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Julia Fontana

Media Criticism

Final Research Paper

CM-384, Julie Frechette, Ph.D.

Netflix Series: Orange is The New Black

Probes into Gender and Sexuality

Orange is The New Black starring Taylor Schilling, is a Netflix prison drama that

has recently gained popularity after the premier of its first season. Piper Chapman (Taylor

Schilling) enters a women’s prison for a 15-month stay, and this amusing, tactile show probes

into gender and sexuality in a deeper way than first meets the eye. The show is based on a

memoir of the same title by Piper Kerman, who spent a year in prison. With little advertising or

marketing done for the show, it’s shocking how instantaneous and how viral the show went.

Perhaps it is due to its characters wide varieties of race and gender orientation. By telling stories

of a diverse cast of unique and opinionated women, ​Orange​ teaches us that everything-love,

adventure, friendship, survival- is about perspective. And by doing so, it prompts us to

re-examine our own beliefs about prison, identity, and sexuality. This paper finds that Orange is

the New Black represents a fundamental shift in media discourse and audience interest in the

stories of incarcerated women.

From the moment she walks into the prison, Piper Chapman is confronted with her white

and heterosexual privilege. It’s not until her past as a cash mule for her lesbian ex-girlfriend’s

drug ring is exposed she is forced to examine her past, confront questions about her sexuality,

and go to jail on conspiracy charges. Chapman is quickly accepted by a group of white prisoners
though she’s assured by one that “it’s not racist; it’s tribal.” Initially fear drives her to accept the

prison’s racial arrangement, but when she accidentally insults the powerful Russian prison

cook’s food she is left alone with no tribe. As she copes with her new life, she certainly humbles

herself to other inmate’s experiences.

Aside from her whiteness, Chapman is frequently confronted with homophobia and

heterosexual privilege. Early on in the series her counselor, Sam Healy, warns her to protect

herself from rampant lesbianism. In this scene you watch her stop and think for a moment before

to timidly tells him she’s engaged to a man, obviously hoping to shed any suspicion over her

sexual identity. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor at ​Feministing.com​ says the way

Orange portrays transgender character Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) and explores lesbian

sexuality sets the show apart. “I think the trans storyline is really powerful,” she says. “You can

really tell that the sex scenes aren’t voyeuristic for straight people. It is about survival, female

relationships, having sex as sort of relief in captivity for pleasure and enjoyment, and for feeling

less alone in an environment of incarceration” (Samhita).

Most of the inmate’s attitudes toward sexuality are flexible and open, and this fluidity is

treated with both tenderness and humor instead of judgment. The character Morello, played by

Yael Stone, is engaged to a man but has sexual relationships with other women in the prison.

When Morello decides to stop having sex with one woman it’s not as much from guilt but rather

because she’s “afraid all the sex will stretch out her vagina”. And simply having such a wide

spectrum of queer characters moves away from common stereotyping. You certainly have more

typical butch and femme dichotomies in the show, but they are mixed in with women who seem

simply to enjoy having lesbian sex sometimes, a transwoman who is still with the woman she
married pre-transition, and the complex emotional love triangle between Chapman, her fiancée,

and her ex-girlfriend who’s also on the inside.

As others have pointed out, however nuanced treatment of white and heterosexual

privilege is on ​Orange,​ a straight white woman remains at the center. And the show’s creator

Jenji Kohan is up front about the impact of choosing white, middle- class Piper as a lead. She

told ​Fresh Air’s​ Terry Gross: "In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. 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. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and

you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it's a

hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a

very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a

certain demographic. It's useful” (Nitke B). Kohan however, is reluctant to address the real issue

of sexual assault in prisons, at times getting dangerously close to suggesting that women

willingly use their sexuality to get things like special food and medication, or better jobs in the

prison. The show reflects disproportionate rates at which black and brown women are

incarcerated in the U.S., but it doesn’t delve deep enough into this reality, especially in

proportion to the entirely white staff of the facility (Nitke B).

Noah Berlastsky in the ​Atlantic​ a​ rgues that representations of men in ​Orange Is the New

Black​ is inadequate considering the much higher rates of incarceration in comparison to women

(Berlastky, N). In his words: "According to ​Orange Is the New Black​, though, men in prison are

“super-predators” while women in prison are, often, innocent victims, doomed by circumstances
and their own painful but touching character flaws" (Berlastsky, N). Yes, representations of men

are stereotypical, primarily obsessed with power and sex (and

sometimes violence) on the show. However, while Season two deals primarily with race,

gender, class, and inequities in the prison system, while watching the show it seems as though

it’s pandering to male viewership, i.e., the sex scenes and depictions of inequitable relationships

(Berlastky, N). So while I appreciate the diverse cast and focus on women, I find the spectacle

of women trapped in prison (a key space of power and control!), shifting between empowerment

and objectification, problematic as many of the sex scenes to date reinforce dominant

representations of women performing sexual acts for male visual pleasure, undermining some of

the noteworthy representations on the show.

According to Michelle Materre, a TV and film producer, professor of media studies at the

New School, and organizer of the “Creatively Speaking” film series highlighting work by people

of color, says the prison-theater documentary “Walk With Me” by Tanisha Christie deals with

the same topics about the pitfalls of negative stereotypes. She also pointed to Ka’ramuu Kush’s

film “And Then…” and web series ​Brett and the City​ as examples of film and television that

give more accurate portrayals of black and brown people but continue to be overlooked by

mainstream media in place of a hyped TV drama like ​Orange​. While Materre has a valid point, it

seems that most critics and viewers are suspending this kind of critique. Unlike the drama

Devious Maids, whose producer Eva Longoria was called on to answer for the show’s negative

portrayal of Latinas, there hasn’t been loud outcry against OITNB or Jenji Kohan.

Perhaps the Netflix TV format, where you can digest an entire series in the course of one

day, has something to do with it. As the show evolves, the more interesting women in the prison
take Chapman out of focus. While she starts to come across as extremely selfish, short-sighted,

and, as her ex-prison wife Crazy Eyes describes her, not a very nice person, you have the

opportunity to sit for hours and watch as the lives of the other characters unfold. The viewer can

become emotionally invested in their stories in a way that might be different given a week

between shows.

However, media representations of race and ethnicity are often problematic and based on

stereotypes. Free from conglomerate and corporate pressure, the media creative process is much

more carefree and willing to take risks.

Works Cited

Berlatsky, N. (2014, June 30). Orange is The New Black's Irresponsible Portrayal of Men.
Retrieved May 14, 2015.

Bonczar, T. (1974). Prevalance of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population. Retrieved May 14,
2015, from ​http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=122

The Film Society to Celebrate Black Independent Film in February. (n.d.). Retrieved May 14,
2015, from
http://www.filmlinc.com/daily/entry/the-film-society-to-fete-black-independent-film-in-february

Nitke, B. (2013, August 13). 'Orange" Creator Jenji Kohan: "Piper Was My Trojan Horse"
Retrieved May 14, 2015, from
http://www.npr.org/2013/08/13/211639989/orange-creator-jenji-kohan-piper-was-my-trojan-hors
e