The women’s prison genre has, over its many decades, spawned a substantial body of recurring tropes. These include sadistic and/or corrupt officials, tensions between rival alliances of prisoners, the idealistic warden, the stint in solitary, the black market of the inmate economy, struggles—sometimes life and death—over food and cigarettes. The shower scene is a development of the 1970s, but the catfight is a hardy perennial, as is the tracking shot past a series of cells, each displaying a brief vignette of prison life.
And of course there’s the specter of lesbianism, implied or explicit. Even the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Ladies They Talk About (1933) offers a brief glimpse of a mannish, cigar-smoking inmate; “watch out for her,” one prisoner warns a new arrival, “she likes to wrestle.” In Caged (1950) the high-society criminal, after casting an appraising gaze over the protagonist, pronounces “she’s a cute trick.” Where lesbian panic informs the 50s women’s prison film, later treatments, like Jonathan Demme’s grindhouse classic Caged Heat (1974) or the BBC series Bad Girls (1999-2006) often depict same-sex coupling as a haven from the heartlessness of the prison environment, an element of genre revisionism carried forward by OITNB.
Perhaps no trope is more integral to the genre, though, than the sequence of the protagonist’s initial entry into incarceration, almost inevitably depicted through a series of eyeline match shots in which she scans the faces of the community she will be joining as they scrutinize her in turn. This device engages us sympathetically with the protagonist’s fear and disorientation, and confirms her difference from the hardened types already inside—like Piper in OITNB, the women’s prison protagonist is typically a (relative) innocent, often above her fellow inmates in class background or education. The implicit question is whether she will preserve her difference, or sink to the level of the common criminals who surround her. This drama drives narratives as different as the earnest social problem film Caged and the sensationalistic TV movie Born Innocent (1974). While Orange initially encourages its presumably middle-class viewer to share Piper’s sense of intimidation and isolation, with Healy as the sympathetic authority figure who reaches out to her, season one ultimately follows Caged Heat in aligning the protagonist with her fellow inmates in their struggle against the inhumane institution they inhabit.