Transition as Narrative in Orange is the New Black

 

N.B. The launch of Season 5 of Orange is the New Black on Netflix last week got me reminiscing, leading me to un-earth a piece of close textual analysis I wrote as part of my assessment during my MA in Broadcast Literacy in 2014/15. In contrast to my other posts, this is an example of academic writing, and you can find a list of works cited at the end of this post.

This will be a close textual analysis of a flashback scene from Netflix’s original comedy-drama series Orange is the New Black. This clip is taken from the opening of episode three of Season One entitled ‘Lesbian Request Denied’ and runs from 02.17 to 03.45. Just as “sitcom narratives work by setting up oppositions and connections” (Jonathan Bignell 94) the narrative of this clip also works through the establishment of oppositions in contrast to one another. However while contrast is used to create comic effect in sitcoms (94), in this clip contrast is used to create surprise amongst its viewers and in showing the transition from one binary to another it also represents the journey of the clip’s protagonist Marcus Burset.

The clip begins at 02.17 with the camera focusing on the back of Marcus Burset as he enters a male locker room. The camera’s focus at 02.17 allows the viewer to read the letters ‘FDNY’ written across Burset’s back and having already seen the character in full uniform at the beginning of the episode (01.12) they are able to interpret these letters as an indication of his profession as a fireman and his location in the city of New York. The fact that Burset is a fireman is significant as firefighting is a male-dominated profession which is historically associated with hyper-masculinity in the US as a result of the fact that during the mid-to-late twentieth century fire stations boasted “a fraternity-house atmosphere” where “[d]rinking, sexual activity … and other traditional male social behaviors that would have been completely unacceptable in other work environments were often commonplace” (i-women.org). Such historical association means that firemen are often stereotyped as hyper-masculine figures and this particular clip in Orange is the New Black uses this stereotype to enhance the contrast between the oppositions of male and female that the narrative establishes.

The camera follows Burset as he walks (02.17), indicating to the viewer that they are following him as the protagonist of this particular scene; its glance to the left (02.23) mimics Burset’s own glance (02.21) towards his colleagues engaging in stereotypical male ‘locker room chat’, a form of banter which confirms the viewer’s expectations of hyper-masculine behaviour amongst firemen. However in spite of their attempts to include him, Burset refuses to engage and as a result seems detached from these men. At 02.35 he exits the male space of the locker room and enters a cubicle, where he establishes a physical barrier between himself and his colleagues by closing the door behind him. This further emphasizes his detachment from these firemen and as the viewer shall see, symbolises his rejection of the male world in general that the locker room represents.

As Burset begins to undress the sudden upbeat background music mirrors the viewer’s moment of surprise that the apparently hyper-masculine Burset is in fact wearing female underwear (02.38). From this moment onwards the binary oppositions of male and female are visually established in contrast to one another as the viewer witnesses Burset’s transition from the hyper-masculine fireman figure to the hyper-feminine Sophia Burset, the transgender hairdresser currently imprisoned in Litchfield. When Burset removes his male clothes to reveal his female underwear this could be construed the stripping of his, or rather her, male identity. Burset then emerges from the cubicle and splashes water in her face, looks at herself in the mirror and pulls at her features, attempting to make herself look more feminine. She then ducks her head out of the camera’s line of view in order to splash water in her face (03.05) at which point there is a transition shot which signifies the movement from Burset’s flashback to Burset’s present in Litchfield prison. This transition shot carries multiple connotations of transition; all at once it signifies the transition of male to female space, the transition of time and Burset’s own transition from Marcus to Sophia.

The use of the mirror in this clip is significant because it adds a Lacanian layer of depth to interpretation. In his theory of the mirror stage Jacques Lacan states that the child’s “jubilant assumption of his specular image” (1164) is crucial to the construction of the child’s Ideal-I. Likewise it is clear to the viewer that the way Sophia views herself in the mirror is crucial to the construction of her own ideal self. The viewer now sees Sophia applying makeup in the mirror (03.12), emphasizing that Sophia has had to construct her female identity for herself as she now uses make-up to ‘create’ her face. Finally she steps back from the mirror and in contrast to the viewer’s earlier glimpse of Sophia’s body (02.40), when in spite of her female underwear she was still physically male, the viewer now sees Sophia’s breasts and lack of penis. Sophia preens and admires her ‘created’ body in the mirror as the music crescendos in triumph; her female identity has been fully assumed.

By contrasting the appearance of pre-transition Marcus with post-transition Sophia the narrative of the clip works both to establish the binary oppositions of male and female and to create shock amongst its viewers by confounding their initial expectations of the seemingly hyper-masculine Marcus. By showing these two binaries in contrast to one another, the clip emphasizes the extreme nature of Sophia’s journey from male to female.

Works Cited

Bignell, Jonathan. “Television Texts and Television Narratives.” An Introduction to Television Studies. 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge, 2008. 87–113. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd edition. USA: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2010. 1163–1169. Print.

“Lesbian Request Denied.” Orange is the New Black. Netflix. Dir. Jodie Foster. 11 July 2011. Television.

“Women & Firefighting: Becoming a Firefighter.” International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services. iWomen: The Voice of Women. Web. 29 October 2014. <http://i-women.org/firefighters/women-firefighting/>

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(The Tragedy of) Kate Can’t Swim

Warning: Contains spoilers.

Kate Can’t Swim is, in many ways, an impressive debut for director Josh Hellman and co-director Evan Jonigkeit. Filmed in just twelve short days, the feature-length project is beautifully shot and well-edited, moving seamlessly from Brooklyn to upstate New York in a kind of mesmerizing swirl.

But timing is not always everything, for the script and story left something wanting, particularly in relation to one vital factor: the protagonist, which in this case is Kate, a struggling writer in her late 20’s living with her boyfriend, Pete, in Brooklyn.

The plot is set into motion when Kate’s college best friend, Em, returns from traveling throughout Europe and tells Kate that she (a lesbian) has found love with a man by the name of Nick, whom she wants Kate to meet. As the film moves forward, the two best friends and their boyfriends travel out of the city to upstate New York, where they all stay together in Nick’s oddly idyllic log cabin. The group weekend getaway takes a turn for the worse when Kate, who has been feeling and acting increasingly cold towards her boyfriend throughout the film, attempts to seduce Em when they are both alone together in the house.

This seduction is not (it seems) because Kate has genuine romantic or sexual feelings for her female friend, but instead seems to be an expression of the frustration and confusion she feels about her current life and the direction in which it’s moving. The attempt to seduce her much more free-spirited friend acts as a mechanism of escape for Kate. Or, if I were to put it more bluntly: the straight girl wants to experiment with her sexuality before it’s too late.

However, a lack of clarity in Kate’s motives and characterization throughout the film mean that when this seduction is discovered by Nick, and later revealed to Pete, as audience members it is difficult to feel sorry for Kate as she cries and screams she was just acting that way because she ‘doesn’t know what she wants from her life’. The intention of the film may be to present Kate as a sympathetic character whom the older millennial can readily relate to, but the lack of real justification for her actions (she is not really in love with Em, it is Kate’s fault that she never told her boyfriend she doesn’t want to move to Portland) leads the audience to dislike her instead.

As such, I would make the following argument: Kate is only effective as a character if we view her as tragic hero and Kate Can’t Swim is only effective as a film if we view it as a tragedy.

Let’s play with the idea that Kate is a tragic hero by taking a look at the classical definition as originally outlined by Aristotle, using the simplified definition from Dictionary.com:

A literary character who makes an error of judgment or has a fatal flaw that, combined with fate and external forces, brings on a tragedy.

When adhering to the stricter Artistotlian definition of tragic heroism, Kate would not be definable as a hero because she is not someone of high standing, virtue or greatness. She is not successful in her pursuits as a writer, nor does she demonstrate the virtue of character necessary for her definition as such. However, more contemporary notions of heroism have allowed less virtuous people to be called heroes too, so calling Kate a tragic hero is possible.

Moving forward on this basis, Kate’s identifiable fatal flaw is that she is ‘selfish’ (as her friend Em calls her). This selfishness manifests itself in self-destructive behavior which results in tragedy, i.e. Kate loses both her boyfriend and her best friend while wreaking havoc in the lives of those around her. The tragic arc of the tale culminates when Kate’s continued self-destructive behavior leads her to get drunk by herself and jump head-first into a rocky part of the lake that sits by the cabin, where she is found drowned face-down in the water by Em.

The effectiveness of Kate as a tragic hero, however, is undercut by her survival of her drowning. This is because Kate’s survival allows for the reversal of her fortune; her best friend forgives her, and at the end of the movie when we witness a car pulling up the driveway, it’s implied that old reliable Pete the boyfriend is back to win Kate over. With all relationships repaired and all four characters returned to the cabin where the main action of the film took place, the status quo is restored and the tragedy fails to complete itself. Kate has learned nothing, for she has suffered no consequences for her selfish behavior. The watching audience is denied the very thing that makes tragedy effective- the very thing that would have made the film effective: there is no catharsis.

Now, the argument exists that the movie itself was not intended to be a tragedy, therefore an ending where Kate dies would not have fit within the intention of its creators.

But if their intention was to cause the audience to empathize with Kate’s situation and sympathize with her self-invented crisis, the character is too poorly developed to inspire this kind of sympathy. Instead we see a girl who is dishonest with her boyfriend and who uses her best friend to the detriment of both relationships.

In that case, my counter to the counter argument is that the movie is effective only when Kate is considered a tragic hero, for selfish behavior should have consequences. Due to the fact Kate suffers no permanent consequences for her selfishness, this means that the film can be viewed as a failed tragedy.

Saying this, if the filmmakers’ intentions were to make a commentary on the state of the millennial generation, then perhaps viewing Kate Can’t Swim as a failed tragedy is a more effective commentary on the millennial generation than if the film was simply a commentary on the so-called difficulty of ‘growing up’ in the twenty-first century. Perhaps it is necessary for Kate Can’t Swim to exist as a failed tragedy, for the movie’s failure to fulfill its own tragic destiny is akin to Kate’s own failure to be fulfilled as an artist and as a person. This in turn reflects the unfulfilled state of the millennial generation, yearning for greatness, inhibited by selfish intention.

Let’s All Boycott Carrie Bradshaw

Five months ago, I moved to New York City and like anyone coming here for the first time I had a number of expectations about what the city would be like. With New York as the setting for thousands of books, TV shows and films, it was hard not to have a pre-conceived notion of my soon-to-be Sex and the City-esque life. But now that I am in New York, the living, breathing, reality of the city, the fantasy has been disrupted by reality. New York is not the glamorous world portrayed in Sex and the City. In fact, New York City is not anything like what it’s like in the movies. I’ll never trust a line written by Carrie Bradshaw again.

Setting a story in a real-world location like New York may seem like a good way for TV and filmmakers to add credibility to their stories and characters, and make them appear more authentic. However, if viewers suddenly recognize the flaws in their portrayal of these real-world locations, it becomes difficult for them to suspend their disbelief when watching a TV show or film. This gives rise to the question: does an unrealistic portrayal of a city or other real-world location undermine the meaning of the story?

I think the best answer to this question depends on the context, for the true impact of set on story depends upon the story itself and how the characters operate within it. For example, in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy series about a happy-go-lucky kidnap escapee, we see a highly unrealistic depiction of New York City which would cause any audience to doubt the authenticity of Kimmy’s tale. However, the bright color palette of the set can be justified by Kimmy’s warped perception of reality and as we viewers are constantly reminded that it is Kimmy’s perception of reality we are receiving, not the truth, the set becomes an extension of Kimmy’s characterization rather than a representation of the real New York City. Thus, the unreality of the set works to the story’s advantage for we are given a reason to accept its unreality.

By contrast, shows like Master of None (A.K.A. Aziz Ansari walks around the Lower East Side and makes us think about life) try a little too hard to be true to New York in their depiction of the city, leaving its failures to accurately portray the city open to criticism. As a result audiences are led to accuse the show creators that an actor like Dev could not afford an apartment that size, let alone be able to live in Manhattan. This is a problem for the show because it undermines Dev as a character and makes his story less believable as a result. This is especially problematic as one of the key aims of Master of None is to engage its audience on a deeper level and ask them to think about the broader aspects of the life. If the audience doesn’t take the set seriously, this sends a message that the show creators don’t really know what New York life is like, and this undermines the more serious message of the show. Therefore these two examples indicate that setting does matter — how a storyteller uses it can make or break a tale.

One thing that can be said in favor of both Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Master of None is that both shows acknowledge the importance of setting, even if they do not always strike the right balance between fact and fiction. However, the majority of TV shows and films do not attempt to address the relationship between the real world and the fictional, and when these stories are set in real locations like New York and L.A. this is often to their detriment.

In an increasingly media-savvy world with an increasingly well-traveled audience, the role of set and city should not be overlooked as an important factor in the creation of a story. This is especially true when a story is set in a place like New York where a phenomenal amount of people live, work and travel to every day. Given that New York is everywhere, and so many versions of New York exist in the media, now that I have lived here my relationship with the media is forever changed, for I will spend the rest of my life noticing the flaws in the fantasy. For me at least, as an active media consumer and critic, this brings a level of enjoyment to my living in the city that I never expected. Watching how TV and filmmakers traverse the lines between fantasy and reality is something that adds depth to my experience as a viewer and makes me rethink the way in which I watch and consume media.

Looking forward, media-based storytellers will need to find more sophisticated ways to justify their use of setting and the mistakes (or lack of) they make in their portrayal of real-world locations as their audience also grows more sophisticated. Whether or not they succeed in this will be up to us, the viewers, to judge.