When it premiered in 2013, Orange is the New Black immediately set Netflix apart from traditional TV programming. Its blatant critiques of the prison-industrial complex and its empathetic exploration of the lives of women in prison—including trans women, women of color, and queer women—made for unique, challenging viewing. In terms of representation, Orange is the New Black has been largely celebrated by critics and fans alike—with some very legitimate exceptions. Beyond the fictional walls of Litchfield, however, the show’s adjacent promotional content, particularly its Instagram, takes a dramatically different tone that’s less political and downright trivial. From mugshot fan selfies to gimmicky “Pornstache” t-shirts, the Instagram account promotes humor and joviality in the context of imprisonment.
Fan-produced art, a weekly hashtag paired with merchandise promotion, and contests pepper the @oitnb account. Given that the majority of viewers binge-watch each season, these fan-based posts keep people engaged. It’s not surprising that the show’s official Instagram account—and its 3.4 million followers—take a decidedly different approach to the struggles of prison life than the show itself. It’s much easier to sell t-shirts if there’s a joke to be made (e.g. “I would throw my pie for you”) than it is to engage with the more serious themes of the show, such as capitalism’s relationship to mass incarceration. It’s a blow, however, to fans who expected the show to inspire critical consciousness around prison issues. Unfortunately, Orange is the New Black seems more interested in cultivating a different kind of fan base.
Dedicated fan bases that create art around a show aren’t new. However, Orange is the New Black encourages fans to engage with the show’s content while intentionally minimizing the severity of prison life. During a lull between seasons, for instance, @oitnb regrammed a fan’s Lego creation that depicts Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) lying behind bars with a coffee mug and tick marks on a piece of paper—a reference to tracking the days in prison. The Lego creation is captioned “Waiting for Season 4 like…” with the hashtag “#FanFriday.” This post conflates the frustration of waiting for a new season with the frustration of wanting to be free from incarceration. Three weeks later, the show posted another Lego creation that showed a group of the show’s prisoners and guards with the caption “New blood” and “#FanFriday.”
Cultivating a dedicated fan base while maintaining a commitment to social change wouldn’t be an impossible task. Recent media scholarship confirms that fandom can enable active citizenship, as seen in cases such as The Wire, although most fan activism remains in the consumer sphere. Orange is the New Black is no different. The @oitnb Instagram account engages the show’s fan base by promoting prison-themed consumerism, both fan-produced and through official merchandise. Other shows, such as Breaking Bad, have also appropriated its darkest elements to sell products. These products go beyond traditional show merchandise and are equally as troubling as social media content that trivializes serious societal conditions viewers are encouraged to sympathize with, such as mass incarceration and affordable health care.
In the weeks leading up to the third season’s release, @oitnb encouraged fans to post “mugshot selfies” for a chance to win an invitation to OrangeCon, an exclusive Orange is the New Black fan event held in New York City. Some fans dressed up as OITNB characters in their mugshots, like the woman who mimicked Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, licking pie off her fingers in reference to the now-classic “I threw my pie for you” scene. The mugshot’s caption reads “Ready to get locked up at #OrangeCon?” Encouraging fans to be excited about the possibility of getting “locked up” is troubling rhetoric given that people’s lives are destroyed by prison, and it’s perplexing that a show that highlights the horrors of incarceration would take such a lighthearted approach to its fan culture. Is it possible for Orange is the New Black to both enlighten viewers about prison and urge them to spoof it?
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to fine-tune fan activism into action-oriented work. For example, @oitnb could educate fans on books-to-prisoner programs and encourage fans to send pictures of their donated books. Instead of posting a picture of Laverne Cox on the red carpet, @oitnb can share a picture of CeCe McDonald, a formerly incarcerated Black trans woman who Cox raised awareness about through a documentary. Rather than the #OnWednesdayWeWearOrange hashtag, the Instagram account could create a #OnWednesdaysWeWriteLetters prison pen-pal campaign. There are many ways that Netflix can encourage fan engagement and prison advocacy work. Given this experimental time for both social media and nontraditional TV distribution, Netflix has room to harness a more politically driven fan culture. It is a fan culture that already exists, but is marginalized in exchange for those who will purchase Litchfield Prison hoodies.