Orange is the New Black is a Netflix Original series which was first released in 2013. The show follows the story of New Yorker, Piper Chapman, after she is charged and sent to a woman’s low security prison for her involvement in drug smuggling. It consists of 5 seasons, 72 episodes. The Emmy Award winning show introduces us to a diverse range of characters and is a mostly woman based plot. It explores many issues faced by the characters, including sexuality. The way in which this is presented to an audience on a screen and the effect that these representations have on consumers is essential to the response and construction of the show and of similar media texts. The influence of a show like this can be massive on the audience and popular culture. How this operates in the media is available to study using the Circuit of Culture and applying these theories to the show.
OITB has been praised for it’s vast representation of women and minorities. It features white, black, gay, straight, transexual and religious characters, amongst many others. This representation of ethnicities is important because of its influence on the audience. Sexuality has often been unrepresented in the media; A study by GLAAD, a LGBTQ media force and activist group, showed that of all prime time, scripted broadcast TV expected to be shown this season, 6.4% were identified as LGBTQ. This is a record amount of the last 21 years, with only 1.3% reported from 2006-7. On streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, there has been an increase of 5 LGBTQ characters from last years reports. However, the report also focuses on the abundance of racially diverse representations of sexuality, and highlights that on all platforms of TV, there was a lack of non white, gay characters. Orange is The New Black’s forward thinking representations have started to break this trend and avoid the negative stereotypes towards lesbian characters.
Alvarado’s racial stereotypes theory (1987) suggests that races are stereotyped in the media into categories – exotic or sexy, dangerous, pitied and humorous. This can be applied to OITNB’s characters, such as the comedic aspect of ‘Crazy Eyes’, and the exotic way the racial groupings are presented to make Piper feel scared and confused in S1 E1. However, as the show develops and the audience discover the plot and backstory of the characters, this representation changes. Piper’s character seems to become less dominant in the plot, and her representation of a privileged, white New Yorker doesn’t give her any more advantage or likability over the other characters. The issue of sexuality applies to this concept as the non white LGBTQ characters are given a personality and crucial parts to the plot. This helps an audience, which identify and relate to the characters, to establish the importance of these characters in the society of which they are living. The positive representation of this and the sidelining of the ‘expected favourite’ establishes the stereotypes that are often left by shows including these characters as a challenge to society and the show starts to break barriers by challenging expectations. By introducing characters of minority into such a popular show, OITNB opens doors to the construction of an open minded society and a fight for acceptance. It’s the modern way in which the show depicts the characters which breaks gender and sexuality expectations and that by following the narrative of the show, a viewer becomes engaged with a large number of characters and personalities which are not always stereotypical of their sexuality, appearance or gender.
Stereotypes are a dominant way of creating a representation within modern media. Tessa Perkins’ theory of Rethinking Stereotypes (1997) leads to an argument which discusses whether these are always used and accepted in a negative way. Perkins argues that a stereotype is not always a false representation nor a rigid or unchanging concept. This theory can be applied to Orange Is The New Black from many angles. Regarding the character ‘Boo’, or Carrie Black, who is represented as a butch, lesbian character, she fits in with many of the stereotypes associated to lesbians in society. Her character has short hair, tattoos and multiple ‘prison wives’, and struggles with her family’s acceptance. However, when analysing Boo’s character, these traits are not presented as an offensive nor negative view of lesbian culture. The actress, Lea DeLaria, who plays Boo, is an openly gay icon and stand up comedian. Therefore, to label Boo’s character as an offensive representation would be going against everything that the actress has worked for in terms of her confidence in her sexuality and her impression on an audience viewing her. It is reported that after reading her script for the first time, DeLaria called the writers to personally thank them for creating such a relatable and accurate depiction of her life growing up gay. She was quoted saying ‘Its like you know me’. This is an example of how Perkins’ theory applies to the show. The representation for the character may seem stereotypical, but this therefore leads to a powerful message being sent to the viewers regarding real life issues that many relate and sympathise to. This therefore results in a positive outcome for many in terms of the show creating an awareness around this reality.
Male Gaze (Mulvey, 1995) often accounts to the representation of women sexuality in media texts. Lesbian characters are often included or shown for a heterosexual males pleasure in a derogatory way. However, OITNB often includes scenes of a sexual nature in terms of representing the characters relationships and personalities and the development of the plot, and although it could be argued that these scenes involve male gaze, the production team have included them to assist with the plot and not with the intention of using it as a heterosexual pleasure. The show is attempting to normalise gay relationships and therefore, by not censoring sexual scenes between gay couples they are increasing awareness and normalising this. It is reasonable to state that the show does not use this representation of lesbians as an advantage to draw in a male audience nor as a shameful way of representing gay relationships. By avoiding the stereotypical view of sex obsessed males and displaying feminist views, with characters such as Nicky Nichols who are open and positive about their sex life and enjoy sex. This breaks the taboo around a woman’s sexuality and allows it to be an expected part of the show. The opening scene of the first aired episode conforms with this as the opening scene is a sex scene between Alex and Piper, the creators of the show have set an expectation of this behaviour from the start and avoided it being shocking or offensive.
An issue which OITNB has been criticised for is it’s failure to represent the people who don’t identify as either ‘gay’ or ‘straight’. For example, although Piper’s character clearly has feelings for both Larry and Alex, the phrase ‘Bisexual’ is rarely clearly associated to her character. In Butler’s Queer Theory (1990), she studies the fluidity of gender and sexuality and how, in modern day, the traits associated with men, women and identity are boundaries put upon us by society. She suggests that people learn through watching what is the ‘norm’. Therefore, when applied to Orange Is The New Black, the vast representation is important for an audience, in terms of consumption and the influence that it can hold on a viewer’s idea of identity. A Cosmopolitan article which addresses this subject points out that although the show represents a range of people and situations, they seem to be cautious in labelling anyone anything other than ‘straight’ or ‘gay’. The question this therefore raises is whether the show is tackling issues which are up to date and whether the representations here are really pushing forward new conceptions or rather revising old views of what means what. The representation and normalisation of Piper’s journey through her sexuality, however, can be presented as a relatable kind of story, where she is shamed and driven away from the ‘dangerous’ lesbian relationship and guided by her family and peers towards a heterosexual relationship.
This then leads to the issue of what Is presented as ‘normal’ in the media. The fact that a show like OITNB is highlighted for it’s representation of gay and black characters points to the issue that a limited amount of shows are presenting characters like this. With the majority of shows having a white, male lead and the representation of women as being sexualised and in lower positions reflects the reality that we are living in. The all female cast of OITNB has inspired other shows with a female protagonist, including Jane the Virgin and iZombie. This step towards a female representation suggests that for more gay and lesbian lead characters to become popular, the use of gay characters needs to be normalised. The increasing number of LGBTQ characters operating in the media will open doors to a more equal representation of society.
The consumption of TV depends on many factors. Netflix is a streaming site which was introduced in 1997 and is a way of using the internet to rent movies. It adopted the monthly subscription and streaming methods by 2007, and within 3 years had topped 20 million subscribers. The site’s popularity has improved since and become one of the most popular movie rental companies on the planet. With the introduction of this style of viewing and the developments within technology, the way audiences view and consume TV and Films has started to show a great transformation. Audiences are watching shows on the go on phones, tablets and laptops, whenever is convenient for them. ‘Binge Culture’ has become extremely popular amongst all ages. A Harris Poll carried out in 2013 showed that 61% of respondents binge watch shows regularly, this involves watching two or more episodes of a show in one sitting. 79% agreed that watching multiple episodes makes a show more enjoyable. This shows that audiences are discovering new ways of consuming shows and producers are creating new shows and concepts which conform to this demand. Globally, the median hours per session of watching on Netflix averages 2 hours 10 mins. This reaches above 140 million hours watched per day, and an average of 60 movies viewed a year, per subscriber. Sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime are creating a viewer flexibility which contrasts with the traditional, scheduled method of live Television. The consumption of this media is therefore being dominated by this change of lifestyle, and the sharing of content has become a wide spread discussion amongst fans and critics of the streaming service. The widespread reach of the show is why it is so crucial that representations are distributed in a manner which leaves a message to society regarding the equality of an issue such as sexuality.
Orange Is The New Black is one of Netflix’s most popular originals. It has been nominated for 12 Emmys and 4 Golden Globe awards. Streaming services are often very private about their viewing figures, but it has been shared that around 6.7 million viewers tuned into the show’s first episode of the fourth season in the first 2 days of its release in June. This puts the show just behind some of the greatest and highest budget shows of modern day, including HBO’s Game Of Thrones, of which an episode brought in a massive 10.4 million viewers. This huge response to the show has lead to the development of other means of audience involvement and interaction. This includes a website which features merchandise such as clothing, homeware and accessories. This in itself is an example of the expansion of the consumption of the show. These designs include character’s, quotes and images associated with the show. The advertising of the show reached across all corners of the media, including a marketing campaign which covered buses, subways, telephones and even a building in SoHo, New York (the setting of the story). This mass marketing campaign increased the awareness of the show and increased the excitement about the release of the next series. Hall’s Decoding theory (1977) looks at the way in which an audience may respond to the media they are shown. Hall argues that a recipient of a message from a media text is not passive to what the sender intended. When applied to OITNB this means that when decoded, the depiction of characters and their sexuality will be seen in many different perspectives by the audience, depending on their social background, rather than all sharing the one view of the sender. For example, some people will find an emotional connection with the show and its characters and relate to the messages taken from it, whereas another viewer may simply find it amusing and entertaining. The Uses and Gratifications Theory (Katz, 1959) suggests that viewers use and manipulate a show for their benefit, rather than becoming a passive audience. With this view, the representation of different ethnicities in a show such as OITNB is important as a way of giving some groupings of the audience their own relatable shows which enable an escapism.
The consumption of such a successful show as Orange Is The New Black has now become a user interactive process. For example, the use of social media has led to a wider spread awareness of the show, and it has taken on multiple media platforms. The show runs an Instagram account, which has around 3.7 million followers, and includes photos shared of the actors in and out of character, and drops important teasers and extra content to keep fans up with the progress of the show. The show also has other social media accounts, and consumers can access their favourite character’s personal accounts and feel involved and connected to the cast and crew. This is another example of how a consumer can use a show for their own identity, and it gives viewers which find a certain story relatable a way of staying connected to this person or character. The importance of viewer interaction to a show of this size is crucial. Tweets and follows can become fairly influential and can help build a fanbase to the show which then creates a form of advertisement and awareness. A negative reaction from this fanbase can therefore have a domino effect on how the show is received by other viewers and the media. This is where Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins’ Spreadable Media theory (2013) becomes applicable to the consumption within this situation. The argument here is that the position of the consumer is becoming more controlling in the way that a show is made. They suggest that the use of spreadable media and increase of viewer interaction is becoming more dominant in the reception of the show. Therefore, producers and creators of TV are having to listen to the audience more and more in order to create a successful and well received show. The popularity of a show does not now depend on the viewing figures alone; jokes and memes have become a popular way of sharing media throughout an audience. Green and Jenkin’s also argue that an audience enjoy having an active role more than being a passive audience.
Another aspect of the consumption of OITNB involves the way in which it has stayed up to date with what is going on in the world and how it has address this within the show. For example, in Episodes 12 and 13 of season 4, the death of a black inmate then triggers a huge protest within the prison environment. The show is therefore becoming a part of the Black Lives Matter movement which has been becoming a popular issue addressed by the media and by audiences. This is fitting for the vast range of representations which the show takes on in terms of fighting for equality and calling out racism, and the issue of discrimination against minority groups, including LGBTQ+. The audience is therefore relating to the show more as they are tackling current issues and the blur between reality and the construction of the show becomes interlinked with the social media reaction and it represents a presentation of real life. This means that show is taking a political stand and stepping out of the role of simply being a means of entertainment for an audience. The high number of viewers are then becoming involved and reacting to the storyline online and discussing it with their friends and other consumers, which therefore leads to a huge awareness for the campaign. This is a modern approach at political messages and something which is becoming more widely used in TV, such as feminism and anti racism campaigns in shows such as Black Mirror and House Of Cards. Shows like these are also becoming popular on streaming services due to the changed views on distribution and censorship, as channels such as the BBC avoid becoming bias, whereas the streaming sights can put on whatever they choose as viewers can watch what and when they want. This enables the the show to represent gay and lesbian characters without the censorship of live TV. By giving LGBT characters a voice, TV and the media is raising awareness of what an audience may otherwise feel passive about in everyday life.
Orange Is The New Black is taking steps towards creating representations of LGBTQ+ characters and in normalising this behaviour on screen by tackling it head on. Important inclusion of characters with complicated backstories, and highlighting the discrimination that they face in their everyday lives is creating an awareness to a wide range of viewers who might not have access to an understanding of this behaviour otherwise. Within the representation of this, the show takes on a big responsibility in terms of speaking up for people who are often ignored and overlooked in the media. The show focuses on female representations of gay characters and paints them in a positive, unapologetic perception. The importance for a development of normalisation for these characters is crucial in refining this into society, as what is on screen often reflects reality. The numbers of LGBTQ characters included is increasing, however much of this is on streaming sights such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO. This means that there is limited access to viewers to this type of representation unless they go searching for it themselves. OITNB’s approach is a forward thinking and influential impact into how the representation of sexuality operates in the media, however, there is still far to go in terms of development of ideology and creating an equal. The consumption of a show as huge as OITNB is helping to raise awareness for issues faced by younger people as they explore their sexuality and develop an understanding of their own identity. The following of the show on social media enables it to step out of the screen and become a realistic campaigner amongst the audience of often young and influential viewers. This positive representation therefore becomes united with consumption in working together to create a political statement, highlighting the need for equality amongst society regarding the minority groups featured in the show, and therefore influencing more media to speak up on the issue and create more representations regarding realistic ideologies of people’s feelings towards their sexuality.