God is a verb: "Orange Is the New Black" dares to show faith in a positive light

Black Cindy's season 3 storyline is a rare affirming portrayal of religious conversion on prestige TV

Published July 18, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

Adrienne C. Moore in "Orange Is the New Black"         (Netflix)
Adrienne C. Moore in "Orange Is the New Black" (Netflix)

Rabbi: What is this for you? 

Black Cindy: Honestly? I think I found my people. I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell. If I was good, I’d go to heaven. If I asked Jesus, he’d forgive me, and that was that. And here, y'all sayin’ it ain’t no hell. Ain’t sure about heaven. And if you do something wrong, you got to figure it out yourself. And as far as God is concerned, it’s yo’ job to keep askin’ questions, and to keep learnin’ and to keep arguing. It’s like a verb. It’s like—you do God. And it’s a lot of work, but I think I’m in.

Non serviam: I will not serve. Lovers of literature will always associate this phrase with James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” or Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” But Cindy ‘Black Cindy’ Tova Hayes (portrayed by Adrienne C. Moore) of “Orange Is the New Black” brought this bold ideal back when she declared that she was renouncing her former religion to convert to Judaism. Black Cindy will not serve, because she’ll be too busy working at God and trying to figure things out—doing. Bob Dylan would say we’re all gonna have to serve somebody, but Black Cindy’s storyline suggests that how we worship and believe is as important as what or whom we worship. And when her Afro Puffs went kosher, so to speak, “OITNB” brought us the type of religious conversion narrative rarely, if ever, seen on television.

This third season of “Orange Is the New Black” began with one of its most fascinating plotlines—the new job opportunity that arose, courtesy of MCC’s corporate takeover. In anticipation of the unbelievable chance to make $1.00 per hour, the inmates fantasize about the work they might be doing, stressing themselves out over a ridiculous Internet personality quiz. Pearson later explains to Caputo that the prisoners were chosen at random for the job, but that it was incredibly important that they make it appear otherwise: “My system is to make the ladies think there is a system.”

It was a line as terrifying as “Soylent green is people!” And the subtext of the statement is that the purpose of his system is to make the ladies think there is hope. Coupled with the threads of religious storylines that weave together in Season 3, and there is a strong implication that systems of hope are both inevitable and dangerous. Norma’s followers start out full of hope, and end up somewhat responsible for SoSo’s near-suicide. They’re also worshipping a piece of toast, while worshipping a false prophet who once, herself, worshipped a false prophet. Leanne takes the lead in this group because her Amish upbringing has instilled in her a desire for a stricter system of beliefs. So, unknowingly, the inmates have created a strange, sometimes laughable system within an even stranger, more powerful system. Caputo aligns these two structures perfectly when he declares that Pearson, as Director of Human Activities, is basically the warden, who is essentially God. Institutions arise within institutions and the events of this season suggest that humans are simply not meant to be institutionalized—not under a prison system, or under a belief system.

At least, that seemed to be the message, until Black Cindy came along and mic dropped on the whole season when she dunked those massive Afro Puffs in a lake while performing her mikvah. It’s a glorious moment made even more powerful by the momentary baptism or purification of all of the inmates, jumping into the lake as they experience a truly delicious freedom, just as a new batch of prisoners arrive.

But those giant Afro Puffs on Cindy (the biggest we’ve probably seen since Lady Rage) are more significant than you might think. Since Season 1, Black Cindy has stood out for her particularly foul mouth, dirty jokes and general silliness. Her hairstyle contributes to the exaggerated, cartoonish energy she’s always evoked (even as, for many of us, it brings back memories of childhood). The beginning of this season brought us more of the same, as Black Cindy continued to deliver unforgettable quotes and bits of dialogue that solidified her status as one of the most outrageous, hilarious characters on the show:

"I been washin’ my pits, tits and naughty bits in the sink." 

"PLEASE, my grandma used to douche with disinfectant."

“I’m also on Team Rodcocker. But I like that dude you introduced in Chapter Three, who was made of vaseline. Oooh, I don’t know why, but that shit was hot! But also tragic.”

I couldn't stop worrying, and cooking lobsters and hanging with women in suspenders.”

It made perfect sense that she would be the vulgar and scheming messiah figure, leading the women in their quest toward faux-conversion. It’s the ultimate hypocrisy—feigning belief for the tastier kosher meals—but we forgive them because they’re under dire circumstances. And in a season where the lead character starts an imprisoned women’s dirty panty business, it’s really not that shocking. What is shocking is that “Orange Is the New Black” did something no television show is doing right, and introduced a legitimate conversion narrative that was beautiful, unexpected and wholly believable.

It’s unfortunate that Black Cindy’s narrative is unique, but in the world of prestige dramas and comedies, religion or acts of worship are usually presented as things outside of intellectuality or artistic expression. “The Good Wife has done an excellent job of critiquing the public perception of atheism with Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick. In Season 6, although she does not struggle with her beliefs,  there are some interesting complications along the way (especially because she’s running for public office). Alicia’s atheism fits well with her character—she’s analytical, smart and a realist. She believes in the law and is concerned primarily with its execution, as opposed to issues of faith.

Although religion was never a topic that became a major part of the series (which is telling in and of itself), we saw similar oppositions between faith and intellect (or faith and work) on “Mad Men.” Peggy Olson’s character (played by Elisabeth Moss) was responsible for the few storylines concerned with religion, and she was set in direct opposition against her Catholic mother and sister. Her relationship with Father Gill in Season 2 seemed to work against these oppositions at times, but for the duration of the series they mostly stayed in place. In Season 3 “Mad Men” also gave us this memorable exchange between Sally Draper and Betty:

Sally: Why don't we go to church?

Betty: We go to church.

Sally: On Christmas. Carla goes every Sunday.

Betty: We don't need to go every week.

The issue of class not-so-subtly creeps into the dialogue here, as Sally is asking about their black nanny and maid. It’s implied that she’s someone who needs church, while the Draper family can afford to attend just once a year.

Perhaps the best “Mad Men” example might be the [failed] relationship between Don Draper and Rachel Menken. One of the most emotional scenes of the final season saw Draper attending her shiva. Her Jewish background was always a point of interest, but because the character was not a series regular, we saw her more as Don’s lover—the one who got away—rather than a character for whom religion was important.

Although Black Cindy’s race and class surely come into play here (that is to say, she’s not white, upper class like the aforementioned characters), should “OITNB” continue with the story of her conversion, it could change the way characters of faith are currently presented. Right now it seems audiences love a character with a God complex, and we love to see religious figures who are also villains (Sally Langston on “Scandal,” Preacher Theriot on “True Detective”), but a character who truly believes in God? Or G-d? A person of faith, who also  embraces intellectuality? Practically unfathomable.

One reason why Cindy Tova’s declaration in the season finale is so believable (aside from Adrienne C. Moore’s incredible delivery), is because of her emphasis on the intellectual process. Being “not sure about” something as serious as the concept of heaven—and having the audacity to construct a belief system with that in mind—is an exciting concept for academics, theory-lovers and anyone in pursuit of certain unattainable, spiritual truth. The fact that she is drawn to a religion that demands that she keep asking questions, keep figuring her own, flawed self out, and keep discovering and re-discovering God speaks volumes about the true person behind those puffs. (The other great thing about this scene is that, even after her impassioned speech, she is not ready—she’s only Jew-ish. There is the physical ritual, the mikvah, that must take place, and so we see another breakdown between the physical, spiritual and intellectual.)

Unlike the other inmates, Cindy Tova will not serve a god that is a noun. She will renounce them (and her own black people and upbringing, on some level) for the people who understand God and belief in God as a verb. This emphasis on language also calls back to “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” where protagonist Stephen Dedalus begins questioning the religious order after a series of verbal misunderstandings between himself and a Jesuit priest. It’s the false nature of the priest and his incorrect use of a few words that opens the young man’s mind to the hypocrisy of a religion that is supposedly based on The Word, but often seems without reverence for language.  It’s the hypocrisy of language that he can’t stand by or serve, which leads him to choose a life where he can serve more truthfully.

Some of the negative critiques of this season of “OITNB” might reflect the fact that we have grown accustomed to TV that feeds us hard, fast, palpable drama. Season 3 was actually, in many ways, more intense than those past—but that intensity was reflected in narratives of faith, as well as plots concerned with motherhood. If you don’t find these two concepts eternally fascinating (or can’t make the connection between motherhood as an act of worship and being worshipped and the inmates’ search for something or someone in which to place their faith), you might have found some of these episodes dull. But for those of us who are deeply interested in religion and religious thought (whether or not we ourselves are religious), this season was powerful.

And while “OITNB” stands apart (and always has) for taking on such a story, it’s not entirely alone. Of course, we’ve seen creator Jenji Kohan work Judaism into a seemingly unlikely story before, with “Weeds.” And the first season of Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” seamlessly woven in its brilliant, biting comedy, with depictions of Jewish traditions and great dialogue that was somehow funny, sexy and reverential. The Shabbat dinner scene with Jeffrey Tambor’s trans character lighting the candles is one of the best examples of how TV can embrace and subvert religious tradition, while making strong statements about gender and sexuality. “The Leftovers” is another series, though very different from “OITNB” and “Transparent,” where religious thought (specifically Christianity) is a big part of the narrative. And while there are plenty of opportunities for binary oppositions in this dark tale of believers vs. non-believers, the series doesn’t necessarily take one particular stance on the subject, but is more exploratory. Sundance TV’s “Rectify” deserves recognition as well, as a series where Evangelical Christian characters are not merely defined by their religious beliefs, or presented in a one-dimensional (or negative) context. However, all of these shows are very much exceptions, and not the rule.

Perhaps what's most exciting about Black Cindy Tova’s newfound belief is that it will not set her free. She will continue on with her conversion journey, while serving her time in prison. Although she may finally have access to better food, being Jewish is not an escape for her; it’s not an opiate. It’s not a consolation prize for her bad luck, or for the bad mother she had (nor does it offer a salve over the pain she must feel having failed as a mother herself). It is work. And it's interesting to imagine how this golden age of television could push new boundaries if we started seeing more characters for whom God is a verb, for whom worship is both physical and intellectual work. In a time when many are crying out for and demanding diversity, it’s odd to see how few of us are asking for more representations of the countless belief systems that make up our world, our families and our individual experiences.

So if Black Cindy asked “Where my dreidel at?” I can’t help but ask, “Where the Bibles, Qu’rans and Srutis at? Where the Atheists, Muslims and non-denominational worshippers at? Where the [serious depictions] of juju, voodoo and Haitian Vodou at? Where the explorations into religious thought as intellectual, physical, difficult and humorous at?” If Black Cindy can have her Afro Puffs and kosher meals too, TV can embrace, subvert, deconstruct and represent religion in ways that will entertain and inform all audiences.  But, as is often the case, if audiences don’t demand such diversity, it will not come. So do it, TV—do God the verb, and let’s see what happens.

By Shannon M. Houston

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor and a film critic at Paste Magazine, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter @shannonmhouston

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