Television has a nudity problem, and Orange Is the New Black is its latest victim.
As viewers reach the end of the Netflix show's second season, critics are celebrating its victories for feminism. Prachi Gupta notes in Salon the show's "predominantly female cast, the prominence of minority, trans and LGBT women, and full characters that make the Bechdel Test seem obsolete."
But these victories come at a cost, as the television industry levies what we might call a regressive cultural tax that keeps shows like OITNB from realizing their full potential as feminist texts: A seeming requirement that every series without broadcast network censorship features gratuitous female nudity, regardless of how incompatible it is with the show's themes.
The only featured characters asked to disrobe on Orange Is the New Black are those who adhere to our society's rigid and unrealistic definition of female beauty. Regardless of its good intentions, the show sends a tired message to its viewers that only a thin, taut, young female body is worth viewing.
Orange Is the New Black toes a very fine line. It indulges in the lesbian/prison fantasy by depicting beautiful women in various states of undress, while also displaying a winking self-awareness about this titillation, which allows viewers to feel in on the joke about the degrading nature of the sexual material while also still indulging in it.
This dynamic was evident from the very opening scenes of the series, in which we see Piper, our blonde, bourgeois protagonist, in the shower with her lover/ex-lover, Alex. Both of them are topless and kissing. Just before the action gets too steamy, however, we cut to the present day at Litchfield prison, where Piper is struggling with her first prison shower. It is a neat way to show the differences between civilian and prison life, but it also gives the audience thin, young, conventionally beautiful, naked women to drool over — with an implicit promise of more of this type of nudity in future episodes.
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Worse still, this scene depicts the nude Piper as a helpless victim of the predatory sexual gaze. Her shower is interrupted when another inmate pulls Piper's towel away to gape at her breasts. She even comments on Piper's form, telling her, "You got them TV titties. They stand up on their own all perky and everything." You have to admire the writers here: They found a way to tell viewers that the show is smarter than the marketplace that requires this female nudity, even if they are still beholden to it.
But the real problem — and the one that keeps OITNB from being the most feminist show on television — lies in those "TV titties" and the fact that, over its two full seasons, every featured character who bares her breasts looks like she could have come out of an issue of Playboy.
The breasts and naked bodies featured on OITNB are always perky, never saggy. They are not always big, but they are always flawless, unblemished by scars, moles or odd proportions. Besides Piper and Alex, there is Morello, the Brooklyn-accented stalker who has a same-sex fling with the lecherous lesbian Nicky in season one.
This season, Nicky also beds Brooke Soso, a new inmate who bares her breasts for the camera within a couple of episodes. We also are treated to a flashback in which Poussey has a teenage sexual relationship with a well-endowed German girl. When they break up, Poussey tells her that she'll "miss [her] killer tits," another instance in which the writers remind the audience that they are in on the joke.
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There are more examples, but I'll stop here, lest this devolve into a Mr. Skin recap.
It is worth noting which characters do not take off their clothes. The butch lesbians, Boo and Nicky, remain clothed for the entire series, despite being the most sexually active characters in the cell block. So do the older female inmates and fuller figured characters, like Taystee and Cindy. In an interview with Vulture, Lorraine Toussaint, who plays the middle-aged Vee, joked that Netflix executives were not disappointed when she and other older cast members asked for no-nudity clauses in their contract.
"Nobody wants to see two old broads," she said.
It's worth pointing out that this criticism only applies to the show's featured characters. To OITNB's credit, the extras who appear in the showers and in strip-search scenes come in every shape and size. They look like real women. Another outlier is the character of Vee and her nude scene toward the end of season 2 — who chose to do one even though her contract stated otherwise; she is a middle-aged woman whose body does not conform to the unreasonable Hollywood standard.
So who do we fault here?
It's not so easy — or productive, or accurate — to lay all the blame at the feet of show runner Jenji Kohan and the other producers of OITNB. While the show's nudity certainly undercuts their revisions of the shallow depiction of women in the media, they are still beholden to the realities of the marketplace. This is truly a systemic problem.
Cable television (including Netflix) is driven by the male gaze. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television, women made up just 28% of creative behind-the-scenes staff in the 2012-13 television season. It could very well be that the occasional centerfold-type nudity is one of the things that got the show on the air, and if that's the price to pay for all of the show's other feminist victories, so be it.
But the "great tits" problem extends to many other shows that are not so protected by overt progressive themes, and, in some cases, the message is getting muddled. Earlier this year, True Detective was criticized for endorsing the misogyny of its main characters, particularly Marty (played by Woody Harrelson), a husband, father and serial philanderer who had a knack for finding willing, young women who looked more like models than the type of women you might find in rural Louisiana.
Much of this criticism fell to the film's casting of Alexandra Daddario as Marty's first mistress and the way the camera assumed the male gaze by lingering on her breasts. As Emily Nussbaum put it in her terrific New Yorker piece, "When a mystery show is about disposable female bodies, and the women in it are eye-candy, it's a drag."
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True Detective creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto addressed that particular scene — and television nudity, in general — with BuzzFeed, citing pressure from HBO executives as its cause: "There is a clear mandate in pay-cable for a certain level of nudity." This would explain shows like True Blood, Californication and Game of Thrones (which actually hired porn stars as extras) that feature bevies of nude model-types for no particular reason other than to titillate.
But several shows have found ways to subvert the rule. They may not be as popular as True Detective and OITNB, but they show that it can be done. In that same New Yorker article, Nussbaum pointed to Top of the Lake, in which showrunner Jane Campion "films the saggy bodies of middle-aged women, members of a feminist encampment."
Then she stitches this subplot, in which she satirizes the cult of self-help victimhood onto a small-town mystery about sex crimes against teenage girls, who are filmed with comparative discretion." While Top of the Lake came and went without much fanfare, everyone knows about Lena Dunham's proclivity for baring her own body on HBO's Girls. With her repeated nude scenes, Dunham has probably done more to normalize the average female body than anyone in recent memory.
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Dunham and Campion should be celebrated for their dedication to changing the way our society perceives women, and so should Orange is the New Black. Despite its flaws, the show has done as much to advance the causes of feminism, LGBT equality and prison reform than any recent work of pop culture.
But the systemic male gaze is not so easily overcome. OITNB effectively subverts it through the show's content, but the next important step is to change the form, and that means rejecting nudity for titilation's sake. If we are ever to overcome the "boob mandate," we must hold all of our entertainment to a higher standard and expect those shows that promote gender equality to be consistent in their application of those values. For OITNB, true gender equality is only one step away.