Utopian Relations: Intersectionality in ‘Orange is the New Black’ and ‘Black Mirror’
Romantic, sweet, slightly childish and seemingly never-ending – this is the type of love that plays the role of an immediate attention grabber, a rating booster that keeps us anchored in front of the flat screens, daydreaming and craving for more. Everyone who has watched Black Mirror‘s San Junipero and/or is familiar with Brook Soso and Poussey Washington’s relationship in Orange is the New Black knows what I am talking about.
With millions of fans all over the world, those two series are deep, thought-provoking and a constant reminder of the vices and virtues overflowing our everyday lives and contemporary society. The first one achieves this by showing us a grim alter reality where modern technology exceeds its controllable limits in human life, the second by introducing the present-day struggles (and triumphs!) of marginalised people in an honest and outspoken manner.
One thing that stands out when drawing a comparison between the two shows, is the different modes of representing sexuality, and the underlying subject of intersectionality (a vital element in modern feminist theory). By looking closer at those two cases, I wish to elaborate more on the idea that both programmes present different angles on the same issue – the place of intersectionality and desire in a utopian world.
The Utopian Impulse
In his book Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz reminds us of philosopher Roland Barthes’ words that ‘the mark of the utopian is the quotidian’ and goes on to explain that ‘such an argument would stress that the utopian is an impulse that we see in everyday life’. 1 It is tempting, therefore, to question this utopian impulse with regards to its intersection with other aspects of everyday life. Undoubtedly one’s lived experiences depend on a vast spectrum of social characteristics which combine, but are not limited to, sexuality, gender, race, age and class under the umbrella of a single identity. This is by no means to say that one’s identity can be treated as a monolithic whole. On the contrary, those ‘identity differentials’, as professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw claims, are registered as ‘particular components that exist simultaneously with one another’. Moreover, they are also shaped by and are subject to various forces – forces which are outside of a person’s subjectivity and which are dictated by a long cultural and socio-political history. An in-depth examination of those factors would entail a methodology that not only takes this intersectionality into account, but places it centre-stage.
First and foremost, it is crucial to clarify the use of the terms intersectionality and utopia throughout this article. The first term is concerned with the correlation of certain minoritarian constituents that determine the different experiences of oppression within dominant organisations, the second one links with the first in the way it stages a sort of creative imagining that breaks away from those dominant orders, or explicitly critiques them.
In the following analysis I will aim towards establishing a critical approach towards the representation and interrelation between sexuality and other identity traits in the two aforementioned television series. It is important to note that they exist in a predominantly Western context with specific socio-political environments – the United States and the United Kingdom. The narratives from Orange is the New Black (hereby referred to as OITNB) and Black Mirror serve as exemplary cases of the current tendency in the television industry to turn towards a more inclusive, broad and open politics of representation. I will consider the role ‘utopia’ plays in them in order to demonstrate the way in which the importance of intersectionality is revealed (or concealed).
Similar in Difference
The couple from San Junipero – Yorkie (portrayed by Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the characters of Poussey Washington (Samira Wailey) and Brook Soso (Kimiko Elizabeth Glenn) from OITNB exist in rather different narratives and therefore engage in two distinct types of utopia. Nevertheless, both examples make strong critical arguments on their use of intersectionality and carry rich potential for disruption within the domain of heteronormative ideas of sexuality.
I wish to begin by pointing out the similarities between the two case studies, which will foreground their crucial dynamics in this direction. Both couples are same-sex and interracial with one partner being black, the other white or Asian (but passing – as – white). Both relationships are based on a deep commitment, passionate desire and romantic love for the other. Both narratives are set up in an other space. In the case of San Junipero this is a completely fictional world, the afterlife which is made accessible through modern advancements in technology. In the case of OITNB this other place is the Litchfield prison – one much more real, yet, I dare say, still primarily unknown to the presumably anticipated spectator of the show. This enables them to engage with the issues they depict in a more liberated way, speaking openly and allowing for a discussion outside of their narratives’ boundaries. More intriguingly, both stories carry the motive of death – either as a springboard or as a crucial event.
Socio-political arrangements play an indispensable role in the construction of every individual’s lived experiences, especially in terms of their sexuality. On the one hand, those arrangements form groups which enable individuals to establish a sense of community and which allow for self-identification. On the other, those influences can be not only positive and useful, but in many cases harmful and oppressing as well. The romantic relationships in the cases examined here transgress those characteristics to a certain degree and formulate a specific utopian quality that subverts the dominant power structures in the contexts they exist in.
Philosopher Ernst Bloch makes a critical distinction between abstract utopias and concrete utopias. The main difference being the way in which they (dis)engage with the historicity of social, cultural and political endeavours. Muñoz explains that ‘abstract utopias falter for Bloch because they are untethered from any historical consciousness’ while ‘concrete utopias are relational to historically situated struggles, a collectivity that is actualized or potential.’ 2 I, however, argue that both types of utopia examined here carry significant possibilities for the creation of social attitudes in terms of studying sexuality and its intersectional points of resistance.
Brook and Poussey
In OITNB the couple realise their relationship in a distinctly hostile surrounding. The utopian elements of their relationship are evident in the way they create a safe space for themselves in which to enact and live their desires and their love. However, those utopian elements belong to the realm of concrete utopias as the characters are alert to the different factors influencing their relationship. Instead of shying away, they launch a conversation about those factors, thereby coming across as aware and more sensible.
The realities of their condition subject them to offer a rationale for the establishment of their intimacy which began towards the end of the third season. In its final episode (Trust No Bitch), Poussey and Brook become closer and later develop an intimate relationship which is predicted by Poussey’s exclamation that ‘blasian is beautiful’. Using the word blasian – which is a mix between the words black and Asian – she points the audience’s attention towards the importance of race for their relationship. Soso is gradually accepted at the black girls’ table, although Poussey’s friends object to it at first.
In the prison, the women divide themselves as belonging to separate groups, each group is determined based on race, ethnicity, age, religion or other background. The acceptance of a non-black person in the black girl’s group presents a disruption in the hegemonic order within the prison. This disruption is made possible thanks to the sexual and romantic desires of a member from the group – Poussey’s friends accept Brook because she is her girlfriend. This is another indication towards the complex dynamics encompassing people’s socially performed identities.
The need to determine and explicitly pinpoint one’s sexuality and gender is another aspect that the couple cunningly illustrates and talks about. While Poussey is openly lesbian, in Power Suit Brook claims that she is ‘attracted to people, not genders.’ Although she does not lay claim to a particular term, I am led to believe that her sexual orientation is pansexual – she can presumably develop physical attraction, love and sexual desire for people regardless of their gender identity or biological sex. However, this revelation is enveloped by the harsh realities in which they exist in as Brook expresses doubts whether their relationship would be possible in the outside world.
This takes us back to the utopian qualities of their relationship when the romantic momentum is somehow sustained despite the ongoing mayhem at the prison. In The Animals, the couple sneaks in the improvised time machine in the laundry room where they start planning their future together, wishing to stay away from the advancing commotion. Unfortunately, at the end of the episode we see officer Baxter Bayley (a white, young male) tackling Poussey to the floor, in the midst of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest, to the point where she is no longer breathing. Her death sets various effects in motion and breaks the utopian illusions so far constructed within the couple’s life. The fact that Poussey’s character, a black, young lesbian, is destined to such a fate is fundamentally grounded in the oppressive legacies of white supremacist history which marginalises such identities. In the case of OITNB, however, this is not necessarily the case. It is important to bear in mind that television media has a long history and its very own ontology which need to be considered. As Jane Arthurs argues in her book Television and Sexuality: Regulation and the Politics of Taste:
Producers may be informed by audience research, but they also act on embedded assumptions about who is watching, what kind of programmes they like and what forms of address are appropriate. […] Television emerges, then, as a complex set of localized and historically specific practices that are produced out of changing definitions of its audiences and purposes. 3
This points to the fact that representation of various marginal identities in film and on television is predominantly regulated by an established system of taste. Such systems often favour a subject with whom most of the audience members would supposedly identify with. In the beginning of OITNB this was essentially the young, middle-class, white woman (portrayed by the character of Piper Chapman) who, as the creator of the show Jenji Kohan explains, was being used as a ‘very easy access point […] relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic.’ 4 However, the system regarding a target audience is questioned and challenged further in the series using characters who act as some sort of catalyst for the disruption of those ‘embedded assumptions’. This disruption is made possible exactly in cases such as Poussey and Brook’s relationship. Instead of guiding the spectator through an expected point of view, they take the dominant stance by positioning queer people of colour’s lived realities centre-stage. This is the reason why Poussey’s death is experienced as a profoundly devastating, tragic outcome, regardless of the other characters’ (or the viewers’) identities.
Kelly and Yorkie
The idea of death being a tragic event is completely overturned in the story of Yorkie and Kelly from San Junipero. The relationship between the two characters at first seems naïve and childish – they are presented as young, showing a strong attraction to one another and always meeting at a night club. San Junipero is later revealed to be a simulated reality the elderly can live in after their physical death in the outside world. Towards the end of the episode the audience also understands that in the real-life Yorkie has been paralysed since she was twenty-one – she crashed her car after coming out as a lesbian in front of her parents who reacted poorly because of their embedded beliefs. This shows that death is actually desirable because the afterlife seems like the only opportunity for her to live a free life, express her true sexual desires, independent of the restrictions imposed in the real world.
We also understand that Kelly had a husband and a daughter, both of which have died without uploading themselves into the virtual world. Those pieces of information gradually construct a richer background for the development of the couple’s intimate bond. Despite that, the story does very little, if anything, to explicitly comment on the importance of race and age to sexuality throughout the plot. It seems as if those factors are of no importance to the development of their relationship. This is the reason I see San Junipero as belonging to the abstract kind of utopias – the episode finishes with the couple ending up living happily ever after (in the afterlife), driving off into the sunset under Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 hit song Heaven Is a Place on Earth.
On one occasion, the women do have a conversation about their sexual desires, yet not relating those desires to other forces affecting them can result in questionable, unfavourable circumstances. Such undermining of intersectionality could be ineffective and prejudicing especially in the case of Kelly, who is a black female and is sexually non – conforming to predominant beliefs and conventions. This can pose a certain issue as, according to Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin,
‘being a black female means dealing with both patriarchal assumptions about male superiority and lingering ideas of white supremacy’ and moreover – ‘being a lesbian of color might mean one is triply oppressed – potentially discriminated against on three separate levels of social difference.’ 5
Not engaging with those potentially discriminatory practices, the narrative risks becoming a part of their circulation in the dominant milieu. Furthermore, ‘when it goes unmentioned, whiteness’, as well as heteronormativity, ‘is positioned as default category, the center or the assumed norm on which everything else is based.’ 6 This is evident in the strikingly submissive, homonormative way in which the couple chooses to enact their love – Kelly proposes to Yorkie and later they have an improvised wedding. Their monogamous relationship and the marriage are traits considered to be a fundamental ingredient of heteronormative relationships. Going back to an analysis of the media, it could be said that the episode is negotiating between the desire to represent minoritarian stories and the need to satisfy the presumably predominant taste of the audience for a loving, fulfilling relationship with a romantic happy-ending – the recipe for a sustained homonormative narrative, oblivious to other affecting factors.
Underneath the seemingly unrealistic story-line, there are some important arguments that could be extracted, nevertheless. By staging a fictional environment, San Junipero might serve some other beneficial purposes such as accommodating for a discussion, unbound from indoctrinating beliefs and authoritative ideologies. The abstract utopia, after a deeper analysis, reveals great potential in its relatedness to the critical imagining of a different future. The metaphorical world of the afterlife is a place where important aspects of one’s identity, such as race, age, ethnicity and class, do not hold the same rigid positions in the subject’s social life. Therefore, I understand this life-after-death as an allegory for a new queer future created after the death of heteronormative doctrines and the white supremacist thinking that goes along with it, in other words – end of the repressive powers that dominate today’s society.
In this brief analysis I strived to observe the interplay between sexuality and other identity traits with regards to the utopian qualities of two definite narratives from OITNB and Black Mirror. The chosen examples demonstrate crucial aspects of intersectionality as a critical approach in reading creative works made for a television context. The main objective was to bring the two narratives together in order to juxtapose them and examine some of the underlying mechanisms used to depict sexuality and intersectionality in Western television nowadays. As Joseph Bristow remarks:
Class, generation, race and sex – just to give some of the main categories for mapping understandings of sexuality – are factors that can complicate our knowledge of how power is distributed in the West. Therefore, it becomes possible to grasp exceptionally complex reconﬁgurations of dominance and subordination when we explore the interfaces between these multiple coordinates of power. 7
This statement encompasses my view regarding the urgency for an informed study of intersectionality in relation to the understanding of the so-far discussed sexual identities. The differences between the two cases illustrate the possibility for a broader exploration of what television can do in this respect. The episodes clearly evidence the different modes in which they engage with those points through constructing their subject-matter according to (or inconsistent with) the impact of intersectionality on the representation of sexuality. Therefore, supported by the idea of abstract and concrete utopias, the implications of those utopian relations within both series provide a wider potential for cultural and socio-political discourse.
Arthurs, Jane, Television and Sexuality: Regulation and the Politics of Taste (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2004)
Benshoff, Harry M; Griffin, Sean, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003)
Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker (Zeppotron & House of Tomorrow, Endemol UK, Netflix, 2011 – 18)
Bristow, Joseph, Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 2011)
Caputi, Jane, ‘The Color Orange? Social Justice Issues in the First Season of Orange Is the New Black’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 48.6 (2015), pp. 1130-50
Marshall Cavendish Reference Books, Sex and Society (Cavendish Square Publishing, 2010)
Muñoz, José Esteban, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU, 2009)
Muñoz, José Esteban, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1999)
Orange is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan (Tilted Productions & Lionsgate Television, Netflix, 2013-18)
‘San Junipero’, dir. Owen Harris, written by Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker (Zeppotron & House of Tomorrow, Endemol UK, Netflix, 2016)
- José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU, 2009), p.22. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Jane Arthurs, Television and Sexuality: Regulation and the Politics of Taste (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2004), p.1. ↩
- Jane Caputi, ‘The Color Orange? Social Justice Issues in the First Season of Orange Is the New Black’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 48.6 (2015), 1130-50, p. 1132. ↩
- Harry M Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p.10. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Joseph Bristow, Sexuality (New York: Routledge, 2011), p.155. ↩
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