Will Orange Remain the New Black? OITNB and the Politics of Fashion

Despite its title, Orange is the New Black does not seem to be much about fashion. As anyone who has seen the show knows, the series is primarily set in prison, and instead of bright orange jumpsuits, the standard issue uniform is actually a combo of khaki tops and bottoms, grey sweatsuits, and as character Maritza puts it, a “training bra and granny underwear.” As such, the title appears to be just some clever word play, a cutesy reference to Piper’s presumably unusual stint in a federal penitentiary.

But Piper is not just a privileged white woman who happened to go to prison for her brief foray into the global drug trade. She is the ideal fashion subject: an early 30s, wealthy, educated New Yorker, raised in an affluent suburb and then moved to the city to establish herself in early adulthood. Her pre-prison life is characterized by a leisured cosmopolitan lifestyle: she lives with her equally well-bred fiancé in a spacious Brooklyn apartment (owned by his parents); she and her best friend are in the middle of creating a craft soap start-up; and they are all childless, with ample free time and disposable income. Arguably, fashion is central to the series, even if clothes are not. This centrality is apparent when examining how the show both centers and decenters the fashionable subject in order to interrogate political action in the contemporary moment.  

What is the New Black?

Within the prison, some of the inmates utilize the services of the hairdresser and a few adorn themselves with eyeshadow and bright lipstick. But Piper foregoes these daily attempts at personal upkeep, and as the series moves forward, her appearance become more and more drab. By the last season, her hair is a persistent greasy mess and her face is often marked with undereye circles and acne. Long shots of her in full uniform show an ill-fitting, drape-like top on her thin frame. She appears to be the antithesis of fashion, even while others display their unique character traits through clothing and accessories.

So what really is, as the show proposes, the new black? In this unusual context, where traditional stylistic cues can’t work, something else marks Piper’s place in the world. She still ‘wears’ her privileged white femininity, in a context where conspicuous consumption or consumer-based displays of wealth are not fully possible. She does this through her bodily habitus, Pierre Bourdieu’s famous concept that emphasizes the often subtle culturally acquired habits, ways of speaking, and bodily performances that mark one’s location in the class structure. Outside of prison, Piper’s habitus likely relies on elements such as classic designer clothes, department store makeup, and regular visits to a pricey salon.

In prison, though, she proudly displays her wealth in ways not immediately connected to her appearance. Instead, she expresses insights from her liberal arts education, espouses the worldly knowledge of her pre-prison jet-setting ways, and offers tidbits from a steady stream of NPR consumption. Her know-it-all attitude is frustrating to those around her (as well as many viewers), who roll their eyes at her ignorantly self-righteous citations of the literary canon.

Importantly, too, it is not simply Piper’s overly educated, self-satisfied performance that distinguishes her from the primarily working class women with whom she shares her time in prison. Over the course of the show, we come to know Piper as the entitled, oblivious, narcissistic figure that, since the dawn of consumer culture, has been the vilified symbol of fashion and its excesses. She does so by being endlessly self-absorbed and self-centered. But she is not frivolous, a girly Kardashian figure, obsessed with ‘shallow’ concerns like appearance or marriage. (In fact, these concerns are represented in a working class character like Morelo, who reflects Adorno’s characterization of young women’s working class dreams of upward mobility through normative appearance and heterosexual romance.) Instead, her surface performance implies that she is invested in ‘deep’ issues like women’s equality, racial justice, and addressing the systemic problems of the U.S. incarceration.

In other words, Piper represents what Sara Tatyana Bernstein has analyzed as an emerging characterization of bourgeois white femininity, one that plays upon a notion of liberal white womanhood in a way that offers an ironic twist on self-absorbed, privileged subjectivity. As she writes about Broad City: “Much of the show’s humor stems from the characters’ painfully earnest striving to be progressive and “broad” minded. The irony comes in as the show also portrays the hypocrisy and myopia that often result when middle-class, twenty-something, white girls position themselves as The authority on marginalization and injustice in America.”

In the same vein, Piper is overly earnest as she knowingly cracks a joke about the prison industrial complex, or huffs about their deplorable living conditions. She very often thinks she’s doing it right, and she thinks she’s doing it with the right intentions. But the audience sees that she gets it wrong. A lot. Beginning early in the series, it becomes obvious that Piper is, in fact, not only self-absorbed and self-centered. She is rarely paying attention to what others actually want or need. And maybe even worse, she often passes off that agenda as a selfless act. (In season 2, after a possibly heartfelt, but disingenuous, effort to assuage Red’s feelings about her family, Red looks her dead in the eye and tells her: “that’s just saying something that will make me like you.”) She rarely considers that she might be wrong, or that others might know more than she does. And she tries so hard to get others to like her, and often relies on her performance as a self-aware, concerned progressive to earn this approval.

Questioning Fashion’s Authenticity

By season three, Piper turns on everyone when she begins selling dirty inmate underwear to buyers on the outside, and very quickly shows that her self-interest wins out over progressive politics. Her approach to being a prison boss — including building alliances with white supremacists in order to get ahead —  shows that she has little personal investment in the structural politics she has espoused. Her participation in the political issues of seasons 4 and 5 —  such as her support of the hunger strike and becoming a sidekick in Taystee’s riot negotiations — suggests that she might have some remorse for her selfish behavior. However, she largely demonstrates that she’s really just passing time until she gets out of prison (her mom does imply that Piper’s only investment in season 5’s prison riots is for the excitement of it all). By season 6, her primary goal is to stay out of trouble, to the point that she allows her girlfriend to get involved with a prison gang in order to protect her own release date.  

In the end, Piper is just a wealthy white woman with a relatively short prison sentence, and with little personal investment in joining a political movement that might ask her to question —  or maybe even relinquish some of — her privilege. She does very little to suggest that her desire would be to actually improve Litchfield or address the larger problems shaping the inequalities of the justice system. All the while, most of her fellow inmates and their families and communities remain deeply affected by its problems.

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One week. 🙌

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Significantly, though, the series works to decenter Piper’s perspective, and for those audience members who made it through all six seasons, few seemed to care much about her story by the end. This decentering is one of the show’s greatest strengths: it challenged the dominant mode of storytelling whereby white women self-actualize through their relationships with others from marginalized groups, and/or remain at the center of the narrative while women of color provide the backdrop to their characterization. It’s a big reason why OITNB was so beloved, even as it went a bit awry, especially in season 4 when the show’s critique of structural politics went in a well-intentioned, but misguided direction. In particular, there was a cry of frustration with Poussey’s storyline and its allusions to Eric Garner and the urgency of #blacklivesmatter, and the tired use of black women’s pain as a tool for political self-actualization.

Consider, though, that the series is one of few that actually forces us to think about how —  and why — the U.S. prison system is at the center of the nation’s injustices. So even if it gets things wrong a lot, it contributed to a growing awareness of these problems —  one that not too long ago, was mostly available in hard-to-access academic circles. And it did so by offering us a way to recognize, and then challenge, how those with social power might need to do more than espouse their approval of political change.

Interrogating Fashion

Orange is the New Black plays on the notion that Piper is stripped bare, totally exposed, without her outer garments to hide her internal flaws or allow her to create a false external layer. In the end, what Piper actually ‘wears’ while in prison is the underlying anxiety that in fact, shapes many women’s relationship to fashion – not just the women who occupy the idealized privileged space in the world that she is supposed to represent. It is precisely that planting of the seed of insecurity that interpellates the actual fashion subject. No matter what we do, no matter what our intentions, the show suggests, they are likely wrong, and reflective of something bad that we don’t want to be. Very few of us want to be a Piper. It is that threat that creates the imagined subject who wears her ‘surfaces’ in order to avoid having to display the potential weaknesses of a hidden internal subjectivity.

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In short, this idea of fashion as a ‘cover’ adheres to its commonly held stereotypes: it is surface, not depth. It’s external, inauthentic, not internal or authentic. It is flimsy and whimsical and subject to change – just like Piper’s well-meaning criticisms of privilege and power that disappeared during her rapid rise to queen of dirty underwear.

But there is more to fashion. It also has the potential to be transformative, particularly when we recognize that fashion is also about how our identities form in in social context. It is not just something that we put on and take off, but part of the place that we occupy in a very unequal world.

These days, the despair of the political realm illustrates that politics is not just in a phase where it is about surface fashion, but is the result of an urgent response to what at times seems to be a near social collapse. But we must challenge ourselves to move forward on what is often a more difficult path, for fashion as surface is the easy way out. To do this, we have to expose ourselves, invest in our politics, and do more than follow a hashtag or discuss the hot-button issue of the moment. We also have to remain aware that the work does not stop at the critique, but in communicating that critique to others. And instead of calling people out or fighting to be right, the goal is to understand how our actions are embedded within, and develop out of, a particular system of power and inequality.

Nobody wants to be Piper (maybe not even Piper), but it’s undeniable that there are many like her: those with privilege who are experiencing a world that suddenly seems corrupt, unfair and unlivable. Orange is the New Black demonstrated a way to deeply listen to the stories of women who have been serving time in this world for a while. The challenge is to learn from this narrative and leave behind the implication of “the new black.” That is, the only way to create true, lasting change is to recognize how these stories must remain at the center of our world – and not treat them, or the people that experience them, as if they are just an orange uniform that will be shed in a few years.

 

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Elise Chatelain is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. After several years of university teaching in sociology and women’s studies, Elise left academia to pursue new avenues for creative education and outreach. She now works as an academic coach and private tutor in addition to her work at Dismantle.