English 1102: Television and Feminism

Dr. Casey Alane Wilson • Georgia Institute of Technology

Author: Alexandra Buhl

A Show About Today

Many shows and movies are set in crazy environmentsones on alien planets, on uninhabitable climates, in war struck zones, and more. However, despite their absurdity, viewers often accept the abstract characteristics as normal for relatively anything can happen in the entertainment industry (as long as producers approve). Despite the ease and prevalence of such variation, relatively few shows are set in the same time and in the current society where they are broadcasted, simply because it is difficult to write, film, and produce shows or movies before the current, dynamics of modern life change. In the sixth season Orange Is the New Black, however, this is not the case.

I was very surprised to see the characters in the sixth season of this show discussing the same issues that I am talking about with my friends. In one of the early episodes of this season, Blanca is depicted discussing Trump’s idea of building a border wall. Later in the episodes, people discuss the “MeToo” movement that has been on the forefront of the news lately. Because the writers included such references to current events in the scripts, they make the characters seem like people who are somewhere out there living in an American prison in the current political system right now. Sadly, people just like the characters in the show actually are living a similar reality. Therefore, the writing makes viewers reflect not only on the politics referred to in the show but also on the state of affairs of the prison system. It brings the story the show tells about a corrupt system into the real world (where it does actually exist too) and places it in the setting of the same place we live today. Before the sixth season, it was apparent that the show was set somewhere in modern America but it was not really tied explicitly to what is going on today. By including references to events that have been hot topics in the past few months, the writers took the show from a vague setting to real time, specifically, making the injustices seen in the show just as current and urgent as the other references.

A prisoner being beaten by a guard—something not uncommon in the modern US prison system.

Religion Is Power

Orange Is the New Black is a show set in a women’s prison. Due to the show’s environment, themes of power and submission are always at play and evident in many different forms. In Orange Is the New Black, religion is portrayed to be a force that binds people to a leader and is used to force others into submission. This show highlights how religion has been used to mobilize and brainwash people throughout history.

All throughout the first season, Tiffany Doggett (dubbed Pennsatucky) leads a small group of other inmates in prayer and other Christian rituals. She views the people who believe her teachings as intelligent, moral, and superior to all the other “sinners” in the prison who do not. These views are manifested as dangerous threats in Episode 12 of Season 1 when Pennsatucky threatens to kill Piper Chapman, another inmate, for not believing in Christianity. Claiming that Jesus wants her to kill Piper for not believing in God, Pennsatucky continually threatens Piper’s life throughout the episode. Once, she, with the help of her unquestioning followers, corners Piper in a shower and threatens her with a shiv. Piper was only saved from injury because a guard happened to be nearby. Later in the episode, however, Pennsatucky finds Piper again alone in the dark and corners her outside (where no one can hear her) and begins to jab at her with a sharp stick (that is the end point of a cross). There is a lot of symbolism and allusion to how people abuse religion to carry out actions that are contradictory to the religion in this show. Here, for example, Pennsatucky tries to kill Piper with a cross–a symbol of a religion that values peace and considers murder a sin. Despite the apparent hypocrisy, the comment about religion is relevant because it is an accurate representation and critique of what often happens in society, both in the past and still today.


Pennsatucky dressed as an angel showing Piper her cross shiv


The Traditional Minority as a Capable Majority

In the show Orange Is the New Black gender is not very diversified. Shows characterized with “low diversity” are generally assumed to showcase hetersexual white men with few women or queer people. On the other hand, in Orange is the New Black there is not much diversity but the cast is dominated by women—many who are homosexual—and many who are African American and Latina. Because the plot takes place in a women’s prison, it makes sense to have the focus on women instead of men. The dominating groups in this show are the groups that are marginalized in most television.

In this show, almost all of the characters that have agency are women. Piper Chapman, the main character who is thrown in jail and forced to sort out her life both inside and outside of the system, is a woman who relies on herself, her own strengths, and her true character to survive. Her ex-girlfriend, Alex, also has a lot of agency in the show as she is the reason Piper was put in jail and tempts Piper into an affair with her (while Piper has a fiance). Although many of the jail staff (counselors and guards) are men, they do not have much say in the direction the plot twists, despite their relative power within the prison system compared to the inmates. In fact, the head of the prison where Piper stays in the first season is a woman who controls the subordinate men staff mainly with manipulation, threats, and cutting insults. Women make the major choices in the show and take on the traditional male heroic and dominating role within the plot lines.   

Aside from being their own heroes in the show, women take on other roles that are traditionally male dominated (both in television and in the real world). Piper’s job, for example, within the prison system is to be a repair-person—a technical job that is typically dominated by men. Other jobs that women have, however, reinforce the stereotypical female image. Alex, for example, has to work in the laundry room, washing, drying, and folding others’ clothes. By both reinforcing and subverting women’s typical position in this prison community, the writers convey the theme that women are able to fill all roles—those that they usually fulfill and those that they usually don’t. Women are just as capable as men and thus, can have just the same opportunities as them in all positions.

An image that shows the domination of the cast by women of various races and ethnicities

Compiled Sources about Women in Comedy

Benoit, Sophia. “Women in Comedy: Why We Must Not Let Funny Become ‘the New Hot’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2015, www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/nov/17/women-in-comedy-funny-hot-attractiveness.

In this article, the author, Sophia Benoit discusses the relationship between being a female comedian and attractiveness. She claims that in the comedy world, in order to be a successful female comedian, one must be attractive and, specifically, “hot”. She states, however, that in the world of comedy, there is no place for judging women based on their attractiveness–not simply because it shouldn’t be done anywhere but also because it makes the overall quality of the comedy worse. When people watch comedy, they are not thinking about how ugly or pretty the comedian is but more so how funny the jokes are. Furthermore, these jokes are generally self deprecating and shine the comedian in a light that is more unattractive if anything. Ultimately, she claims that standards for women in comedy should be the same as those for men for both moral and practical reasons. This piece is valuable because it highlights an issue that many women face in a field because of their gender and argues why it should not exist. It helps bring attention to a concern female comedians are forced to have to be successful and, in doing so, helps eradicate it.  

O, The Oprah Magazine. “An Open Letter To People Who Think Women Aren’t Funny.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 3 May 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/an-open-letter-to-people-who-think-women-arent-funny_us_59075a96e4b02655f83ec973.

In this article, the author describes her journey to success as a comedian and how embracing her femininity did not affect her success. In the beginning of her career, she was told that she should always wear bland clothing on stage to not distract men in the audience. She always wore jeans (never skirts or shorts), loose shirts, and, at times even, a vest over. Her jokes always stayed clear from funny date stories, periods, or other topics women could relate to to avoid retribution. As she became more established, however, she did not think that the audience would begin to reject her if she wore more revealing and stylish clothing or added some topics into her shows that women could relate to. Once she made changes to her style on stage, she realized that abiding by the old rules were not necessary in order to succeed. This article is meaningful because it shows how a woman stressed and took unnecessary precaution in her early career to downplay and conceal her femininity. It shows that despite her choice of style or specific comedy topic, the fact that she could make people laugh mattered most and led to her success.

Vagianos, Alanna. “Music Festivals Have A Glaring Woman Problem. Here’s Why.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, data.huffingtonpost.com/music-festivals.

This article discusses the huge gender imbalance present in the lineups of major music festivals. In most of the major music festivals, over 60-70% of the artists are male or all male groups and only 15-20% are groups with females in them. In addition to the huge imbalance of representative artists, the men groups generally get paid much more than women. They are able to get paid more because different artists have different fees that they charge the festival so that they will perform. Festivals, however, are evidently willing to pay men artists more than women artists. This article holds value because it calls out the huge gender imbalance in the music festival world that many people continue to fund without knowing all the facts. It brings attention to an issue few know about and helps make known that gender inequality is an issue that famous artists have to deal with as well, not just ordinary civilians.

Baehr, Helen. “The ‘liberated woman’ in television drama”. Women’s Studies International Quarterly, Version 3, Issue 1, 2010, 15 pages, ScienceDirect.


This paper explores the concept of a “liberated woman” on modern television dramas. It states that the modern media and television is responsible for shaping much of the public’s thoughts and opinions. In the past, television rarely used women as stars of the show or as the main protagonists (unless it was with the crucial help from a man). More and more modern television shows, however, have been starring females as protagonists who save themselves. The “liberated woman” on the screen is a woman who faces a great variety of challenges and common problems and surmounts them on her own. She does not use men, or anyone else as a crutch. That is not to say that she has faults or stumbles at times, but she ultimately surmounts whatever challenge confront her because of her own strength. This article is valuable because it discusses a progressive trend in current tv shows that plays a significant role in promoting feminism. It highlights a new role on television that woman have rarely filled in the past but will begin to in the present and future.


Harrison, Kristen. “Television Viewers’ Ideal Body Proportions: The Case of the Curvaceously Thin Woman”. Sex Roles, Volume 48, Issue 5, March 2003, 255-264, Springer Link


This article discusses the effect that seeing the “ideal female body” on television has on women’s perceptions of themselves. It found that overall, due to high levels of exposure to one specific body type on television, women are disposed to wanting smaller waists. Women with smaller busts want larger busts and the opposite is true for women with larger busts. Exposure to a single female body type on television has also led to many women being more open to using plastic surgery to change their bodies to match their ideal. This article is significant because it explores how women view themselves as an effect of what they see on the screen. It explores what women’s perception of a good body are and how the media shapes this perception. It helps bring attention to the fact that media significantly alters people’s opinions of how they look themselves and calls attention to the fact that it would be a good idea to show all body types on the screen so that people would be more comfortable with themselves.

Shartiely, Eric. “The Portrayal of the Tanzanian Woman in television commercials: is she a piece of soap, a house, or gold?”. Dept of Oriental and African Languages, Goteborg University Africa and Asia, No 5, 2005, 108-141


In this paper, the author analyzes the portrayal of Tanzanian women in television commercials and other advertisements. She claims that in Tanzania, the commercials reflect the social reality of the area. Women are generally seen as rewards that men should have instead of as their own individuals. They are seen as dependent upon men and who must focus on pleasing men. This is reflected the subservient positions that women are often filling in commercials. They are never the main lead or focus but always off to the side, helping the main male advertiser hold or sell a products as he does all of the talking. This article is important because it shows a parallel between American gender inequality and that of another, less developed country. It conveys that both countries have a similar gender issue. By highlighting similarities between the two, it is easier to understand the issues in each country individually.

Prison Power Struggles

For a show that takes place in prison, it would be expected to see a running theme of a “weak class” serving the powerful. In Orange Is the New Black, however, there is an added layer to this power dynamic. Within the prison system of this show, those in power are almost always men and those obeying them are women (inclusively speaking).

In the third episode of the first season, this connection between gender and the amount of power one has is highlighted from the start where a police officer blatantly objectifies the women in the prison, referring to them as a means to his pleasure instead of as actual people. He further proceeds to yell at a transgender women and taunt her with a McDonald’s mealsomething he knows she wants but cannot have. When she refuses to express her hurt by his offensive behavior, he again begins to yell at her for standing too close to him. The subordinate status of the women is evident by the police officer’s blatant disrespect of her and his ability to do so without consequences.

A quote from the show that highlights how men make all of the rules for the women in the prison.

This episode is further littered with offensive jabs at women that, although hurtful, provide an accurate representation of our modern society’s perspective. For example, one girl calls Piper a “real woman” because she doesn’t sweatan allusion to the fact that women are expected to be clean and perfect all the time. At other times, women are told to “man up”, referring to the belief that men are generally stronger and can handle problems better than women. Furthermore, when the women question certain aspects of the legal system, they are often answered with something on the lines of “you have to do this because the white man said so”. Such statements refer to the fact that in the past and still in present day, many aspects of the government, our laws, our workplaces, and our everyday lives are shaped by one small facet of society and are not influenced by all members equally. This running theme that women have less power than men factors into the show by highlighting Piper’s inferior and relatively helpless situation, allowing viewers to understand the challenges she faces and the complications of why she has them as a woman. More importantly, however, this theme comments on the current position of women in society and unapologetically points out that women are in an unfair disadvantage in many different areas of their liveseven in a prison where they are surrounded by people of the same gender.


Juxtaposing Prison and Past

Despite the absurdity of an environment or character’s situation, TV viewers tend to become accustomed to the scenery of a show quickly. Whether the setting be in the middle of Manhattan, a dangerous jungle, or even another universe, the setting, although noteworthy, is generally not what we focus on. Instead, we tend to follow the issues at stake, the problem, or a particular character we sympathize with. In Orange is the New Black, however, to understand the main character’s thoughts and feelings, it is essential to view the new environment (jail) the same way that the protagonist (Piper) does. To accomplish this goal, producers jump in between scenes of flashbacks to Piper’s old environment and her new one in jail to create a juxtaposition.

When Piper’s old life outside of jail is shown, the first thing I noticed was the lighting. In scenes that portray the past, the lighting is always brighter and has a more yellow/orange glow. This lighting is so noticeable because it is very different from the lighting of the jail scenes before it where dark grey tones prevail. The use of bright lighting in scenes outside of prison conveys that Piper’s past life was much happier, fortunate, and comfortable than her current bleak situation.

To convey this theme of a nurturing past and cutthroat present, clips between the two often end with characters talking about the same thing in different ways. For example, in episode two of the first season, Red mentions how a certain bathroom smells like a dead animal. Immediately after, the filming jumps to a different scene that takes place in Piper’s past, where she talks about how she loves the smell of soapa luxury that she cannot afford now. During this scene, she excitedly discusses how she can start a business marketing soaps and lotions. As soon as Piper says “lotions” the scene cuts and goes to the jail, where a gross, generic container of lotion is slammed down on a desk. Furthermore, clips constantly jump from Piper not eating anything in the jail because she is being starved out by another inmate to her purposefully not eating at home because she is adhering to a detox diet. By switching scenes from her new life in jail to her old life with her fiance outside of it, the producers emphasize that Piper’s old life was comfortable and that her current one is foreign, scary, tough, and an enormous emotional, social, and physical challenge. By timing scenes to end at certain meaningful points, viewers gain a true understanding of what jail means to Piper because they also understand what experiences were like for her outside of jail and the change she is getting used to. Such utilization of cinematography to juxtapose the past with the present allows viewers to empathize with Piper and feel the same emotional toll that she does.



Getting to Meet (part of) Me

Hello, everyone! My name is Alexandra Buhl. I am currently an International Affairs major (although I am leaning towards switching to International Business), and expect to graduate in 2022. In the past, I have always looked forward to my English classes. For me, such classes have always been a forum where I could express myself both creatively and persuasively at the same time. I have always loved dissecting diverse forms of rhetoric and analyzing them in these classes as well. In addition, English courses that I have taken in the past have rarely dwelled on learning grammatical structures and rules. Instead, they focussed on helping me answer questions that did not have clear or singular answers. This class is my first English class at Georgia Tech and I think that it will adhere to a similar style as my previous ones.

I enjoy written and electronic communications because I can carefully and efficiently plan out what I say but struggle with the oral and visual modes. This semester, I hope to improve my nonverbal communication in addition to the modes I struggle with so that I can convey any message in multiple ways.

Unlike most people my age, I do not have extensive experience with this courses theme of TV. Growing up, my parents did not allow me to watch much television, so I never developed attachments to shows. I recently bought a Netflix subscription, however, and am trying to balance watching a plethora of shows all at the same time. I’ve been wanting to add Orange is the New Black to that list for a while due to its creative plot line and focus on women, so I have chosen to review it for the Blog Assignment. I was also motivated to choose this show because of its reputation for having many diverse women who all experience their own relatable and real-world problems that I may be able to learn from. This show is about Piper Chapman, a public relations executive whose past with a drug dealer finally catches up with her and puts her in jail. The interactions she has with her previous life and other women in the jail shapes a story that I’m excited to discover.  

Orange is the New Black shows diverse women experiencing a diversity of problems.



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