Netflix does Zimbardo?

Madeleine Pownall takes a look at psychological themes in the new series of 'Orange is the New Black'.

Season six of Orange is the New Black was released on Netflix last Friday. The critically-acclaimed series follows Piper Chapman, a 30-something PR exec turned prisoner, as she navigates her way through a 15-month sentence in Litchfield Women’s Prison. The series brands itself as a comedy, but the latest instalment has a much grittier, serious tone – with a hefty psychological message. The interweaving storylines in OITNB follow a delicate balancing act, mixing slapstick humour with a dark socio-political commentary. Interestingly, whilst there have been explicit nods to psychology throughout the series (usually in the form of inmate counselling or ‘psych’ evaluations), the latest season is saturated with social psychology.

The last season ended with a full-blown prison riot. Following the murder of an inmate, the female prisoners vented their frustrations by storming the grounds. They ‘took back control’ of the prison, protesting for justice and improved living conditions. They redistributed power within the institution, by donning the guard’s uniforms and taking the warden hostage. Needless to say, it got very messy very quickly. It also got intensely psychological. After the guards had been stripped of their power (quite literally), the riot showed how seemingly arbitrary the assigning of social roles can be (a la Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment). It also showed how power and control are embedded into social roles [editor's note: see also the BBC Prison Study]. When uniforms no longer reflect the hierarchy, the boundaries between guard and prisoner become so blurred it is difficult to tell them apart.

This theme also permeates through the latest season. After transferring to a maximum security prison, Taystee, one of series’ protagonists, finds herself guarded in her cell by an old friend. They worked together in a fast-food joint as teenagers and now struggle to come to terms with the power discrepancy that is enforced between them in the prison. The ever-effective ‘that-could’ve-been-me’ narrative threads through each episode and echoes the longstanding research into social role conformity in psychology. 

This season focuses predominately on the aftermath of the riot, and we watch as government officials desperately attempt to identify the leaders. As they interview each inmate, it becomes clear that there is a socio-demographic template of ‘riot leader’ that is informing the officer’s judgements. Importantly, the writers don’t shy away from this issue, and instead place it centre-stage, referencing Black Lives Matter and institutional racism frequently. This investigation (with plenty of bent copper storylines throughout) begins to reveal some interesting power dynamics within the cast. Often characters must choose between pressures of inmate loyalty versus leader obedience. It’s an interesting conundrum with challenging outcomes.  

Orange is the New Black could well be used in psychology teaching, as it is a genuinely effective portrayal of gang warfare and group behaviour. It also touches upon themes of power, vulnerability, and obedience, all under a guise of humour and sisterhood.

- Madeleine Pownall is a recent graduate of the University of Lincoln.

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