By Guest Contributor Kimberly Bernita Ross
The prison comedy-drama, Orange is The New Black (OITNB), is projected to trump House of Cards in viewership by the end of the year, giving it the distinction of being Netflix’s most-watched original series. The show is an adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir by the same name, which recounts her time in prison after being convicted for drug smuggling and money laundering a decade after the offense. Actress Taylor Schilling plays Piper in the series, depicting the sometimes-comical angst that the White upper-middle class, 30-something feels, upon entering what in real life was Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut.
OITNB joins the ranks of other popular women in prison TV and film productions like Bad Girls, Stranger Inside and Prisoner: Cell Block H. All of these shows and films touch upon relevant issues facing real women in prison, such as a lack of physical and mental healthcare, sexual assault and separation from children; yet they also draw on some of the more sensationalized themes of an earlier generation of women-in-prison (WIP) exploitation films first popularized in the late 1960s and 70s. While OITNB is a significant departure from the B- Movie, WIP film subgenre, the show still relies on subjects of female subjugation, violence, and lesbian sex, themes heavily prevalent in WIP films. And just as WIP movies often cross into revolutionary plots and sometimes Blaxploitation motifs, OITNB delves into the stories of Black and Afro-Latina women in prison. Comparing the women-in-prison film genre with OITNB is a ripe opportunity to analyze changing representations of sexual orientation, gender and race on screen.
There is a dearth of critical examination within portrayals of race and the criminal justice system. Black and Latina women’s plot lines predictably include criminal women from the “menacing urban underclass” without much nuance or context. Writers rarely, if ever, analyze the racialized society that has created the prison industrial complex in which these women find themselves entangled. Jenji Kohen, creator of the show, has been quoted as saying she used the WASP character, fashioned after Piper Kerman, as a ploy to pitch the series to different networks—a sort of subterfuge to tell other stories that the industry is reluctant to touch. The White woman lens as a means of telling the stories of women of color has been a scheme in Hollywood for a long time, and is an oft-criticized element of OITNB. At the same time, much of the show’s appeal rests on this juxtaposition of race and class and the laughable observations of an ignorant Piper. While the stories of real women of color are still held hostage by Hollywood stratagem, OITNB has developed Black and Latino characters that differ from the static, underdeveloped roles of the WIP film subgenre. But how much has really changed?
Famed Blaxploitation actress Pam Grier starred in several WIP films, usually as the convicted sex worker or political revolutionary. Grier’s often gun-toting characters, with their no-nonsense attitudes and tough exteriors are sometimes described as feminist for using sex as a weapon and taking mortal revenge on the men that hurt them. Nevertheless the feminist label falls short in light of historical fetishizing of subjugated Black women. Grier has become a cinematic icon that has captured popular imagination, but her characters did not advance a deeper understanding of the plight of Black women or unearth real causes of poverty and crime in Black communities. Likewise, OITNB does not uncover the reasons why Black and Latino characters are in prison other than what Piper refers to as the “bad choices” that landed them there. These renderings of the criminalization of women of color are ultimately attributed to a cyclical culture of poverty and behavioral deviance rather than a system that strangles options and restricts upward mobility.
The audience is left with the turbulent and the ridiculous. Volatile characters like Janae or Poussey, who are justifiably angry at life but have little dramatic range or meaningful backstories, or goofy characters like Taystee, who is typecast as ghetto comic relief. One of the more popular stories is depicted by a Dominican actress who plays Daya, a young woman who begins a romantic relationship with a guard in prison, but whose mother, also an inmate, competes with her for his sexual attention. Outside of this plot line, both women are in prison because of the of the mother’s drug-dealing boyfriend, yet the focus is on two women fighting over a man. Therefore while OITNB provides more developed characters than those of the WIP film subgenre, both offer a type of voyeurism. Middle- and upper-middle-class Americans can peer into the lives of women of color in prison, while audiences of WIP films can peer into the sexual exploits and abuse of women in captivity. Either way both have an exploitative quality that does not translate into women’s empowerment.
On the men’s pop-culture website, CraveOnline, film blogger Witney Seibold writes about the allure and cult following of WIP films, “Almost everyone I know seems to like the smutty, violent, nudity-laden women in prison films, even gay men and straight women. There is a wondrous exploitative simplicity to these movies.” Films in the subgenre, like The Big Doll House, Black Mama White Mama, The Big Bird Cage and Women in Chains, all starring Grier, were, according to Seibold, chock-full of scenes with women showering, “catfights,” forced sex and lesbian seduction. Although men’s roles are more marginal, and while Seibold suggests that these films appeal to a wide-ranging audience, the movies nevertheless cater to the male gaze. The pseudo lesbianism of these films provides a safe artistic space for manipulation. Female on female aggression and sex attempts to sanitize the violence because of the absence of men as the main aggressors, while capitalizing off of male sex fantasies at the same time. Yet, latent in WIP films is violence that typifies rape culture. This subgenre provides tales for audiences that seek this type of entertainment yet with safe, guilt-free anonymity.
OITNB’s first episode ironically opens with various shower scenes, not entirely unlike those in WIP films. In a flashback, Piper is pictured showering with her girlfriend Alex, the drug-runner from 10 years prior, who lured her into the criminal undertakings that eventually led to her conviction. The scene cuts to the recent present, Piper bathing with her male fiancé. The scene cuts once more to Piper in a prison shower and the sobering realization of her new life as an inmate. The shower room in the prison becomes the natural location for various sexual encounters and antagonism throughout the first season, and yet OITNB does not feel marketed for male titillation. Netflix has not released viewer data yet, but judging from social media and news outlets, the show seems to appeal to diverse audiences. Viewers find the women’s stories intriguing: the love interests of Big Boo, Tricia’s battle with drug addiction, Miss Claudette’s mysterious past and lost love.
As with race, TV networks and film companies are not typically eager to produce compelling stories that accurately probe into issues of gender or sexual orientation. WIP films especially mischaracterize lesbians as sexually deviant, biologically wrong or perpetually lustful. In the article, “Bad Girls Changed My Life”: Homonormativity in a Women’s Prison Drama,” Didi Herman explains that in WIP films, “Lesbianism is usually either marginalized, pathologized, or at best situational, and lesbian characters usually face grim futures or suffer violent deaths.” While some of the same-sex relationships portrayed in OITNB appear situational, or in the case of the character, Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes,” played by a Black actress, could be interpreted as deviant or pathological, there is still a strong emotional connection and a yearning for authentic love among those characters. And when Piper and Alex reunite in prison and rekindle their feelings for one another, albeit complex, it seems grounded in something more tangible and real. So while the show’s failures have been enumerated at length, there have been successes in the inclusions of trans and queer storylines.
Furthermore, OITNB became a trailblazer as one of the first shows to have a transgender character played by a transgender Black woman. Laverne Cox plays Sophia, a woman convicted of credit-card fraud. Sophia has a very poignant back-story as she deals with trying to maintain relationships with her wife and son back home. While in Prison, Sophia fights for access to her hormones and medication, as she deals with hostility towards her transition by a prison administration that feels it was a choice she did not have to make. She also deals with the sexual harassment of one of the prison guards. The sleazy guard nicknamed “Pornstache” mentions to another guard that he would like to have sex with her. Knowing that she is a trans woman he crassly remarks, that he would not mind being with her as long is there is a hole, demonstrating that when female gender is performed to societal norms, one’s history of living as a man does not exempt one from patriarchy’s expansive reach.
While OITNB marks an improvement in many ways to the portrayals of sexual orientation, gender and race on screen, especially in comparison with the WIP film subgenre, there is still a long way to go. Criminal justice reform is sorely needed in American prisons where Black women and men are overly prosecuted and the failures and racism within the criminal justice system go unexamined. It’s not enough that movies, T.V and now Netflix entertain, but they must also attempt to inform.