Allow me to explain. Throughout history, literature, cinema, television, and even religious texts have employed the archetype of the heartless, obtuse, and abusive government agent; in so doing, writers have frequently turned to some variant of the tax-collector. This character — a loathsome IRS agent, say — usually symbolizes an overarching societal ill. By giving physical form to the source of our despair — and oftentimes, equipping him or her with a bitterly comedic persona and a reliably Orwellian vernacular — writers have explored, with varying degrees of success, such issues as the soullessness and waste inherent in bureaucracy; the creeping malignancy of government overreach; and the sadistic, sociopathic criminality that invariably begins to flow when some humans are allowed to wield outsized, unearned power over other humans.
Now that Americans — a people whose very existence as a nation and culture is largely rooted in migration, in travel — find themselves being forced to submit to unwarranted, intrusive searches of their bodies and belongings, at the hand of the government, simply because they wish to engage in said travel, it was probably inevitable that the TSA-agent-as-emblem would begin appearing in popular culture.
The well-received Netflix series Orange is the New Black, now in its second season, is a drama set in a women’s prison. What makes the show compelling is that the writers, in addition to scripting a present-day storyline that takes place inside the institution, routinely explore the inmates’ individual backstories through flashbacks. Thus, characters who initially seem harsh, difficult, and generally unlikeable become fully realized and sympathetic once their humanity is revealed to the viewer. Concurrently, a funny, attractive, and/or appealing character can, when her backstory is told, turn the viewer’s perception of her on end: she has now become abhorrent.
This is precisely what happens in Season 2, Episode 7 of Orange is the New Black (entitled Comic Sans), wherein we get to really know the once-likeable inmate named Cindy. From Tom & Lorenzo’s excellent recap:
Cindy gets her flashback this episode and like Lorna’s, it served as a jarring reminder that some of these ladies, no matter how entertaining they are as inmates, are real assholes in the outside world. To an almost shocking degree, she was shown to be irresponsible and self-absorbed, leaving her sister/daughter alone in a car while she runs upstairs to get high with friends or constantly abusing her position as a TSA agent, in a manner that taps into real fears people have about the security state in this country.
By “abusing her position as a TSA agent,” they are referring to the Cindy character engaging in the unethical and illegal acts that real-life TSA agents engage in every day, at airports across the country, and have for years. As documented in our extensive (and ever-growing) Master List of TSA Crimes and Abuses. Waste. Fraud. Theft of passengers’ belongings (especially electronics, like iPads). Inappropriate sexual touching. Waste writ large.
The TSA’s abusiveness being so clearly depicted in a TV show can be viewed two ways. It’s disturbing to consider that this agency’s criminality has become pervasive (and invasive) enough to earn the TSA agent/character a place in the imaginations of screenwriters. But it’s also gratifying in the sense that these artists are choosing to shine the light of popular culture on issues — most saliently the government-sanctioned violation of our Fourth Amendment rights — that far too many Americans still pooh-pooh as “needed security.” Until, that is, the abuse, theft, or assault happens to them.
[Photo via the tumblr Orangeis]