions may have failed Leanne, Norma and others, but can Season 4 turn it
around with Cindy’s newfound devotion?

Whatever happens, the show has maintained its excellent
writing and superb character development, not only accurately portraying the
lives of women, but also how women are treated in the world. Religion had to
come into play at some point — and so did the possibility that it doesn’t
always treat women the best.

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