Orange is the New Black: Stuttering and Mutism

OITHBNote: This article contains spoiler info for episode 7, “Tongue Tied”, but not for subsequent episodes. 

The popular Netflix series Orange is the New Black, about an upper middle-class woman serving time in prison for drug smuggling, is now in its third year. This season the character of Norma, (played by Annie Golden) was introduced, an older woman who refuses to speak.  The 7th episode, entitled “Tongue Tied”, reveals some of her past. Norma is in prison for murder and she does not speak because she is a person who stutters.

Stuttertalk podcast

The podcast site Stuttertalk featured an episode about this storyline, and I was delighted to see that Natalie Bragan was interviewed for her thoughts on the episode! I met Natalie last year in Washington at the NSA conference.  She and host Peter Reitzes discuss the character of Norma and the way her stuttering was introduced in the series. Hear the podcast here.

Stereotype of the "meek" stutterer?

Norma is relieved at being told she "doesn't have to speak" In the flashback, Norma is a meek young woman who falls under the sway of a corrupt “guru” who, when he notices her stuttering, tells her “you don’t have to speak with me.” She becomes one of his wives and stays with him for decades, never speaking. In the Stuttertalk interview, Natalie says that she understands the feeling of relief at not being expected to speak – being excused from talking in class or giving presentations – but that that relief is also tinged with some shame and regret, and is “not a healthy relief”.

Natalie and Peter also talk about the Guru’s reaction to Norma’s stuttering in the show, that he really doesn’t want to hear her speak. It is not surprising that their relationship devolves into a pathetic scenario, when, many years down the road, Norma is the only one of his “wives” who is still with him, and he berates and insults her for her muteness and wasted life. He tells her she is “nothing”, and “has nothing to say”.

Norma's mutism is “avoidance in its purest form,” says NatalieNatalie remarks that “that’s one of my fears, that people will think I have nothing to say”. Norma’s refusal to speak, the decision that silence is better than stuttering, is “avoidance in its purest form,” says Natalie.

Avoiding being "different"

Host Peter Reitzes points out that her mutism is a way of “passing as fluent.” As for the murder scene, when Norma pushes her guru-husband off the cliff he is standing on, it is not very cathartic for her… she may have finally stood up for herself, but will now have to pay the consequences. She stutters out “Son of a bitch!” after he falls.

At the end of the episode, back in the prison, Norma is still mute, but has gained a following among some of the women who see her as having powers of miraculous healing. It will be interesting to see in further episodes if she ever speaks, stutter and all. Television is certainly averse to depicting stuttering, and having the character be “mute” is rather a cop-out. After all, people who stutter like to talk, too.