OITNB inevitably prompted a lot of discussion about women’s bodies. Watching the pilot episode suggested it was pitching in the realm of the prison sexploitation genre without the bad dialogue. The hoary truism that sex sells was writ large across the small-screen, and as a pilot episode it was duty-bound to bring the goods, namely, sex and female flesh.
The show is also a blatantly middle-class perspective of a prison regime, a regime which is itself anomalous across the US estate. Our POV, entry-level character is Piper Chapman, the analogue of Piper Kerman. The privilege of telling other people’s stories is essential to an understanding of intersectionality and power in the show. Those without power, or capital, are vulnerable to representation by others. It was the account written by the more privileged, atypical, white inmate which gave her experience a voice and communicated her story in a language which could be understood and disseminated for our cultural delectation.
Laureen Snider’s 2003 article argued that feminist criminology and feminism had created self-aware subjects of women in prison; in her assessment of the impact of feminist criminology she remarked that it had replaced innocence with resilience and awareness. It is debatable to what extent such self-awareness and resilience has penetrated women's prisons. In the show, this kind of self-awareness is exercised by a minority of the characters. The character of Piper speaks with a rights-based discourse for example, but few share this language with her. Yasmin Nair has written that the white, middle-class characters in the show are possessed of greater agency and awareness and were more able to agitate for change and appreciate their situation. Perhaps, considering the widespread success of OITNB, it has the capacity to be consciousness-raising, and to effect actual change in the punishment of women in the US?
Dawn Cecil has written on the newspaper representation of Martha Stewart, and the prison regime, during Stewart's time spent in Alderson, Virginia. She argued that the media coverage focused on sex, violence and motherhood. Media coverage on ‘Camp Cupcake’, as it was dubbed, provided a misleading view of Martha Stewart’s incarceration experience as a normalised experience, and gave the impression that women were not punished in prison. She concluded that the press and media had failed to grasp the inherent opportunity, namely, to highlight the realities and inadequacies of the prison system. This demonstrates the power and the corresponding responsibility of the media to offer a representation of a hidden population. In Ireland, when Kathleen McMahon resigned as governor of the Dóchas Centre she highlighted the irresponsible reporting of women prisoners as one factor which made prison more difficult. A glance at the newspaper accounts of women in the Dóchas Centre support her criticism. Reports are often sensationalised accounts of sex behind bars and commentary on the appearance of the female prisoners.
The sex in OITNB is overwhelmingly portrayed in positive terms, the show presents sexual relationships in prison as generally unproblematic and consensual. This obscures the issue of sexual assault within prisons, which has recently been raised by the Howard League for Penal Reform in England and Wales (despite an uncooperative Minister for Justice barring the possibility of research being conducted with serving prisoners). The issue of sexual assault in US prisons has been acknowledged by the Prison Rape Elimination Act 2003 - and to its credit OITNB does reference this piece of legislation. Kristen Bahler has written on the implementation of this Act, especially with regard to transgender persons in prison in the US. Bahler writes that the Act started to take effect late in 2013, when specially trained staff were required to provide respectfully conducted searches of transgender individuals, and accommodation for safe housing, which would be assessed on a case-by-case. Certain jurisdictions have made the news for incorporating initiative for the non-discrimination of transgender prisoners. One issue tackled in the show is the access to healthcare, particularly access to hormone therapy. The Prison Rape Elimination Act provides no requirements about the provision of this treatment, despite recommendations otherwise from various professional medical bodies. Bahler quotes a figure from the National Center for Transgender Equality which suggested that about 47% of black transgender people had been incarcerated at some stage in their lives. This would make the provision of hormone therapy an issue of huge importance which touches simultaneously on issues of marginalisation, race and punishment. While OITNB tackles this question, it resolves this issue quickly and neatly.
Another issue raised is the care of older prisoners. The ageing prisoner population presents a particular concern for contemporary justice agencies as prisoner demographics show a cohort of prisoners ageing within prison, which prompts questions about the most suitable form of care. Issues such as dealing with degenerative illnesses in prison, and the provision of hospice care, and whether this should be available within the prison estate, or beyond it, are all pressing questions (which have been tackled by some academics, for example Azrini Wahidin). The show's portrayal of age is another of its strengths. In season two particularly, the prominence of the older characters is emphasised. This creates a further aspect of diversity of representation, as 'the Greys' become integrated in plot developments. Intriguingly, within the show, the identifier of age seemed to supersede the identifier of race, certainly as illustrated by 'the Greys'. These characters were also painfully aware of their invisible and marginalised place within the prison hierarchy.
One of the central themes running through the show is the importance of food - as a means of asserting oneself, as a focus for individual characters who are deprived of autonomy over their diet, and as a point of communal exchange and interaction. This preoccupation highlights the mundane quotidian fact of prison life and research into the importance of food within prison is currently being undertaken by academics such as Alicia Crowther. The topic of food does much to highlight the informal barter economy of prison. Other issues which arise with regularity are themes of privacy and the importance of appearance in preserving identity.
The show has sparked a considerable amount of commentary. One article by Noah Berlatsky carried the clickbait headline ‘Orange is the New Black’s Irresponsible Portrayal of Men’. Berlatsky wrote:
‘Of course Orange is the New Black is under no obligation to accurately represent prison demographics, and just because they’re a minority in prison doesn’t mean that women’s stories there aren’t important. The problem is that the ways in which OITNB focuses on women rather than men seem to be linked to stereotypically gendered ideas about who can be a victim and who can’t.’
While the criticism that characters were presented as victimised has validity, the article seemed to fail in its recognition that women's stories were as important as men's stories, despite its above disclaimer. Season one also received criticism based on the perceived differentiation of flesh based on class and race. Middle-class white breasts were artfully draped by discreet folds of fabric while minority and working-class breasts were exposed to the full glare of objectification (see Yasmin Nair's article on this). Yasmin Nair has also written on race and class in the context of the use of heroin. Heroin, in season two, is the all-consuming evil. Nair writes that season two determinedly shows pathologised white women being given heroin by dangerous black women; this racialized difference is epitomised in the comparison between Red and Vee, and Nair concludes that the show cannot sustain an out-and-out, irredeemable character like Vee so must destroy her. Nair concludes further that the show fails to identify systemic prison industrial complex issues, focusing instead on individual weaknesses.
There are very few female-centred television shows, fewer with large female casts, and fewer again that have prominent minority women as characters (plural, beyond the token), or LGBT women in prominent roles and which present a nuanced array of femininities and masculinities. The writing is good, and the performances are superb. OITNB may be fronted by a white, middle-class archetype, but the show itself is something of an outlier. Its presentation of many of the deprivations of prison - from the mundane to the painful - as well as its role as a forum for women's voices, has led to a wider discussion about women's imprisonment which has been a welcome development.
This blog was written by Lynsey Black.
The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.