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.
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/>