Doing Time: Queer Temporalities and Orange Is the New Black
by Maria San Filippo — Goucher College
March 10, 2014 – 00:00
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.