The Netflix phenomenon Orange is the New Black has been the topic on every North America’s mind since the release of its first season in July 2013. With the second season coming to Netflix this June I decided to watch this series for a second time, but this time I made the decision to analyze it as I searched for undertones of cultural hegemony. Originally based on a book written by Piper Kerman depicting her experiences in a women’s prison, the television show takes this inspiration and creates a hyperbole in order to achieve laughs. While this show does a fantastic job in representing many races and ethnicities, as well as housing one of televisions few representations of a transsexual woman, the show contains major culturally hegemonic issues which all seem to favour the white community. This trend is one that we have seen for centuries, as white has been viewed as the dominant race or cultural form, but Orange is the New Black does a relatively good job of hiding this theme unless you are directly searching for it.
Cultural hegemony can be described as the predominant influence over other groups. Although some believe that all people are equal and society has achieved equality, there is still a person or group that has power or influence over other people or groups. When watching Orange is the New Black, I saw this theme benefiting the white population. This hegemony is clear within the first 20 minutes of the first episode. Firstly, it seemed as if almost all of those who had special privileges or were trusted to do important jobs in the prison were white. There is the white inmate, Morello, who is trusted to drive new prisoners into the prison following their strip search. The woman who is in charge of cooking the food for the entire prison is another white woman named Red, with all white inmates helping her. The inmate who is in charge of the chapel is yet another white woman named Tiffany Doggett. Jones is a white inmate who is allowed to teach her own yoga classes. I find it interesting that even when incarcerated, we can see this theme of cultural hegemony benefitting white inmates. The prison seems to be split into racial groups, with each race sitting together during meals and staying together during their free time. When questioning why this was, one reason that I came up with was that black inmates understand the struggles of other black inmates, just as do Latinos and Latinos, and white inmates with white inmates. Because the prison system does not involve equality within incarceration, those of similar races may stick together because they feel that they cannot identify with those from any other racial group. Fights that are shown in the show usually occur between women of different races, possibly because they don’t feel a connection to each other.
Along with the inmates having dominance, I noticed that the majority of the prison guards are white. This display of supremacy is more apparent than that of the inmates as the guards clearly exhibit theirs. The guards use degrading names towards the inmates, along with treating them like animals instead of people. Guards have been accused of rape, with a certain guard commonly making sexual remarks. This display of not only cultural hegemony, but also patriarchy is degrading and offensive to all inmates, including those who are white. Making the women feel like they are no longer people, the guards have clear control over them.
Another example of cultural hegemony within this show, and also real prisons is the Prison Industrial Complex refers to the practice of private investment in mass incarceration (Tolmie, 2014). The PIC aids in securing the authority of those whose power is based on economic, racial, and even structural privileges. Those who benefit from this complex are primarily white, American people who are wealthy. The PIC is directly related to cultural hegemony in prisons, as it is clear that this hegemony is not only evident in prisons, but also for those outside operating and investing in them. By dehumanizing people, dominant groups can gain more superiority and power. An example of the PIC in this television show is seen through those who run the prison. The executive assistant to the warden is a white woman who dresses well and clearly flaunts her wealth and authority. In the second episode, she tells the new inmates during their orientation that she is available to talk anytime about anything relating to their needs as women. When an inmate tries to ask her a question, she states that she is only there as a formality that day. This woman’s dominance and ability to profit off of the incarceration of these women is even more dehumanizing to the inmates.
Although I didn’t notice it very much the first time that I watched this series, the cultural hegemony is very clear in Orange is the New Black. The superiority and privilege of inmates who are white allow them to maintain jobs within the prison that women who are of other races are not allowed to do. The guards are also predominantly white, reinforcing this hegemony. The Prison Industrial Complex is seen in this show through those who run the prison, again being predominantly white, and displaying the wealth that they have made through the incarceration of these women. These displays of privilege is disappointing for viewers to see, as it shows that even when people are taken out of society and put into a prison, the inequalities that they face on the street are still apparent within the stone walls and barbed wire fences.
Herzing, Rachel. “What is the Prison Industrial Complex?.” Defending Justice. N.p., 2005. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. <http://www.publiceye.org/defendingjustice/overview/herzing_pic.html>.
“I Wasn’t Ready.” Orange is the New Black. Netflix. 11 May 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
“Tit Punch.” Orange is the New Black. Netflix. 11 May 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
Tolmie, Jamie. “Prisons, Intersection of Race, Class and.” Queen’s University. Kingston. 28 Jan. 2014. Lecture.