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Guest Blog: Feminist Felons: How ‘Orange is the New Black’ Transgresses Traditional Television

October 3rd, 2013     by Guest Blogger     Comments

by Maria Arseniuk

Chances are youx02BCve either seen, heard, or read about the Netflix phenomenon Orange is the New Black (OITNB). If you have, and are currently basking in the glory of inclusive awesomeness that is OINTB read on; if you havenx02BCt then stay tuned - shitx02BCs about to get real.

Herex02BCs the deal: OITNB is subversive to the normative cultural representations of popular culture depictions of femininity, incarceration, heteronomativity and power. Get comfortable because there is some serious deconstructing about to take place.

So who exactly are the women of OITNB, what are they doing in prison and what’s up with orange? Outwardly the script revolves around the (mis)adventures of Piper Chapman - an upper class, white college graduate with her own artisanal soap line at Barneyx02BCs; a wealthy, preppy college graduate who is serving a prison sentence for her role in an international drug trafficking op. However, the premise of the show is less concerned with Piperx02BCs first world problems and alternatively revolves around telling the stories of Litchfieldx02BCs inmates: a promising track star, a homeless youth, a trans woman, a political prisoner nun, and countless others - and the ways in which their lives have been shaped by flawed institutional practices, past and present.

The beauty of OINTB is that it functions to subvert conventional representations of silver screen women in two ways. First, it addresses the ways systems of privilege articulate Piperx02BCs experience in relation to the experiences of her cellmates. Second, it provides a platform for the narratives of women of colour and other marginalized voices, including trans womenx02BCs. By placing the inmatesx02BC stories in contextual flashbacks the script transgresses mainstream representations of prisoners as rogue Others.

Piper Chapman is a trojan. Remember that lesson from history class about the Trojan Horse and tricking the Greeks? That is essentially what Piper is; her function is to acquaint the audience with the stories of the other characters and move these diverse and heterogenous experiences away from peripherality. Jenji Kohan, the mastermind behind OITNB, has been unapologetic about Piperx02BCs paradoxical role: “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals” (Nitke, NPR 2013). What does this say about the state of contemporary Western society? It says that media conglomerates are immensely powerful in introducing and maintaing ideas of what is acceptable - and that is middle class, able-bodied whiteness. F*ck that.

Challenging the status quo, Kohan integrates a hilarious yet critical response to middle class whiteness. In what can only be called comedic brilliance Poussey and Taystee satirize the very core of privileged identity (arguably Piperx02BCs identity), parodying everything from sushi to documentaries, veganism, wine tasting and yoga workshops, hedge funds and side bangs. With a single, swift scene, Kohan deconstructs and lampoons the legitimacy of upper class entitlement.

One of the many allures of OINTB is its use of irony as both a narrative device and as an arsenal against dominant forms of control and power. The irony-meter is on full alert when Piper tells a young Black girl using a wheelchair that shex02BCs just like her; “Ix02BCm like you Dina. Ix02BCm weak too”. Bitch, please. Somewhere in between her juice cleanses and jet-setting to Paris I think Piper misses out on the memo that no, in fact, your college educated middle class white able-bodied self is nothing like the people whose experiences you attempt to appropriate in a world that accepts and rewards a very specific and narrow type of person.

But even more noteworthy than the dissection of Piperx02BCs arrogant sense of self entitlement and unchecked privilege is the phenomenal presence of heterogenous voices that saturate the colourful story lines. Black women, queer women, immigrant women, fat women, trans women and Latina women - hell yeah. Given that primetime television is dominated by white presence - a whopping 81% - the cast and characters of OITNB are not only transgressive, but revolutionary.

We watch as Sophia, one of primetimex02BCs sole trans female characters, grows as a woman and claims her rightful place within a shared community of womanhood; we watch as Big Boo who is fat and fabulous, shamelessly gets down and freaky; and we watch as Daya, Poussey, Taystee Miss Claudette and Crazy Eyes reel in nearly unanimous amounts of screen time as the central protagonist. We watch as Lorna, Nicky, Big Boo, Mercy, Alex, Tricia and even Piper subjugate heteronormativity; and subjugate it not for the sexual arousal of a hetero-male audience but as active subjects engaging their own intimate and sexual desires.

In addition to giving a variety of women presence on the silver screen that would otherwise have been occupied but what we normally see (hint: white middle class men) OITNB also illustrates how problematic the criminal justice system is and forces the viewer to challenge any preconceived notions they may have about the types of people who are incarcerated by one of the largest enterprises in the US; the US prison system is a multi-billion dollar business whose profits in 2012 amounted to $1.7 billion (Forbes, 2013). Without giving away any spoilers itx02BCs fair to say that the portrayal of prison staff on power trips contrasted with the background story flashbacks of many of the inmates leaves the audience sympathetic at worst, and enraged at best. Tackling the not so pretty issues of sensitivity training, solitary confinement, consent in prison-inmate relationships, and complete lack of any resources OITNB effectively demonstrates that contrary to some popular notions, a prison sentence is no cake walk.

Lastly, OITNB operates as a form of collective cultural commentary. It addresses the complicated relationships between the Foucauldian notions of power (Foucault was a rich white guy whose claim to fame was a leftist critique of privilege. Kind of a big deal for feminists, philosophers, other cultural studies folks and critical thinkers just like yourself), gender, race and class; it confronts how failed institutions recycle the most marginalized within the Western neo-liberal establishment - and it humanizes people in an all but inhuman world. We come to understand and sympathize with characters that conventional principles label as outsiders, deviants, monsters.

OITNB attends to the issues of surveillance, gendered violence, patriarchy, ableism and cis-normativity with an open, inclusive and compassionate frame of mind - with just the right amount of crass drollery. It allows us to see a little bit of ourselves, depending on our own social locations within the hierarchies of race, class and gender; we get a glimpse, however narrow, of where and how we fit in within the structured and systemic protocols of Western society.

Maria Arseniuk is a student, social activist, globetrotter and feminist. She is particularly interested in exploring social configurations in popular imagination.

Tags: guest blogs, media savvy

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