Orange is the New Black is a Netflix original TV show that details life in Litchfield Correctional Facility, a prison. Based off of the popular memoir by the same name, the show follows the main character Piper Chapman as she goes through the process of being sent to prison and her life before and after. While Piper is a young, educated, white woman, many of the other characters are people of color or are of various ages and backgrounds. The show has been praised for its portrayal of LGBTQ characters as well. While the show’s main purpose is to entertain, seen in the humor that is always present, it also aims to teach lessons and showcase different aspects of life that the inmates often face. This can be seen through the moral dilemmas that the inmates often face and the things that they learn about themselves and those around them.
As a whole, this show tackles many issues including race relations, power struggles, religion, love, and, as portrayed in the scenes provided, female sexuality. Often in the show, there is a division among the races; all the black inmates live near each other, the white inmates eat lunch together, and the Latina inmates work with each other. This speaks to the intersectionality of the show and how it addresses the struggles that various women go through. The variety of the characters, due to its portrayal of a racially diverse cast with various sexualities, along with the topics covered, appeal to a wide audience range. The characters all have different backgrounds and backstories that certain episodes delve into. All of the women are from varying classes and each is convicted for something specific to them. The audience members can easily find characters to relate to or at least empathize with. This increases the effectiveness of the show at causing social change or at least garnering views.
In the scenes presented, the main issue that is dealt with is female sexuality. Orange is the New Black deals with this issue is by addressing the lack of education and knowledge about female sexuality. Two scenes from the second season show some of the inmates discussing female anatomy. While the conversation starts out playfully, it soon turns into a discussion about clarifying a confusion about their own genitalia and how everything works below the belt. Eager to discover the true location of the urethra, the women head to the restroom and begin their search. Noticing their confusion, another inmate, Sophia offers her advice. The perspective that Sophia offers is interesting because she is a transwoman. Sophia basically had the opportunity to design her anatomy the way she wanted. These women all have vaginas. To the viewer, especially male viewers, not knowing one’s own anatomy may seem a foreign concept. The fact that these women are so openly talking about their genitalia on a television show is something that would be considered to be out of the ordinary, meanwhile jokes about male genitalia are made fairly often. Perhaps the lack of knowledge about female sexuality stems from the fears towards women as sexual beings. These fears have existed for quite some time. For example, in his 1880 novel Nana, Émile Zola essentially blamed a female prostitute for the downfall of France. Even in today’s society, we still have these fears towards female sexuality and the female body. This can be seen in the backlash that young girls face for their clothing choices at school. Female bodies are constantly being policed by society, similar to the way that Anne Balay writes on how LGBT steelworkers had to be careful of the way that they presented themselves in order to remain in the closet and therefore, safe from harm. This policing of female bodies is detrimental to their education, and this is mirrored in the scene provided; these women essentially do not know themselves, or at least do not know a huge aspect of who they identify to be. However, as the women in the scene are further educated about their bodies, they become happily surprised with what they learn. In the second clip provided, Sophia goes even further in depth with explaining female anatomy. Then Sophia brings up something basically unheard of, female pleasure when it comes to sexuality. As one Huffington Post writer said, “No one taught me about masturbation. Sure my mom gave me the rundown on where babies come from, but she certainly didn’t mention anything about orgasms” (Lumpkin). Sex education often discusses reproduction, but glosses over pleasure and rarely discusses the concepts of various sexualities and gender identities.
Furthermore, Orange is the New Black tackles the concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation. For these scenes in particular, it is important to note that these aspects of identity are highlighted. One of the women in the scene, Poussey, explicitly confirms her lesbian identity in her comment about familiarity with female anatomy, but also Sophia, a transwomen, is the one who takes on the task of explaining female anatomy to the other inmates. This decision to use Sophia as the character to enlighten the other inmates about female genitalia brings attention to the fact that she is Trans. Although she is not in the scenes provided, the main character of the show, Piper Chapman, also falls somewhere along the lesbian continuum mentioned by Adrienne Rich; Piper identifies as a bisexual woman and is in prison due to a complications with her drug-dealing ex-girlfriend. The fact that some of the characters shown in the scene along with many of the other characters fall somewhere along the lesbian continuum shows how this program interrupts the norm of compulsory heterosexuality, another term presented by Adrienne Rich. It is notable that the women in the prison are all complex characters. More often than not, women in movies are written to be bland and one-sided. These three-dimensional women have backstories, wants, and desires. The characters are realistic. Their presentation breaks the norm in movies that women are mainly used as a prop or crutch for the scene. These women carry the scene on their backs and propel the show forward with strong acting.
Overall, Orange is the New Black mainly focuses on the different points of intersectionality and female sexuality. The portrayal of racially diverse characters shows the experiences that women of different races and backgrounds go through. Differences in gender identity, and sexual orientation help to break down the concept of compulsory heterosexuality and expose viewers to the lesbian continuum. Rich’s use of these terms Lesbian Continuum and Compulsory Heterosexuality give the show something to not only showcase, but also something to change. In the aspect of female sexuality, the fact that the women on the show are able to talk about sex so openly and their anatomy proves yet again how the show can appeal to many, while also breaking norms; the idea that it is fine for males to talk about and make jokes about sex.
While Orange is the New Black may have amassed a strong fan base over its past three seasons, there are aspects of the show that could have rubbed some the wrong way. For example, the fact that many of the women in the show identify along the LGBTQ spectrum may have alienated some viewers who buy into the notion of compulsory heterosexuality. The fact that there are very few male characters may have received cries of “sexism” as well. No matter how strong the backlash is towards the show, it is still going strong, having recently been renewed for an additional three seasons (Cooper).
Cooper, Mariah. “‘Orange Is the New Black’ Renewed for Three More Seasons.” Washington Blade Gay News Politics LGBT Rights ICal. Washington Blade, 2016. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.
Lumpkin, Jincey. “Masturbation Is Not a Dirty Word.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Feb. 13. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.
“Orange Is the New Black – Laverne Cox Gives a Lesson in Female Anatomy – S2 Ep4.” YouTube. YouTube, 21 June 2014. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.
“Orange Is the New Black S02E04 Poussey and Taystee Pee Hole.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 July 2014. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.