Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
There's precious little Vee-like excess in Season 3 of Orange is the New Black. No big plans. Instead, this season is consumed with the problem of scarcity. The things that made life easier—makeup, snacks, books, internecine squabbles—have dwindled. A bedbug infestation required that all clothes, mattresses, and books be burned. A for-profit company is administering Litchfield—by setting the inmates to work producing lingerie for $1/hr. This season is about how people cope when even the little they've had is taken away, and how—conversely—the definition of luxury or excess expands in the wake of that kind of loss.
In its first two seasons, Orange is the New Black did a terrific job of showing how the inmates express their individuality given institutional constraints. Everyone might have to dress the same, but Morello's makeup was hugely different from Red's, which was different from Alex's. These expressions of personality were made all the more visible by the standard uniforms all the inmates are forced to wear.
This season is consumed with the problem of scarcity.
But after the bedbug infestation causes everything to be burned, that backdrop of institutional sameness is stripped away. Ironically, without a uniform to rebel against, the characters seem to lose some of their individuality. Take Morello, whose pinup-girl style has given away to a range of beauty looks depending on who she's meeting. Her new chameleon-like approach to self-expression reflects a larger concern among inmates whose time away from the real world is eroding their personhood: at what point do you lose touch with the real you?
One of Piper's ongoing fears is that she's somehow fallen off the path that was set for her—that whoever she has to become to survive in prison is wholly alien from the privileged soap-maker of her past. But she's hardly the only Litchfield inmate whose sense of self is gradually being beaten down. This season, many of the characters seem to have lost the resolve to perform their identities; Red is less Red-like. Alex's smirk is weaker, diluted without her trademark cat-eye. Everyone's gotten blurrier and plainer; their makeup has faded. They look older, less glamorous, tired.
The flip side of that—the thing that makes this season fun to watch—is that everyone's less guarded. It's fun to see Alex feel powerless, fun (and a little horrifying) to watch Red flirt. Pennsatucky's incredibly unlikely friendship with Boo might be my favorite part of the show—and I say that as a longtime fan of Poussey and Taystee, who badly wants those two to get a spinoff. Pennsatucky was incredible when she believed in God and in herself as a His prophet; it's a credit to how good this show is that a disillusioned Pennsatucky—teeth fixed, faith shattered—is even more fun to watch.
Which raises the question: What was the purpose of their earlier performance? Who was it for? Season 1 was about the shock of prison and the need to "front" in order to survive. Aggressive self-presentation was key. Season 3 is about the tragedy (and the relief) of no longer needing that—of losing one's outsider status and actually belonging. People get softer the longer you know them, and the more sides of them you get to see.
But if makeup and hair have become less important visual cues to our inmates, clothes have emerged as a new testing-ground for femininity and nostalgia. The lingerie sweatshop throws everyone into meditations on underwear, luxury, and what womanhood looks like on the outside. And one weird byproduct of the bedbug infestation is that the inmates—forced to improvise—get to dress themselves for the first time. Alex, for instance, makes a dress out of a garbage bag. Other inmates wear paper uniforms or nothing at all, preferring to live in their "granny bras" and loose, diaper-like panties.
OITNB has always loved showcasing the inmates' MacGyverish adaptability, their talent for making slippers from maxi pads and cigarette-smugglers from cockroaches.
OITNB has always loved showcasing the inmates' MacGyverish adaptability, their talent for making slippers from maxi pads and cigarette-smugglers from cockroaches. But this time, it's too much: the inmates' few resources are stretched thin. Their tools for survival are disposable products intended for excrement and hygiene. Some women create mattresses from maxi pads. Others make pillows out of toilet rolls. One surrounds her bed in shaving cream to keep the bugs away. Another sprays herself with (toxic) disinfectant. Deprived of clothes, paper, and mattresses, they're forced to clothe themselves in absorptive papers and chemicals.
Even feelings have become a luxury. The demoralized guards demand that Caputo right the scales by telling them he loves them. Brooke, desperate for connection, pours her heart out to Norma. Taystee mourns Vee with Suzanne. Poussey unburdens herself to an egg.
Things are hard, and it's a grim backdrop, but the individual back stories we get this season offer a counterpoint to Litchfield's slide toward austerity. They're about image and excess, self-presentation and selfhood—the very things the inmates lose this season. They're about the pursuit of luxury and good feeling—or, to put a more negative spin on it, ambition and greed.
This is a smart turn. Orange is the New Black sometimes tends to makes its characters so sympathetic they're really more victims than criminals. There's often a triggering traumatic incident that somehow explains (if it doesn't exactly excuse) the behavior that lands the character in jail. It's a narrative strategy that can work, but repeated too often, it gets cloying.
Luckily, this season resists that tendency, even parodies it. "I wish I had some sob story that would explain everything," Boo says. "Well, sorry to disappoint you, sugar, ain't no dramatic origin story here. Just a big old dyke who refuses to apologize for it."
The characters whose histories we get this season were (we learn) driven less by desperation than by ambition, desire, and the project of building a public self. Flaca, for instance, saw makeup and fashion as essential tools for self-expression—and started making fake LSD to fund her self-production. ("I think I need to invest in some more emotional clothing right now," she says. "I need to dress for my authentic self.") Boo, in contrast, saw makeup and (feminine) fashion as erasures of personhood. She built her aesthetic accordingly. "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy," she says, when he suggests she change clothes before seeing her mother, who's dying. "Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody."
The characters whose histories we get this season were driven less by desperation than by ambition, desire, and the project of building a public self.
If Boo and Flaca "refuse to be invisible" by occupying opposite ends of the visible spectrum of femininity (so to speak), Chang opted out of the problem of image altogether. People tend to overlook her, and she's turned that tendency into a superpower, cultivating an infrared aesthetic of invisibility. She can walk out of the cafeteria carrying milk cartons full of peas without anyone seeing her, or saying a word to make her stop.
These are all solutions to the problem of living while female, and they're interesting on those grounds alone. They're also strategies that work differently in an institutional (as opposed to a real-world) setting. This season drives a wedge into and exposes that difference. Performing femininity outside prison was, for Flaca, part of her policy of faking it till you make it—like her mother, who sewed Calvin Klein labels onto the dresses she makes. Someday, Flaca hoped, she'd stop producing knockoff LSD and wearing knockoff clothes; she'd be the real thing.
In prison, it all works differently: Flaca can’t fake it till she makes it. She freaks out while taking the "exam" the new administrators gave—ostensibly to help them select inmates to work the "high-paying" job making lingerie. She panics. She's asked to leave. And then she discovers that her freakout mysteriously got her the job. (The for-profit company never even looked at the test results; they just wanted to fool the inmates into believing there was a selection process.) Flaca "made it" without faking it; her philosophy was wrong.
For Boo, dressing became a huge, even primary, way she asserted her true self. Chang's inability to perform femininity on the outside was a burden, even a tragedy. Boo, who we've never really seen waver, wavers: she wouldn't put on a dress for her dying mother on the outside, but on the inside, hoping to scam Pennsatucky's religious supporters, she compromises it all, dresses as femininely as she can.
Then there’s Chang. This is a season about scarcity, remember—about everyone making do with less and giving up, as a result, some of the aggressive self-presentation that once made them memorable. Is self-expression compatible with self-preservation? It matters, I think, that the happiest person on the entire show is the one who started out as a feminine "failure": unmarriageable, plain, unloved. Chang, making the most of her invisibility, thrives in prison. She's living in luxury as everyone else dresses in garbage bags and paper. She practically dances on her Fritos while no one’s watching, makes the crumbs into cakes with her smuggled peas, and snacks happily while watching soap operas … ON HER SECRET IPHONE.
The best smuggler on the show isn't Red or Vee—it's the character whose camouflage was so complete we've barely seen her. If Boo and Sophia are OITNB's gurus of the power of appearance, of crafting an outside that expresses your inner self, Chang is a master at the art of self-actualization by vanishing.