“Orange is the New Black” and the (in)visibility of the female prisoner

The theme for this week’s AcWriBloMo is television culture and I’ve taken this as an opportunity to finally write a blog post featuring some thoughts about the US show “Orange is the New Black”, which engage with my own research. 


As soon as the trailers and advertisements for this new show began spreading across the interest, I was intrigued, not least because of my love of US TV shows, particularly those with a queer element, but also because of my research on women’s prisons and female prisoners. Tenuous links aside, the more I watched, the more I realised that there really were overlaps and intersections with my own research on female political prisoners under Spain’s Franco regime, irrespective of the vastly different social, political, and geographical context. 

oitnb sky

Orange is the New Black

A Netflix original TV show,  OITNB burst onto our screens last summer for a critically acclaimed first season. The show returned to our screens in June of this year for it’s second season, and has since been renewed for a third. Loosely based on the real-life experiences of Piper Kerman, it follows the story of a young upper-class white woman who goes to prison for 15 months for carrying drug money into the country. From her first steps inside the prison, Piper is acutely out of place as a privileged, even naive woman. Throughout the episodes that follow, she struggles to function within the communal setting of life behind bars. Interspersed with the stories of daily prison existence are the back stories of the individual characters and how they ended up inside. The show thus weaves a polyphonic narrative of women’s lives and struggles that mirrors the collectivity and heterogeneity of the prison populous itself. Indeed, it is this heterogeneity that has earnt the show much celebration and acclaim for its portrayals queer and straight, cis and trans, black and white, and young and old women, brought together through the prison institution. Not without problems, these representations are perhaps one of the most striking and significant aspects of the show. 


Visibility and the female prisoner 

As an inherently condemned and socially excluded social demographic, the focus on the female prisoner constitutes a relatively unique and even taboo subject matter for our consumption from our sofas and bedrooms. Publically, the female prisoner is conspicuous only by her absence from society, as caused by her very (seeming) deviance from dominant norms. Most of us will never come across a female prisoner or ex-prisoner, except for in the hyperbolic images of sensationalised news stories that broadcast an image of the female convict as overtly and intrinsically criminal. Despite this social silence, however, the female prison population is one of the fastest growing groups, particularly in North America, and particularly for black women. In representing this community, sources like OITNB, and indeed, the texts by Franco’s female prisoners that I explore, provide a window into an invisible world. Moreover, the sources themselves additionally constitute narratives that consider and interrogate this very (in)visibility and the paradoxical and conflicting status that it produces for the female prisoner. 


Imprisoned bodies

Of the many intersections and crossovers between OITNB and the corpus of prison narratives that I consider, for me, the most striking similarities lie in the inherently corporeal nature of this visible / invisible oxymoronic status experienced by the inmates and portrayed through their narratives. Foucauldian theory on discipline argues that the prison is intrinsically focussed on the prisoners’ body as a means to target the individual. Indeed, a central tenet of incarceration is predicated on the physical segregation of the inmates as excluded from society within the heterotopic space of the prison. Moreover, once behind bars, discipline is focussed inherently on delimited the actions, behaviours, and appearances of what Foucault refers to as ‘docile bodies’. Consequently, experiences of carcerality are predicated on physical bodies.

Within the sources in question, this corporeality gains further significance based on the (in)visible status of the inmates. As socially segregated individuals these women are overwhelmingly ignored and, moreover, based on the image of female criminality as physically and emotionally deviant, they are portrayed as filthy bodies. This is exemplified through the physicalities of the women imprisoned for crimes as a result of their drug addictions. Behind bars, the female body is made further decrepit through imprisonment and the lack of facilities available: hormones and other medicines are limited; the women have to set up their own hair and beauty salons and make use of the only facilities available through the commissary; and the time spent behind bars results is written in the wrinkles and grey hairs of the ageing female populous. Written off as, yet reduced to these bodies, the prisoners counter this through a focus on their bodies, diligently applying make up and styling hair. These efforts demonstrate a continuing battle against both the invisibility of the inmate and the visibility of the prisoner body.  

Similarly, through the inherent deprivation of both privacy and intimation, prison engages with the prisoners’ sexual body. In the case of OITNB this is especially problematic: the women have their relationships disrupted, whilst being forced into close quarters with others in a homosocial setting offering some degree of intimacy that simultaneously condemns and chastises any relationships formed behind bars. Amidst this difficult experience, the prisoners’ body becomes a central yet taboo issue. This is complicated further throughout the show by the presence of the lustful gaze of the male prison guards, who actively fantasise about the women as sexual objects. The objectification is magnified through the desirous gaze of the camera and the viewer. As a sexual subject and object, the female prisoner thus comes to embody a problematical role whereby her sexuality and physical intimacy is both refused and enforced. She is at once inherently visible and explicitly invisible as a sexual body. For the representation of female prisoners, OITNB poses a response to and interrogation of the problems of carceral subjectivity as expressly grounded in their very female physicalities.

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