Thursday, August 27, 2015

Labor and Freedom in OITNB Season 3

The labor movement and the women's movement are woven together with astonishing sophistication and brilliance in season 3 of Orange Is the New Black. I'd like to say it's the most Marxist-feminist thing that has ever appeared on American television, except I'm not sure there's any actual competition in this category. The women's prison setting of OITNB has always allowed it to represent women's bodies in ways not seen elsewhere on television: an overwhelmingly female-majority cast, filled with an astonishing diversity of body types, all wearing formless prison scrubs and more tattoos than makeup. But season 3 takes this representation a step further by asking us to pay attention to these bodies as they work and to think about who owns the results of that labor, in all its (re)productive forms.

Season 3 hinges on the takeover of the formerly public Litchfield Prison by the private corporation MCC (a fictional stand-in for the real, and really nasty, for-profit prison company CCA). The warden now reports to the new ironically-named Director of Human Activity, whose actual job is to be passively inhuman in the effort to squeeze the highest possible profit margin out of the prison's operation. This failed Bartleby turns out to be the CEO's son, but company clearly trumps family when his attempt to speak up for the guards and inmates results in his father's patronizing explanation that the corporation's responsibility is to its stockholders, who demand that profits increase each fiscal quarter. The meeting of well-dressed white folks at company headquarters feels a world away from the prison, even though it demonstrates that the "intellectual" labor of the managerial class takes place in what amounts to another kind of prison.

Meanwhile at Litchfield, the effects of privatization and its profit motive arrive quickly. The prison guards see their work hours reduced and themselves replaced with cheaper, untrained labor. In the cafeteria, food formerly cooked by the inmate-staffed kitchen is replaced by shrink-wrapped mega-bags of liquified pulp named after food. (Reinstated chef Red is reduced to announcing at each meal that she did not cook this food--disassociating her body and its labor from these products, even as she retreats to the prison's on-site vegetable garden, where the prisoners' labor transforms plants and soil into nourishment for bodies.)

At the same time, inmates are invited to compete for jobs in a new prison sweatshop that pays $1/hour for sewing women's underwear for the lingerie company Whispers (a fictional stand-in for Victoria's Secretone of many companies whose stockholders and CEOs have been enriched through the use of cheap private prison labor to produce goods that are then sold at enormously marked-up prices).

When Piper observes that they could make an extra pair of panties out of the fabric by rearranging the pattern, she is rebuffed by a supervisor who doesn't recognize her as part of the knowledge class. She responds by recruiting fellow laborers to secretly make the extras, which her brother helps her sell on the internet--but only after they have been worn by female prisoners (he and his wife stuff the used panties into shrinkwrapped bags, much like the cafeteria food).

The genius of this plan isn't the entrepreneurial spirit of incubator capitalism or even the reclaiming of surplus value by laborers in defiance of management--it's that this product's value is literally in its saturation by the runoff fluids from working women's bodies. The longer the panties have been worn, the higher the price they'll fetch, as consumers get off by sniffing the encrusted residue of exploited female bodies.

But the show makes clear that such efforts to use capitalism's own tools against it have a way of quickly working toward capitalism's own ends. Piper pays her workers (those sewing and wearing the extra panties) in flavor packets--which the inmates sprinkle on the new cafeteria slop to make it taste like something--even as she and her brother reap profits through their soaring online sales. Finally, one of her employees literally takes a page from the prison guards (who are organizing a union to counteract their exploitation by management), and organizes a parallel work stoppage to protest their exploitation by fellow inmate Piper.

Everywhere this season OITNB seems to be investigating the relationship of labor to management and asking: who owns the products of labor? But nowhere is this question more meaningful than in its treatment of the reproductive labor of motherhood. The season's first episode is a celebration of Mother's Day at the prison, and its last episode features the birth of Daya's daughter. Of the countless representations of women in labor I've seen on screen, I can't remember one that gets it as right as the scene in which a pale and sweating Daya leans against a cinderblock prison half-wall and quietly pants that her "hips are being split apart." Daya's sweating and bloody body bring women's reproductive labor into the season's larger conversation about workers, solidarity, and rights.

Daya's own mother, Aleida, was already in prison when her daughter became incarcerated. In an effort to seek a "better life" for her expected grandchild than the one that landed both her and her daughter in Litchfield, she has been secretly encouraging the wealthy mother of the child's would-be father to adopt the baby. The alternative is to have the child raised by Aleida's drug-dealer boyfriend who, along with an assortment of mistress-nannies, oversees a houseful of children. Meanwhile, the child's actual father and Daya's lover, the prison guard Bennett, has disappeared without explanation after visiting this home and realizing the bleakness of his options.

Viewers are set up to desire the heroic surprise return of Bennett at the season's end, but the show offers no nuclear heterosexual family romance. What it does offer is a homosocial collective feminist alternative. Aleida tells the wealthy white woman hoping to adopt Daya's child that she gave birth to a stillborn son--a double lie that frees her daughter from the seductive promises of white liberal privilege and allows her to retain possession of her newborn daughter, the product of her body and its labor.

According to Marx and Engels, capitalism not only defines freedom in limited ways but makes such freedom available only to those who have money, leaving limited options to those who must sell their labor power to survive. Under such conditions, they write in The German Ideology, personal freedom is possible only in community, for "Only in community [has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions."

The guard strike at Litchfield leaves suddenly unattended a prison yard fence that is being repaired, offering surprise access to the lake just outside the prison boundaries. In the ensuing scene, the women prisoners--at varying speeds of dawning awareness--run through the open fence and into the water. It may not be an act of escape, exactly. But it does look like freedom.

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