Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Scattered Observations on Orange Is the New Black

Surveillance of Women

The most important revelation in my blog so far has been the observation that the rise of the surveillance state, as embodied by the Prism program, has resulted in the first comprehensive, constant monitoring of women in the history of the world. The Netflix original series, Orange Is the New Black, addresses this new surveillance of women by examining it within the closed world of prison life, thereby revealing to a wide audience some troubling aspects of surveillance state capitalist patriarchy. 

Persecution of Dissidents

The inmates in OITNB who challenge the state quickly find themselves in either the psych ward or solitary confinement (i.e. "the SHU"), sometimes never reentering the general population, other times returning psychologically decimated. No justification is typically necessary and only because Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) comes from a wealthy family with access to a public forum does she avoid indefinite detention under inhumane conditions. This is a nod to the growing presence of the surveillance state persecution of dissidents, such as Glenn Greenwald, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange,* as well as the legislation and prosecutions stemming from the Green Scare. The extended detention in a London airport of Greenwald's partner, Chelsea Manning's public tarring and feathering, Julian Assange's extended exile in the Ecuadorian embassy, and the prosecution of animal rights and environmental activists as terrorists are all useful examples of the persecution of dissidents. 

Token Women

The state, embodied by men, rules the world. In OITNB the female inmates are constantly monitored by men and a few token women. The women in power within the prison system do not automatically side with the powerless inmates. Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), the warden's direct subordinate, is only interested in personal gain, as depicted in episode 12 when a journalist inquires about budgetary discrepancies as the camera zooms in on her new Mercedes. The continual failure of token women in power to automatically improve the lot of working class women should serve as a reminder that other women are not automatically feminists or allies in class struggle, something to keep in mind as the Hillary worship begins in a couple of weeks.
Although "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) appears to be a powerful woman** siding with the powerless by protecting the inmates from narcotic use, her rule against drugs allows the men to control the flow of drugs, causing addicts to deal with power hungry, inevitably underpaid and overworked guards. It also harms vulnerable transwoman, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), who experiences a stoppage of hormones through legitimate channels due to alleged budget cuts. Austerity always harms the most vulnerable populations first in surveillance state capitalist patriarchy. Red forbids the smuggling in of estrogen for Sophia--thereby forcing her to desperate measures--under a sweeping War on Drugs. And we all know how effective those are, especially for already marginalized folks.

Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) is a female guard ostensibly on the side of the women inmates, perceiving them as similar to herself. She allows them to sneak out food and socialize during work hours. She tells Piper she perceives them as the same and reopens the running track. However, we will see her "power" decline and her position become precarious since Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) learned she has a boyfriend and isn't interested in him. Inevitably, when women fall out of favor with men, their lives become hellish.  

Sexual Violence

Women live under constant threat of sexual violence. The most poignant example of the constant threat of rape in OITNB is in episode 8 when George Mendez (Pablo Schreiber)  threatens to rape Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) unless she gives him information about Red's importing methods. The threat is not an explicit one, but everyone knows what he's implying. His next step won't be any fun, for her.

In an omnipotent, omniscient surveillance state, powerless women use rape as a tool of power, of manipulation, in order to control their own destinies and protect their loved ones. In episode 7, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) threatens to rape "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) if she won't leave Piper alone and kisses her against her will a couple of episodes later. Daya attempts to frame Mendez for rape to protect the baby she wants to have and her love interest, who would otherwise be blamed for the pregnancy and incarcerated as a sex offender due to the fact that inmates cannot legally give consent.  

Compulsory Heterosexuality

The structure of sexual relations between guards and inmates mirrors a Dworkinian critique of heterosexual intercourse under patriarchy as always coerced due to the imbalance of power between the sexes. This critique reflects a radical feminist perception of the inherent subordinate status of women and the corresponding impossibility of consent in heterosexual relations. Within the world of OITNB, inmates cannot legally give consent. Within capitalist patriarchy, says Dworkin and implies OITNB, women cannot genuinely give consent; they are always a lower class, occupying a subordinate position, unable to make free choices.

OITNB and the Evolution of TV

OITNB displays a structural as well as thematic rejection of consumerism. It is part of a recent tide of well-written, often beautifully produced shows structured to omit advertisements, thereby changing the narrative structure--cadence, rhythm--of TV, which has historically been designed around strategically-placed commercial breaks. This new wave recognizes the shift toward streaming-based programs and ad omission through DVR devices, and challenges the ideological status of TV as a tool of consumerism. 

OITNB's accepts existing narrative conventions while expanding and pushing the boundaries of structure and genre, including casting. The show features the first trans* person with a leading role. In Theory of the Film, Bela Balazs, writing about the development of film (and later sound in film), posited that when a new genre is emerging, for it to revolutionize art, for Art History to be made, existing forms are torn asunder. In OITNB is the evolution and perhaps the death knell of traditional television.

Part of OITNB's rejection of ads is inherent in its streaming-only format, which I predict we will see much more of in the near future, and part is in its subversion of the traditional role of TV as modeling consumerism, not only in commercials between programming segments, but also within itself in the form of product placement, the strategic appearance of products to influence viewers to desire and purchase them. The characters in OITNB wear only the barest makeup, a bit of eyeliner here, a dab of smuggled lipstick there; there is no designer clothing, not much clothing at all beyond jumpsuits; no trendsetting purses; no Spanx; and feminine pads serve as shoes. There is no place for selling in the narrative of OITNB. This is a drastic deviation from traditional TV.     

It is worth noting when a genre begins to shift and evolve, especially one as widely consumed as TV. Marxists should always be prepared to observe new developments and changes to the superstructure not only because they reflect shifts in the base, but also because a keen understanding of cultural phenomena allows us to more effectively communicate with fellow and potential anticapitalists and adapt our organizing strategies.  

*This is not an uncritical endorsement of Assange, who may or may not be a rapist.

** I would even challenge the assertion that Red was ever in an actual position of power. Within the inmate population, she indeed held some influence due to her position as head chef and her ability to withhold food and control the drug supply. However, this power was granted only at the whim of the guards and administrators. As soon as she angers them, she is quickly replaced and finds herself being starved out by the new head chef, further depicting that women's lives become wretched once they displease men/the state