Biopower is the New Black: Gender Refractions and Reflections Between Panopticon and Television

Antonia Anna Ferrante


What can be visible of a queer body behind the bars? I will try to answer this question through the critical analysis of Orange is the New Black, a TV series produced by Netflix and based on Piper Kerman’s autobiographical novel.
Imprisoned queer bodies are at the center of my analysis. Prison is the paradigm of the system of surveillance and confinement of bodies. Queer bodies are themselves a site of the exercise of power. In prison, gender non- conforming bodies are subjected to the consuetudinary discipline of sexuality and to arbitrary forms of discipline and punishment, such as the re-assignation to a non-desired gender, the duty of conforming to it, the administration of hormones, and a systematic exercise of violence.
I am allowed to see behind the bars through the lens of a fictional representation in a TV show. Despite the stereotypical representation of its characters, the show explores the tension between the inmates’ desire of the inmates to escape the cage of heteronormativity and biopower' s desire (and need) for discipline.
My critical reading will be framed in Angela Davis' s analysis on how gender structures prison (Davis, 2003). I will try to go further and understand how prison is a gendered institution, since gender and heteronormativity are themselves systems of surveillance and discipline (Stanley and Smith, 2011). Prison shapes bodies and disciplines gender, as well as gender informs and structures prison.
The screen offers yet another and more complex perspective, acting as a lens through which we can watch the Panopticon. Discipline impacts not only on gender politics, but also on the regime of visibility for queer subjects. I want to focus on how the show stages the interplay of refractions between what can be visible and tolerable in prison and what can be tolerable and visible in the society (Foucault, 1975).

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