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Panties: Not Just for Prisoners
By Alex Carrigan
*Author’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Season 3 of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. If you have not watched the entire season, please do not read this article.
Netflix’s hit drama (as the Emmy Awards now consider it) Orange is the New Black has drifted from its source material in a way that none of us could have predicted. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, the series, which follows the women of Litchfield Penitentiary, opened its third season by having Litchfield bought out by the private corporation, MCC. One of MCC’s changes to the prison is the installation of a sweatshop, where the prisoners get paid $1 an hour (compared to the 11 cents per hour the other jobs pay) to sew panties for the Whispers lingerie business.
It’s in the Whispers sweatshop that protagonist Piper Chapman has an idea. Knowing that she’ll be broke and homeless upon her release, Piper starts to take extra panties from the sweatshop, have female prisoners wear them, have a guard smuggle out of the prison to Piper’s brother, then sell the used panties online to market towards the perverts that lurk on the internet for used underwear. Her brother then deposits the money in her commissary, and she continues to send the panties out.
It’s quite an absurd idea, one that isn’t helped by Piper taking it completely seriously and even giving rousing speeches about it. However, there’s some surprising depth to this plot that ties into larger themes of the series, particularly in female expressionism and autonomy, something that these incarcerated women don’t really have the luxury of.
As we saw in the second episode when the prison dealt with a bedbug outbreak, the women of Litchfield don’t have a lot of chances to be feminine. All the women wear the same clothing, creating a sea of women in shapeless beige uniforms or white sweaters. Most of the women are only able to dress up through makeup, and even then it’s minimal or homemade (such as Sophia’s lip gloss of Vaseline and Kool-Aid powder or Morello’s coffee ground eyeshadow).
The bedbug episode forced a lot of women out of their uniforms and into one of three options: 1) a sweaty, sheer paper uniform, 2) an improvised garbage bag dress, or 3) running around the prison in their granny panties. Because of this incident, these women lost the chance to retain any sort of dignity and had their bodies put on display. Much of Orange is the New Black deals with how these women lose a lot of their basic rights upon being placed in prison. While it may be seen as punishment for the crimes they committed, a lot of what they lose (such as quality food and clean bathrooms) is replaced with casual racism and solitary confinement.
For the women who Piper recruits for the panty business, wearing the panties is more than a chance to get ramen flavor packets to make the new industrial slop they’re fed taste better. For them, it’s a chance to feel and look sexy. The panties are made from a better material than the granny panties they generally wear, and the notion that they can get paid better for doing something like wearing clothes motivates them. We’ve seen moments on the show where a project can give these women a renewed sense of purpose and creativity, such as the newsletter from Season 2 or Suzanne’s ongoing erotic sci-fi novel Time Hump Chronicles. It allows them to channel their energy into something productive and rewarding, something most of the programs in Litchfield don’t provide.
But is the panty business really the best thing for these women? As Piper’s girlfriend, Alex, points out, what Piper is doing is essentially starting a criminal enterprise. We’ve seen moments where criminal action in Litchfield results in inmates being sent to the nearby maximum security prison (like Miss Claudette in Season 1 or Nicky this season) or death (such as Tricia in Season 1 and Vee in Season 2). Piper even has to rationalize a lot of her actions with the panty business. She notes that the panties they’re using are made from extra material that Whispers wouldn’t look for in their final count, and even has to give speeches to keep a lot of the inmates working for her when they try to unionize. Piper does relent to pay them with commissary money instead of flavor packets, but does so by “firing” the inmate who called for a union.
Piper is treating the panty ring as an entrepreneurial opportunity, her version of the American Dream. The inmates she draws in are from all races in order to cater to the clients of the website. Piper believes that what she is doing is something that will help her and her employees, while also be a way to stick it to the man. As the season progresses, Piper takes the business so seriously that when she finds that one inmate betrayed her, her response is one that shows her crossing a real moral line.
The whole point of this story arc is to show that while these women are using the panties made by their sweatshop as a chance to assert their femininity and to seize some control over their environment, it’s also something that can come crashing down quite easily. Piper is not entirely stable in this plan, and she’s likely to drag down the other inmates with her if she’s caught. It’s part of the tragedy of Litchfield that someone like Piper would be driven to pursue such a path as an attempt to survive and thrive in the prison, even though it’s something that could endanger all of them if it’s exposed.
It’s entirely likely this operation will collapse next season. What remains to be seen is who will suffer from it. Like many of the projects that occur in Litchfield, it’s likely to end abruptly and with someone going to Max. Despite how illegal and immoral Piper’s scheme is, it’s still offering something that these women lack in jail: self-esteem. They’re able to feel sexy and feel like they have some control over their environment, and despite how artificial it might be, it’s still something they need and will try to grasp when they can.
#TheReal #Television #Women #Gender #Prison #OISTNB #Panties #Review
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