(An old post from my former blog. *spoiler alerts* If you haven’t seen through season 1 episode 11, might want to hold off on reading this!)
I’m wild over Orange is the New Black. Seems like I’m in good company – the show and people’s thoughts on it are popping up like mad in online newspapers and gossip columns. And with good reason – the show weaves together brilliant one-liners, subtle and not-so-subtle cultural references, diversity of race/class, and superb acting. A lot has been said and written about the show’s cast of characters and the surprising turns their relationships take.
I want to talk about how sexy the show is, and how uniquely it approaches the idea of female sexuality. I cannot think of another show, ever, in the history of my (admittedly not extensive) television watching, where an entire cast of women are dressed in dumpy, ill-fitting clothing, but are still brilliantly SEXY. These women, clad in beige scrubs and clunky black sneakers, are attracted to each other, have sex, get spurned, and, generally, are fully sexual creatures. And yet, they are not sexual for a voyeuristic, objectifying, and/or male gaze-y audience (either the guards in the prison, or the audience at home glued to their Netflix). Sexiness in prison is not based on who can wear their scrubs the best, or who shows the most skin, or other traditional measurements of desirability when it comes to women. The show clearly states that there is no one ideal female body, with women of all sizes getting laid and loving it. These ladies are attractive because of their beauty, sure, but also because of their intelligence and kindness and sense of humor.
Somehow even in the shower scenes where skimpy towels replace the prison clothes, women’s bodies aren’t sexualized like one would expect. Alex and Nicky, who flirt with each other like the pick-up line is going out of style, run into each other outside the showers. Instead of gaping in a way that enables the audience to voyeuristically objectify women’s bodies, Alex comments on the scar between Nicky’s breasts, and we get a flashback of Nicky recovering from heart surgery. The nudity present in the bathrooms makes the audience more uncomfortable than turned-on – aware that the floors are covered with foot diseases, and the toilet stalls don’t have doors. When your coffee kicks in, you just might find yourself on the porcelain throne watching the girl you have a crush on brush her teeth. Sex appeal is not tied to showing skin.
Alex drips sexiness, but not because she shows the perfect amount of cleavage or wears leather or never does anything embarrassing. It’s the way she smiles as though she knows something you don’t. It’s the way she takes her glasses off. It’s the way she cares, and enacts vengeance, and folds towels. When Piper is at her sexiest, it’s not when she’s in street clothes in flashbacks, but when she’s walking down the prison hall after her release from SHU with a swagger in her step and her own private, confident smile. Alex and Piper are as sexy snuggling in Alex’s bed as they are dancing together at Taystee’s release party. Sophia, the transgendered woman who styles everyone’s hair, is sexy because she knows who she is and what she wants, and she fights for it.
So, while there are some critiques to be leveled at the show for its treatment of prisons (not harsh enough? Too harsh?), its treatment of the female body, and female desire, and what constitutes sexy, is a breath of fresh air. It’s as though the outdoor track, which had been under padlock, is suddenly opened and we all can get our blood pumping again.