Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Phallic Imagery and Power in Orange is the New Black

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: It's hard to argue with the fact that Netflix's new hit Orange is the New Black is both addicting and thought-provoking; the show provides viewers with complex female characters, unparalleled gender commentary, and a wicked good time. But, the nuanced phallic imagery, and how this imagery correlates to the show's power dynamics, is definitely (in our opinion) one of the show's most impressive attributes.

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: In a show that focuses on gender and sexuality as much as this one does, it didn't surprise us much when we noticed the phallic imagery scattered across Orange is the New Black's first season.

In case you're drawing a blank here on what phallic imagery is, or if you're just a little shy, we won't beat around the bush. We're talking about penises.

That's right. Penises. Things that look like penises. Things that act like penises. Things that feel like...well, you get the idea.

The phallus (i.e. penis for those of you who haven't been paying attention at all) is an important subject in traditional psychoanalytic discourse. For example, having the phallus is often associated with masculinity and power while being the phallus is associated with femininity and being an object of desire. So, on the most basic level, penis = power. No penis, no power.

(Please note this explanation has been extremely simplified. For further reading, you might want to check out the works of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and/or Judith Butler, who all discuss this at length. Go on, ladies and gents, get to googling.)

Attributing the idea of power to the phallic imagery in Orange in the New Black leads to some interesting visual indications of which characters have power over others in certain situations. Obviously, power is an integral part of the dynamics between guards and inmates, and among inmates themselves, at the Litchfield Correctional Facility. He (or she) who has power can influence others and affect change. And, in a place like prison, where liberties are few and far between, power is everything.

Guards, for example, almost always exercise power over inmates. Add to that fact that most guards are male and all inmates are female, and you've got some pretty arresting phallic imagery going on.

Exhibit A:

Mr. Healy putting his pen in his pen holder when Piper goes
to his office to ask about being relocated to another prison.
(Episode 2: Tit Punch)

 Exhibit B:

Pornstache giving his creepy violence lecture to the new inmates.
(Episode 2: Tit Punch)

Exhibit C:

Luschek with a double whammy.
(Episode 3: Lesbian Request Denied)

Exhibit D: 

More Pornstache. No explanation necessary.
(Episode 6: WAC Pack)

Yup. Once you see it, you can't un-see it. Moving on.

Philosopher Judith Butler is known for her idea of the "lesbian phallus," which is basically just a sexy way of saying that assigning the phallus exclusively to men is heteronormative and operates under a false gender binary. She argues that females can easily exercise the power of the phallus over men or even over other women (i.e. in a lesbian relationship). 

While the guards may exercise power over inmates, that doesn't mean the phallic imagery in Orange is the New Black is reserved exclusively for the male characters. In fact, there are many occasions where the symbolic phallus, and the power associated with it, are in the hands of the show's female characters.

Red is an excellent first example of this. Without a doubt, Red is Litchfield's most powerful inmate. She is at the top of the prison food chain (in all respects). So, it only makes sense for her to do something like this:

Carrots can be phallic too.
(Episode 2: Tit Punch)

And this:

Tampon sandwich. You had to know this was coming.
(Episode 2: Tit Punch)

The tampon sandwich is something that deserves a bit of a closer look. A tampon, by nature, is an object that is both inherently phallic and inherently feminine. This sounds like a paradox, but, as we learned, our friend Judith Butler would disagree with the idea that these two are mutually exclusive.

Piper receives her tampon sandwich from Red early on in the first season's second episode, which makes Red the very first inmate to use a phallic object as an indication of her power over another. This sets the stage for the phallic displays of power that are yet to come, while also pointing out that the power structure in Orange is the New Black is not as clear cut as it might originally seem.

But, Red's phallic power is hard to classify as sexual in nature. Instead, it is more about social status, and the power that comes with having influence over others. This is not exactly true of Piper and Alex, who have their own little imagery game going on in the laundry room.

Piper shining her flashlight into Alex's...well, yeah.
(Episode 8: Moscow Mule)

Piper's flashlight is a really, really gorgeous physical incarnation of the lesbian phallus we were talking about before.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any better...

Power outage.
(Episode 8: Moscow Mule)

The power literally goes out, nicely indicating the fluid nature of control in their relationship.

Speaking of literal power, we can't forget about this:

Watch out, Yoga.
(Episode 12: Fool Me Once)

Oftentimes, electrical equipment is classified as either male or female based on whether it has parts that stick out or stick in (respectively, in case you were lost). So, when Yoga Jones sticks Janae's nail right into that socket, Orange is the New Black gives us a nice little illicit exercise of personal power via a tiny, phallic, masculine object.

The best part is, they know that the power they have at their fingertips could get them into trouble. The power isn't theirs to take. Yoga Jones even says: "If they see us with that we'll go straight to the SHU."

But, that hasn't stopped female inmates from claiming whatever phallic objects they could get their hands on before.

You all remember this one.
(Episode 4: Imaginary Enemies)

When the screwdriver goes missing from the electrical shop, the whole prison goes into a frenzy. And just in case you were thinking maybe a screwdriver isn't as phallic or as sexual as you'd really like it to be, Orange is the New Black makes it totally clear that you're wrong.

Told ya.
(Episode 4: Imaginary Enemies)

Within the prison gates, women constantly use various phallic objects to claim whatever control or power they can get their hands on.

Yup, even you, Pennsatucky. What would your Savior say about this?
(Episode 13: Can't Fix Crazy)

But, this power only extends as far as the other female inmates. Women do have power. But, they don't have power over men unless they are outside the confines of the prison. And, from what we've seen, it is their use of this power that has landed them behind bars in the first place. Take Miss Claudette:

Right in the knife rack.
(Episode 4: Imaginary Enemies)

Right before we find out that Miss Claudette has stabbed her male client to death, there's this sleek little shot of her sliding that knife right into the rack. Talk about phallic images of power and the fierce ladies who wield them.

But, it is with these actions and assertions of phallic power that each woman signs her sentence. For the female characters in Orange is the New Black, phallic objects mean power, but they also mean danger. Because, in the world of this story, gender is all tied up with control.

Written by: Jacqueline Bircher
Jacqueline is one half of the team at the helm of Red Herry, and the whole brain behind almost every fish pun you can find on this website. She is a fierce advocate for helmets, ice cream, and the Oxford Comma.
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter and Tumblr.

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