English 1102: Television and Feminism

Dr. Casey Alane Wilson • Georgia Institute of Technology

Tag: discrimination

Flawed Prisons, Prejudiced Views

Episode 3 of Orange is the New Black’s first season explores a variety of themes ranging from transgender rights to a broken prison system.

A large portion of the episode focuses on the life of Sophia Burset, a transgender woman who stole credit cards to fund her sex-reassignment. Sophia is disrespected and mocked by many of the other inmates, who don’t consider to her to be a real woman. A lack of understanding of transgender people is also shown in the flashbacks with her firefighter colleagues and the store employee struggling to use proper pronouns This general lack of respect surprisingly

Sophia Burset

doesn’t stop one of the (presumably) heterosexual male guards from being attracted to her and trying to take advantage of her when the prison decides to give her smaller, generic doses of her hormone medication to cut costs. Sophia’s attempt to convince the prison staff to let her back on her medication by swallowing a bobblehead backfires when the doctor elects to completely take her off her medication, which is morally questionable at best.


Another key issue discussed in the episode revolves around the broken prison system in the United States, which has people who have committed minor crimes such as Piper in the same level of facility as international drug dealers like Alex. In multiple scenes the prison is suggested to be severely underfunded, as necessary 

Piper and Crazy Eyes

medications are hard for prisoners to come by, the prison management did not replace the freezer in the kitchen until it became inoperable, and the prison can not afford to keep basic exercise facilities for inmates open. It is also implied that the prison lacks proper mental health facilities and has a high proportion of inmates, including Crazy Eyes, suffering from mental health problems. Another issue for the prison is the unofficial segregation down racial lines in the prison and the racism displayed by some prisoners and prison staff.


These themes relate to the larger picture of the show by showing that some inmates have a much more difficult time in prison than others and the severe problem of prison overcrowding that harshly punishes minor offenders of the law and is a burden for the United States.

A Women’s World

The setting of Orange Is the New Black in a female prison provides for a set of characters rarely seen before on television. All of the prisoners are female (there is also a female transgender prisoner), with the few male characters (such as some of the prison guards and Piper’s fiance) serving the secondary role of being connections to the outside world. This atypical gender ratio leads to a focus on women’s issues and a portrayal of women not commonly seen in television.

Kate Mulgrew, who plays Red, proclaims that “These women are unapologetic for their flaws, for being in your face, for making mistakes and speaking their mind.” The absence of males in the prison environment may be a factor in making the women bolder, possibly because they feel like all the other prisoners are more like them. In the show, nearly all of the prisoners have some degree of agency, as their separation from society forces them to be self-reliant. However, this agency is also limited by the fact that they are prisoners and do not have the freedoms that normal people do. Although the characters who are not prisoners have more agency than the prisoners, their actions do not affect the show as much due to their more distant relationship with the protagonist.

A key time that Piper demonstrated agency early in season 1 was when she declined help from her ex-lover and fellow prisoner Alex. When Alex offered Piper food while the kitchen staff was refusing to serve her, Piper chose to throw away the food, in order to defy Alex and prove that she would not give in to Red’s will so easily. This action gained Piper the respect of Red and the kitchen staff, who soon resumed serving her food.

Piper throwing food from Alex away

The show uses Piper as a gateway to the issues of race, sexual orientation and mental illness. Due to her white, somewhat privileged background, she doesn’t have to face some of the additional discrimination that some of her fellow inmates must suffer. For example, Hispanic and African-American women are generally shunned by the white prisoners, as well as some of the prison staff. Sue, an inmate who appears to have some kind of mental illness, is avoided by almost all of the prisoners. The inmate counselor, Sam Healy, goes as far as to falsely put Piper in a position of influence in the prison after she committed a similar violation to an African-American inmate who was harshly punished. Healy tries to exploit divisions between the women to maintain the patriarchy in the prison, and despises the lesbian women in the prison, looking for any excuse to punish them.

I have linked an article below that I found very interesting and provided valuable insights into discrimination in OITNB.


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