It’s all about the context.
One of the things I see running around the internet, especially Tumblr, is a set of pictures from “Orange Is the New Black”. It is the scene in which Piper gives a mini-rant to Pennsatucky about how she doesn’t believe we get cancer to learn life lessons, kids don’t die because more angels are needed—that whole thing. When I see the photoset, captioned especially with the cancer quote, on Tumblr, often the post is reblogged with a “yes” kind of fist pump note. I know those posting it are agreeing with that cancer doesn’t give life lessons bit, and I do too.
But I do not reblog it, even though I want to, because the photoset is taken out of context.
Like most people, I binge-watched both seasons of OITNB, so I have no idea what events happen in which episode, and my timeline memory of the tiny details is a little off. But I do know that after this scene occurs, one character tells Piper she is not a nice person; that she is, in fact, mean. That scene stands out, but I think there are a few other scenes that imply the same thing—that Piper is regarded by the other prisoners as less than an upstanding, good prison (or elsewhere) citizen. True for me, Piper is not the most likeable one on the show.
I’m not going to get into an analysis of the show—the issues of privilege, and the high school level irony that this main character in prison with so-called worse criminals is not considered a “good” person. I’m not a TV/film critic. But I do find it interesting that this piece of entertainment/art chooses this less sympathetic character to give the “no life lessons” speech.
Yeah, yeah, it’s just a “stupid” TV show. As someone pointed out to me the other day, it is silly so much chatter is going on about the Oscar® snubs of POC/women, of “Selma”, when so many world atrocities are not getting news coverage or social media chatter. On the surface that’s true. But dig deeper. Those silly awards snubs reflect a deeper problem in American society. I have always been of the opinion that TV/film/music reflect society’s ills, and it is easy to dismiss “silly entertainment issues” when we don’t want to confront the not so silly issues brought up by entertainment/art. (To be clear, I don’t think OITNB is “stupid” hence the quotes; actually I love it. I use the quotes to indicate that some people would dismiss it as such.) Storytelling, whether it be through poetry/rap, books, films, and yes, even blogs, is how we make sense of the world.
So Piper, the mean person, the person other prisoners do NOT think of as a “good” person, doesn’t think we get cancer to learn life lessons. I agreed with her whole speech in that scene, even though I too, do not think she is a good person, and heck, watch the show mostly because of the other characters. Ugh, what does THAT mean? BTW, I’m not just now thinking about all this, I contemplated it last summer when I binge-watched the show, but I am pushed to write this after seeing the photo set pop up on my dash for the millionth time the other day.
Well, as usual, I cannot even answer my own questions—I’m just throwing them out there, like I often do.
How I interpret this OITNB treatment of Piper is that this is the way society in general regards someone who would say “we don’t get cancer to learn lessons”. Others recoil from that person, and consider them “mean”. True, it is other deeds or words that contribute to the meanness, but the no life lessons point of view seems to be in keeping with the overall character type. Whether the story writers are doing this to point out that society does this, or because they truly agree with the other characters and are using them to articulate their view that people like Piper are “mean”, I do not know, or care very much.
Here in CancerLand, we KNOW that there is no one right way to “do” cancer, that we are allowed to feel and think as we will. But the sad fact is that it is hard to go against the socially accepted single story. The dancing mastectomy woman, and the woman who threw a goodbye party for her breasts, will always be lauded and rewarded for their so-called positive attitudes and actions. Anyone who expresses sadness, fear, anger, etc.—well, we won’t be punished exactly, but getting called “mean”, or asked why we do not choose to be positive, that is the most common outcome (oh man, the concept of choice in beliefs and feelings is a whole can of worms for a post). We can spout “there is no one right way to do anything” quotes all day (and I do, all over my blog and Facebook), but maybe society in general has not yet attained our level of understanding. (That does NOT mean we should not keep trying to blog our way to understanding, however.) So when social media crowns a new she-ro and points to her celebrations as a THE way to do cancer, well, it creates another hard-to-achieve standard that I am not interested in pursuing—but will have to put up with ignorant folks looking at me like I should at least try. The idea that women with breast cancer must put on the happy face and not let anyone see the pain and fear is again perpetuated. And in televised fictions, the no life lessons woman will be considered mean.
As it may be clear, or rather, unclear, I’m thinking about a hundred million things again, and better end this post before it becomes another unwieldy ramble. Hopefully, I get time to write about the issues bothering me so, that I’ve hinted at here today.