Opinion: “Orange is the New Black” champions amputees in popular culture

Christina Bucciere is a senior journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].

Christina Bucciere

First, let me just say if you are not watching “Orange is the New Black,” I highly suggest you find a friend willing to give you their login information, among the 12 other friends already using it, to their Netflix account and get to it. Because let’s not pretend we actually pay for our own Netflix accounts.

Thank you, sister’s boyfriend.

This show is equally emotionally gripping as it is hilarious, and the characterization, brought to life by terrific acting, is a rarity. But there is one particular element of this show with which I am pleased on a scale larger than my affinity for good TV. When we first meet John Bennett, the cute prison guard with a soft spot for a Latina inmate, Daya, one would never know that, underneath his uniform, he uses a prosthetic leg from his left knee down. Daya discovers this when they escape to a closet to have some alone time. Although she is startled at first, she quickly recovers her composure and accepts him for who he is. Just like that.

I realize this show is based off of a memoir, and one could argue there was no choice but to include this character. The inclusion of an amputee is noteworthy, however, because limb loss is widely absent in TV and film. Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, made the decision to include Bennett regardless of social stigma.

Watching this from the perspective of being an amputee myself was an amazing moment. In a culture where amputees are largely misunderstood, and therefore, often ridiculed, it would be difficult to find any inkling we exist in popular culture. In the rare occasions where we do make an appearance in the mainstream media, the cause of amputation is almost always veteran-related.

Before I go any further, I want to establish that I do not, by any means, wish to undermine the sacrifices our veterans make for this country. Although I may share a common injury and struggle, I will never be able to understand their warzone experiences and subsequent trauma.

That being said, however, I think it is critically important to point out that, according to the Amputee Coalition of America, there are more than 2 million amputees living in the U.S. alone, and more than half, 54 percent, of those amputations were caused by various vascular diseases, not warzone explosions. So, are we accurately representing the amputee community in our country when we, first, largely leave them out altogether and, second, only find them worth mentioning when patriotic heroism is involved? The aspect of John Bennett’s story I particularly enjoy is that he tells people he lost his leg serving in Afghanistan, when in reality he contracted an infection in a dirty hot tub. And with that, John Bennett proves my point.

It’s easier for the “normal” population to stomach the sight of an amputee when it can justify the abnormality with a heroic back-story. And I will readily admit that, prior to becoming an amputee, I held the same sentiment. I hold no misguided notions that my metal legs are easily looked over. It’s different and even weird. I get it. Even though there are millions of amputees in the world, it is still uncommon to encounter one in everyday life, so it’s only natural to stare or even feel uncomfortable around someone missing limbs.

But it’s time to start scrubbing away the awkward tension. And one way to do that is to face the issue head on instead of tiptoeing around the idea of limb loss by filtering out the “ordinary” amputees from the “extraordinary.” Our stories may not be the same, but we share the same pain. The inclusion of all people in disabling circumstances in popular culture is long overdue. It’s not possible for art to imitate life if we are only brave enough to face the manicured version.