Class at the Intersectional “Crash” Site: Scenes from Orange is the New Black

Since it never expresses itself in quite the same way in any two individuals’ lives, class needs to be thought about from an intersectional perspective, as its own vector of situated experience. Lawyer and critical race studies scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s classic metaphor frames intersectionality as the site of a traffic accident, where “[discrimination] may flow in one direction, or it may flow in another. If an accident happens… it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them” (63). In its own vehicular flow, and in conjunction with other “cars” carrying their own oppressive cargo (racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc.), how does class contribute to the harm of those vulnerable at the “crash” site?

We must also consider the potential for solidarity-in-difference among those who are not hit by the same vehicles. As a scholar (and fan) of popular culture, I went looking for texts featuring representations of difficult, messy encounters between differently situated intersectional subjects who nevertheless must turn to one another to weather the effects of systemic harm. The Netflix series Orange is the New Black (2013-present) offers some especially fruitful material through which to think about how class can operate within such uneasy yet necessary confrontations.

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) establishes the commonality of its large ensemble of diverse characters through a physical site of confinement: Litchfield Penitentiary, a fictional upstate New York women’s prison. Here, prisoners from various backgrounds—WASP princesses and working-poor Latinas, Korean immigrants and radical leftist nuns—find themselves answering to the same shrill cry of “Inmate!” when the prison’s under-trained guards hand out disciplinary “shots” for minor infractions. In terms of the legally disempowered status of the women found there, Litchfield provides a concrete example of Crenshaw’s “crash” of intersecting forms of oppression.

In OITNB, the struggle to find solidarity-in-difference is represented as a necessary result of prisoners’ constricted relationship to choice. The punitive point of incarceration, after all, is to take away one’s agency. For instance, even as prisoner Gloria gains respect and a sense of purpose when she serves as Litchfield’s head chef, the institution is quick to remind her that empowerment is an illusion. When a guard orders her back to the kitchen in the middle of a visit with her son, she breaks down in tears. Under such conditions, crossing the threshold of their differences to “team up” allows the women of OITNB a way to increase their range of choices and better resist mass incarceration’s dehumanizing imperatives.

One storyline from Season 3 provides an especially complex representation of not only the interpersonal and counter-systemic struggles typical of attempts to “team up,” but also of why a strong intersectional analysis must not fail to “see” class at the crash site. Discovering that she and transgender prisoner Sophia both have teenage sons, Gloria asks Sophia if her wife could give a ride to her son, Benny, on visiting day. Though this arrangement is initially amicable, class and gender quickly emerge as dual points of conflict among these women. Sophia, married and from a middle-class family with a house in Yonkers, is more class-privileged than Gloria, a single mom whose kids live with relatives in the Bronx. Gloria, on the other hand, enjoys the cisgender privilege that Sophia lacks.

That Sophia and Gloria are both women of color from groups pathologized as “criminally” poor— Sophia is black and Gloria, Latina—allows class a place of sharp focus in the narrative, particularly as their growing animosity is heightened by anxiety and guilt over the implications of their teen sons’ Invested in an image of her family’s middle-class respectability that has been compromised by her own crime (credit card fraud), Sophia worries about her son, Michael, becoming a “thug,” a code word for “black criminal” that she uses during her arguments with Gloria. Gloria, on the other hand, is less concerned with respectability and more with whether Benny meets a tangible goal representative of a life that won’t be defined by poverty and incarceration: graduation from high school.

The conflict between Gloria and Sophia is catalyzed when Michael, ostensibly under the influence of Benny, begins using the “F-word” during visiting hours. Sophia angrily confronts Gloria, ordering her to tell Benny “not to curse [around] my Michael.” Gloria is furious at what Sophia is suggesting—“You think my son is your son’s problem?”, she fumes—but feels helpless since Sophia has threatened to cut off Benny’s ride unless her son cleans up his language act.

Sophia’s classism, heightened by her anxiety about the racialized “cultural” implications of her family’s possible downward mobility, begins to show. During a phone conversation, Sophia’s wife, Crystal, mentions that she caught Michael making out with a girl in his room, to which Sophia responds, “Maybe it’s not a good idea [Michael] spends so much time with Benny… he’s from a rougher neighborhood, a different culture.” But in a moment of remarkable intersectional nuance, Crystal shoots down Sophia’s suggestion; “No, this isn’t about Benny– this is about Michael not rushing into sex and respecting women.” She further presses Sophia, “Did you tell Michael that he should find an insecure girl for practice?”, referencing an earlier scene when Sophia did in fact encourage such behavior. Here we are reminded that Sophia, despite being a transgender woman, is hardly immune to internalized sexism.

Although Sophia apologizes to Gloria following this phone call, their conflict escalates again when Michael, sans Benny, is arrested for assault. In her haste to scapegoat Benny for her son’s newfound “thug” behavior, Sophia revokes Benny’s ride. Gloria’s ensuing resentment over losing access to her son functions as a catalyst for her transphobia. During a bathroom encounter, Gloria accuses Sophia of “taking Benny away” from her, seething, “I’m a ferocious, pissed-off real mother. But you wouldn’t know nothing about that, would you? Because you ain’t nothing real.”

Antagonized, Sophia pushes Gloria into a wall. It’s only a matter of time before a multiracial cabal of transphobic prisoners, using Sophia’s “attack” on Gloria as an excuse to inflict violence, beats Sophia severely. Compounding her injuries, the out-of-touch prison administration sends Sophia to the dreaded “SHU” (Segregated Housing Unit) ostensibly to keep her “safe,” representing one of the many ways that transgender prisoners remain unprotected amidst an overlay of interpersonal and institutional violence.

The show portrays Gloria and Sophia as more-or-less equally at fault in their mutual conflict. But as Sophia passes by Gloria while being escorted to the SHU, Gloria’s averted eyes emphasize her complicity in contributing to Litchfield’s deeper oppression of an especially vulnerable prisoner. Despite having stewed in a dangerous concoction of transphobia and perhaps justified anger, Gloria did not wish for Sophia to wind up in the SHU. No prisoner wants to contribute to mass incarceration’s ability to exercise its dehumanizing power.

OITNB makes a bold representational statement by allowing the conflict between Gloria and Sophia to be driven in part by Sophia’s classism and racialized class anxiety, insisting that we spend time considering the place of class at the intersection. A weaker move would have been to sanctify Sophia in her multi-faceted vulnerability. Instead, by making class visible at the crash site, the series leaves viewers with a complex sense of how an interpersonal “crash” of prejudices can foreclose the development of the solidarity necessary for the disempowered to protect themselves from systemic harm.

Sara Appel


Sara Appel is a Visiting Scholar in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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