Three years ago, the pilot for the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” opened with a long, menacing, and vaguely hallucinogenic shower scene. It plunged Piper Chapman, the main character based on real-life ex-con Piper Kernan, into a steaming, wet torrent of images—and the audience with her. “You got them TV titties!” an inmate exclaims, snatching the towel from Piper. “They stand up on they own, all perky and everything.” It’s a scene that could have come out of any girls-behind-bars B movie, an opening that flirts brazenly with the trope of girls gone wrong.
Although it’s but one of many films that interpret jail through a heterosexual lens, Caged Heat set the gold standard for women-in-prison exploitation flicks with its ripe dream sequences, women in panties, and inexplicable cabaret. Just as you can’t make a road movie without invoking Easy Rider and all roads to horror lead you back to Psycho, no filmic representations of women in prison seem to escape the long arm of Jonathan Demme’s 1974 film. So you have to ask: How does “Orange is the New Black” jailbreak Caged Heat?
Showrunner Jenji Kohan took “OitNB” into its third season before she let it fall into the cultural dragnet cast by Caged Heat. In the seventh episode, Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, throws down the gauntlet: “I think that women’s prison feeds into the whole ’70s exploitation fantasy for men,” she says. “It’s like we’re all in Caged Heat or Cellblock Sisters and all we do is have lesbian sex and strip searches.” While it took 2.5 seasons for the show to step into Caged Heat’s ring, it didn’t take the media much time at all; in August 2013, Entertainment Weekly used the film’s title as a headline for an article about the series, and this month Rolling Stone did the same. It’s as if “OitNB” was avoiding the subject.
[ed: Spoilers below! You’ve been warned.]
Juggling multiple storylines is de rigueur in today’s hour-long dramadies, but few spin those plates with the effortless grace of “OitNB.” This season was built loosely around the purchase of Litchfield Penitentiary by MCC, a private prison corporation. Privatization elicits multiple changes. The two most important are the arrival of Whispers—a stand-in for Victoria’s Secret, which actually uses prison labor—a lingerie company that contracts Litchfield’s prison population to sew panties, and the introduction of a slew of untried, untrained guards for its growing population. Together, the panty enterprise and the presence of new guards jimmy the lock on Caged Heat and its ’70s exploitation bailiwick.
Season three of “OitNB” is arguably the most political to date, and privatization of the prison puts the show on a collision course that places unmentionables—both underwear and the long, sweaty hand of exploitation films—front and center. The show’s ability to depict the diverse past and current lives of its multiple characters is what makes “OitNB” special. No other television show offers such a wide range of narratives, and that these stories are almost exclusively female and often from people of color sets “OitNB” apart.
But whether ironically or coincidentally, Kohan’s many-headed attempt to unpack exploitation films centers on white women. One strand is Piper’s jailhouse caper, selling dirty, penitentiary-worn panties to perverts, a business venture that’s problematically named “Felonious Spunk”; the other is Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett’s rape. These two storylines, which unspool over the last six episodes of the season, attempt to meet Caged Heat in its own house. But whether they’re successful is another question.
“Bedbugs and Beyond,” the second episode of season three, featured a long, lingering scene of Litchfield’s inmates in their prison-issued underwear. Their granny panties and giant, thick-strapped bras aren’t the kind of lingerie that typically brings the ooh-la-la, but actors Jackie Cruz and Diane Guerrero make them look good. In light of the full season—where Flaca, Cruz’s character, later embraces Piper’s stinky panty scheme because the prison panties made her “butt sad”—the scene highlights the choices of free women to freely wear the foundation garments of their choice. Viewed in the moment, however, it’s a visual that rides the cusp between exploitation and commentary. It’s hard to cruise past views of inmates in their underwear without feeling a hot flicker of desire.
As the season unfurls, unmentionables take up more physical and psychic space. Not only does Piper’s business grow, necessitating a stiff learning curve in prison politics and illegal businesses, but the value of the panties also shifts. To Piper, who can’t see the past the pen, the panties are real, tangible, authentic objects. To Cal and Neri, Piper’s brother and sister-in-law and her business contacts in the outside world, the panties are merely fetishistic objects. Nail the right chemical mix, brush the panties with a “miso-tuna-honey” sauce and egg whites, and you can pass the sniff test. They make and sell knockoffs, because who’ll be the wiser?
As Cal and Neri discover, the real value of the panties isn’t in the fact real inmates wore these panties and imbued them with actual “vag sweat”—they’re worth something because of the idea that inmates wore the panties. The “panty perverts” are buying the sexed-up fantasy, a fiction that comes directly from films like Caged Heat. “OitNB” serves up a 13-episode arc to pin prison panties on a dissecting tray and show us where its beating heart isn’t. The only heat in the cage is the heat we’re packing.
The story of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, played by Taryn Manning, echoes the emptiness of fantasy. Of all the “OitNB” inmates, Doggett charts the most personal growth. In season one, she was a vituperative, narrow-minded, anti-abortion bigot who claims to be sent by God as a healer; by season two, she’s earned a new set of teeth to replace her meth-damaged chompers and, with them, a laid-back personality that wins her a slot driving the camp van. In her role as driver in this recent season, she becomes familiar with Charlie Coates, a new, callow prison guard, who seems unsure of his own authority.
Doggett’s rape is the crescendo of the tenth episode, “A-Tittin’ and A-Hairin’,” which flashes back to show her history, from being a ten-year-old getting her first period to a teen falling in love for the first time. “You ain’t a little grubber no more,” Doggett’s mom tells her. “You’ve got value. You’re like a case of pop.” Doggett takes this advice literally, allowing local boys sex when they give her Mountain Dew. Doggett’s first love, Nathan, an excessively beautiful guy, shows Doggett her true value, seducing her with caring, compliments, and pleasure. But Nathan leaves as he arrives—mysteriously, suddenly, and with little explanation. All long hair and foreplay, Nathan is lovely enough to be a dream, and his brief, wondrous arc suggests that we should see him as Doggett herself does.
At first glance, it appears as if Coates (played by James McMenamin) and Doggett are on a star-crossed collision course. Donuts, stolen moments at an idyllic duck pond, romantic banter: rom-com tropes abound in their sweet flirtation, gestures that presage love. Which is why the audience feels as betrayed as Doggett does when, in a game of “fetch,” Coates pointedly throws a donut chunk into a muddy patch. Doggett demurs; Coates’ face hardens as he yells, “I said fetch, inmate!”
The episode intersperses Doggett’s experience with dreamy Nathan and her experience with the green Coates, flipping back and forth in time as Doggett’s relationship with Coates develops. When Coates pushed Doggett against a tree to kiss her fight after the fetch episode, we realize he’s fuzzy on the notion of consent, mistaking her struggles for desire, a mistake she clears up at a later date. But when, at the end of the episode, he throws Doggett down on the bench seat of the van, pulls down her drawstring pants, and rapes her, we’re shocked anew. As if to underline his willful misconstruing of consent, Coates whispers as he rapes Doggett, “This is what you’re asking for? This is what you’re begging for, isn’t it?” Coates’ idea of Doggett’s consent is, like the panties, pure fantasy.
Together these two stories invoke Caged Heat to show women-in-prison films as what they are: exploitive. Prisons are the rare setting where women can be made to have sex and to be disciplined for having it, and women-in-prison films offer the theoretically guilt-free marriage of penal pleasure and punishment. Until this season, “OitNB” showed its inmates having sex almost like free women—which is to say, choosing to have sex, albeit within the confines of prison. In this way, the show seems to have bought into Caged Heat’s promise: prisoners “having lesbian sex and strip searches.” But between Felonious Spunk’s fallacious undies and Doggett’s rape, this tacit agreement goes tits up.
Or does it? “OitNB” has a remarkable share of extremely beautiful women—far more, I’d guess, than any given prison population. Season three added Ruby Rose to this roster of gorgeous inmates; she is, quite literally, a poster-girl. Since its pilot episode, the “OitNB” inmates visit the shower with the towel-wrapping modesty usually seen in Manhattan Bikram locker rooms, but the show serves up Rose naked in the shower, tattoos, butt, and breasts bare for all to see. “I like to air-dry,” Rose’s character Stella explains. It’s a nice view, but it feels about as authentic as Chapman’s dirty felon panties.
“OitNB” casts a diverse net in terms of age, weight, race, gender and conventional attractiveness, but it’s not a documentary. Because of that, Ruby Rose appears nude. Because of that, Big Boo’s strap-on riding flashback girlfriend is decidedly femme and thin. Because of that, we get copious shots of skinny, attractive Natalie Figueroa doing it doggy-style with Joe Caputo. And because of that, when Doggett and Big Boo attempt “rapey” payback on Coates, they can’t go through with it.
“Face it,” Doggett says, “we ain’t Swedish enough to be splittin’ his starfish.” Unpunished, Coates lives to ride another day, though now with a new driver. And we viewers realize that even as it attempts to subvert Caged Heat’s legacy, “OitNB” can never really escape.