*This piece contains spoilers for the third season of Orange is the New Black.
In the lead up to last Friday’s debut of Orange is the New Black’s third season, promos littered the internet about how the show would deal heavily with faith and motherhood this time around.
The motherhood motif bookends the season, with the inaugural episode opening with a Mother’s Day fete at Litchfield while the requisite flashbacks deal primarily with each prisoner’s relationship to motherhood, whether as a parent or a daughter.
But one of the less obvious but just as imperative themes of season three is power and the perception of it.
Power manifests itself in many guises this season but takes root in several main storylines.
Piper, using the money in her commissary account (a privilege her upper middle class pre-prison lifestyle affords her in itself), buys out all the noodle flavouring packets the prisoners have taken to seasoning Litchfield’s new, inedible menu with as an incentive to the other inmates to give her their used underwear to sell in her prison panty business.
Of course, she supplies the underwear that she steals from the new prison “sweatshop” which has Piper, new inmate Stella (played by Ruby Rose), et al. earning $1 an hour sewing “$90 bras” for lingerie company Whispers. And when Stella betrays her by stealing her profits two days before her release, Piper exercises her dominance over her new lover by planting contraband in Stella’s cell and it’s off to max(imum security) she goes.
Piper had originally pointed the finger at Flaca who’d been agitating for “fair pay for skanky panties” in a parallel storyline to the power plays prison manager Joe Caputo has to make as Litchfield becomes privatised. The guards turn to him as they attempt to unionise in the face of pay cuts and lost benefits, however rumblings of Caputo’s internal struggle to be a good guy versus being paid his dues that we saw last season (when Officer Bennett confessed his relationship and subsequent pregnancy with Dayanara Diaz and Caputo told him to sweep it under the rug) reveal themselves and he throws the guards under the bus.
Religion presents as a powerful currency inside as mute Norma is held up as a deity to the meth head laundry crew, Soso and even Poussey. Being the one lorded over in an abusive, polygamous relationship in her backstory, we see Norma relish her newfound religious power.
Meanwhile, Cindy leads her friends in their quest for Kosher meals. While the others are claiming Kosher ’cause it tastes good, Cindy actually has a religious revelation of sorts, and becomes a Jew by season’s end.
Perhaps one of the more harrowing exhibits of power and just how little female prisoners have is in Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett’s trajectory. Her backstory paints a depressing picture of trading sex for soft drink and after her sensitive and sexually giving high school boyfriend leaves town, she’s raped by a former paramour who didn’t like that she cut off his supply of sex.
Food acts as a snare in Doggett’s relationship with a new guard who also works at a donut shop. During their errand runs off prison grounds, they stop to feed their uneaten donuts to ducks in an uncomfortable violation of prisoner-guard relations. While nothing funny happens for a few more episodes, and it’s unclear whether the guard had designs on assaulting Doggett from the beginning, it reinforces that even if a prisoner is willing, the imbalance of power between guards and inmates is too great for there to be a clear choice. (This is echoed in Daya’s pregnancy.)
Other, arguably less obvious manifestations of power can be seen in the ignorance and violence that further marginalises the already marginalised as rumours about Sophia’s transition circulate; Taystee’s newfound role as the “mumma” of her friendship group; Red’s return to the kitchen; Angie’s escape and, later, the entire prison population’s Litchfield Redemption.
Despite the fun, sisterly environment Orange is the New Black can sometimes portray Litchfield to be, women in prison—and, by extension, women in the outside world—have a lot less power than this article might suggest. In back to back episodes that look at perception, Flaca says of her counterfeit LSD business that “people will believe what you tell them” while Chang is told by a business associate that it’s not whether the exotic animal parts they’re smuggling “work, but whether you think they work.” Even Norma seems incredulous to her apparent religious powers, with her fellow inmates perceiving her hugs when she sees them as their “morning blessing”. Cindy might not have chosen Judaism had she continued her frivolous pre-prison lifestyle, but freedom of religion is a small exertion of power she can express in incarceration.
These seemingly small grabs at power, or the perception of it, is crucial in an environment where lives may depend on it. And in Litchfield, it’s all the women have.