Doing Time: Queer Temporalities and Orange Is the New Black

Curator's Note

In releasing the complete first season of Orange Is the New Black for streaming July 11, 2013, Netflix delivered a binge-watched hit that reinforced the media provider’s growing success with digitally-distributed original content. Catering to contemporary viewer consumption trends by making series available all at once places Netflix at the vanguard of industry developments in on-demand distribution. Granted unsurpassed time-shifting capability, OITNB fans figuratively “queered” reception practices in temporally-contingent ways, with episodic recaps and reflection ever more displaced by season-long synthesizing and speculation. The effect, creator Jenji Kohan suggests, is more akin to a book-club than a water-cooler. Yet OITNB fan labor’s importance for promotion of the series – and, by extension, its corporate overseers – further fuels the millennial model of pro bono audience-supported media production/publicity. As with Kickstarter-funded filmmaking and older forms of web-based fan labor, Netflix exploits OITNB’s fervent fan base for what amounts to start-up capital: fans create value for the corporation while receiving no financial compensation. The season-long release structure, though advertised as “giving the people what they want,” takes its cue less from a participatory media model and more from the blockbuster mentality in its reliance on demographic-targeting, saturation-booking, word-of-mouth marketing, and sink-or-swim expectations to perform (anyone remember Lilyhammer, Netflix’s first original series?). But even if Netflix series haven’t “got time” to prove themselves before relegation to the back catalog, their narratives are anything but high-concept; whether binged-on or nibbled, their slow-build stories pay off.

More literally queer than fans’ “queer” negotiations of time-based engagement with OITNB are its narrative transgressions of what Elizabeth Freeman terms “chrononormativity,” the means by which social-subjects are regulated through time for maximum productivity and conformity. OITNB’s federal penitentiary setting exemplifies J. Halberstam’s “queer time and place”: in its single-sex population; in its disruption of capitalist efficiency through its non-incentive wage system and underground economy; in its ostensibly archaic “tribal” kinship system organized by race; in the past’s anti-nostalgic intrusion (“temporal drag”) on the present, visualized through recurring flashbacks and characterizations composed non-chronologically; in characters’ resistance to time’s binds – and those of the prison industrial complex – through their transformative experiences while incarcerated; and in OITNB’s imaginings of queer futures by exploring temporality’s relation to self-identity around sexual fluidity (“gay for the stay”), (non)monogamy, gender transition, and reproduction and parenting. “Time,” as the season one trailer voices no less than six times, is on their minds.


To further extend these thoughts about “time” in OITNB, one might observe that time-shifting is often associated with a rhetoric of “freedom,” in which the DVR is seen as offering viewers liberation from the tyranny of network scheduling, thus expanding consumer choice and control. But the phenomenon of binge-watching, encouraged by the all-at-once release of entire seasons, suggests that viewers may use time-shifting in an entirely different way, as a strategy not to enhance choice but to reduce it. While the classic model of serial television allows the broadcaster to dictate the schedule, it also creates a shallow viewing experience, in which the viewer is offered widely-spaced glimpses into the diegetic world of the program. The binge-watching viewer seeks instead an immersive experience, one in which, paradoxically, he or she is not in control, as the language of addiction so frequently mobilized around obsessive viewing indicates. If the ordinary serial viewer is a kind of tourist in the world of the program, the binge-watcher seeks a deeper kind of integration, a metaphorical incorporation into the diegesis. The prison setting of OITNB might be seen, then, as a metaphor for the binge-watching phenomenon. Just as Piper is immersed in the total environment of the prison, viewers are immersed within the world of the show. We can escape that immersion in a way prisoners cannot, of course, but the intensification of our experience of engagement with the characters and their world created by intensive viewing seems intriguingly parallel to the intensification of experience created by the confinement of the prison space.

To keep with the prison metaphor, last night's popularity of HBO's finale of "True Detective" crashing the HBO Go server might be a kind of prison riot. If fans are working for free to create capital for the "network," then breaking the system, literally, seems to be a new way to represent ratings. Viewers are now disgruntle customers tweeting about how they can't stream the show, because everyone is streaming the show. Bad publicity is still publicity. (For a live event like the Academy Awards, ABC's Oscar app overload might have just been bad publicity!)

There is something, too, in this discussion of the compulsive, binge-watch, all you can eat/view gazing, that reminds me of the physical embodiment of all the watching; Summer, Pride Season, beautiful out, and hordes of queer women (and many other identity types, as well) were suddenly asking the same question: Have you seen Orange Is The New Black? Embedded in this question, and in the news of the series, which both spread like wildfire, was also the information that Summer's gaze--and the gays--were both definitively staying indoors; at least until the season finale had been watched. Interestingly, this watching did not become a communal activity; OITNB seemed to be consumed, en masse, individually--as long as one could keep eyes open, there was another episode for the fix. I include myself in this, and admit: It's the only time I've ever watched an episode of a show on my iPhone. However, LGBT-centered media, which has so often brought enthusiasts of the queer gaze together for viewing parties in community settings (and here I'm thinking of "If These Walls Could Talk," "Queer As Folk," or "The L Word"--viewed together in LGBT centers, bars, or private homes), seems to have firmly ushered in a temporal/technological update with OITNB. Word traveled via status update, feed, text, or, the now much less frequent phone call; but the series itself seemed to be consumed at home, in solitude, and, after hours and hours of watching in domestic solitary lock down, viewers stepped away from their televisions and computers perhaps just as disoriented--and ultimately triumphant--as Piper, herself. A new product, gaze, and series was born with Orange Is The New Black--television at its addictive best--and, just a quickly, a way to own the experience immediately and entirely--at least until Season Two.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.