Is 'Orange Is the New Black' portraying religion fairly?
Paul Schiraldi, Associated Press
Netflix's female prison dramedy, "Orange Is the New Black," has garnered a lot of praise since it debuted in 2013. While the show — which depicts lesbian sex and profanity — isn't for everyone, critics like the show's strong variety of characters and the emotional storylines that have brought Piper Kerman's memoir to life for two seasons.
Yet since Netflix made the second season available in bulk for streaming subscribers last month, some online are debating the way the show depicts another part of prison life: religion.
In an article Vox published recently, writer Alex Abad-Santos applauded the show's stab at religious variety in depicting the practice of Santeria by some Latina inmates.
"The result is a more well-rounded portrayal of the religion," Abad-Santos wrote. "The show seems to have done what it sought out to do: to portray the religion in a respectful, and thoughtful light."
But others question how a show lauded for its frank look at racial, gender and now even religious issues seems to have a narrow view of Christianity.
In season 1, several characters run afoul of former drug addict Pennsatucky, who uses her Christian beliefs as ammunition to hate and incite violence among other inmates. It's an unfair portrayal, contended Religion and Politics reporter Xarissa Holdaway.
"It’s a curious thing: in a show meant to portray the richness and diversity of the American experience, why is the show’s only serious religious character a whackadoo murderess?" Holdaway wrote.
The series' other religious figures are mostly peripheral — Sister Ingalls, a Catholic nun, and Yoga Jones, a Buddhist yoga teacher.
Scant data on religious affiliation in U.S. prisons suggests that few inmates are atheists — most identified as Protestant or Catholic, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A Pew Research survey of prison chaplains also found that more than 50 percent of inmates identified as Protestant and 14 percent Catholic. While the show may develop faith in future seasons, the reasoning behind the decision is still up for debate, Holdaway wrote.
"It’s unclear whether the show, by placing Piper as its surrogate, is trying to escape responsibility for religious stereotyping, or if the writers haven’t realized they’re doing it," Holdaway wrote. "It’s a cynical view that seems out of place on a show that otherwise deals with its characters’ identities in ways that are sensitive and unexpected."
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