Giving Credit to Paratexts and Parafeminism in Top of the Lake and Orange Is the New Black

by Kathleen A. McHugh

from Film Quarterly Spring 2015, Volume 68, Number 3

Jane Campion and Jenji Kohan each premiered television series in 2013 that used genre to facilitate pointed interventions in postfeminist representational paradigms.1 Along with other contemporary female-centered television series, Campion’s Top of the Lake and Kohan’s Orange is the New Black have garnered extensive popular and promotional attention. That discourse, together with commentary regarding Campion and Kohan as feminist auteurs, provides a discursive environment for Top and Orange at odds with much postfeminist female-centered programming that has emerged since Ally McBeal (1997) defined the paradigm.2 Postfeminist representation, like neoliberal discourse in general, replaces rights with choice, the citizen with the consumer, and the civic public good with self-realization and individual agency gained through commodities and makeovers.3 It emphasizes women’s “personal choice, freedom and independence,” yet indicates and subsumes their professional accomplishments and/or aspirations within their role or expertise as consumers. At the same time, it highlights women’s anxiety about their bodies, their pursuit of male approval, and their search for or acquisition of a husband.4 In Top and Orange, crucial frameworks disallow such postfeminist compromises, these frameworks registered most forcefully in the transitions and transactions embodied in their credit sequences.

The title sequence that introduces each show offers direct access to the intervention these series are making. Title sequences connect and partake of both the programs they introduce and their commercial, cultural, and industrial context. Termed paratexts, they have both “transitional” and “transactional” functions.5 They usher the viewer from the real world or other media environments outside the show to its specific diegesis. They also indicate, through music, sound design and image, the program’s genre affiliation and aesthetic identity.6 These sequences typically have higher production values than the shows they introduce—their attraction must survive multiple repetitions—and they brand their respective shows, crediting its creators, producers, and key cast members, aesthetically referencing their expected demographics, and signaling key generic or thematic meanings in series with a narrative arc.7

Campion’s Top of the Lake on Sundance Channel makes use of a crime/investigation story to compare and contrast two generations of rape victims: Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss), a senior police investigator based in Sydney, and Tui Mitchum (Jacqueline Joe), a local twelve-year-old Thai New Zealander who, police discover, is pregnant. Griffin actually grew up in the small community of Laketop and left (as the series slowly reveals) after being gang-raped as a teenager. Home to visit her ailing mother, she is pulled into Tui’s statutory rape case in her professional role as a victim specialist. Tui writes “no one” in answer to Griffin’s question “Who did this to you?” and, after being released to her family, disappears.


Griffin, as both detective and former victim, pursues Tui as well as the perpetrators of the crime against her and the truth behind Tui’s words (whom is she protecting?). Top of the Lake‘s police procedural enters into a dialogue with its genre, including such groundbreaking, female-centered detective series of the past as Cagney and Lacey (1982–88) and contemporary transnational television series featuring female detectives whose traumatic past links them to the experiences of abuse and crimes against women that they investigate.8

Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black, streamed on Netflix, tells a women-in-prison narrative initially focused on a privileged white woman of thirty-four, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), incarcerated for carrying drug money for her lesbian lover eleven years earlier as a Smith College undergrad. Piper lives an affluent life in New York City, has a business with her best friend, and is engaged to be married when the feds show up; she receives a fifteen-month sentence.

mchugh_replace_2_68_03One of many faces glimpsed in the opening credits of Orange is the New Black.

Initially focused on Piper and her travails adjusting to prison life, the series introduces its audience to the other inmates she encounters, including Red (Kate Mulgrew), Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanto), Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley). As the series progresses, it depicts their backstories of familial and material deprivation, stress, and sometimes abuse that led to their incarceration; these backstories dramatically contrast with Piper’s privileged life. An exploitation staple, the women-in-prison genre has also produced brilliant feminist interventions, most notably Cheryl Dunye’s Stranger Inside (2001), a clear precursor if not direct influence on Orange Is the New Black.

If Top focuses on investigating crimes committed against women and Orange on the retribution meted out for crimes committed by them, the two series converge in their critiques of the state, particularly as represented by the law and the criminal justice system, and in their depiction of women’s ambiguous agency. As specific to each generic context, victims of sexual violence become investigators, while female inmates wrestle with power and community in relation to each other and the prison administration.

After years of mainstream articles announcing its demise, media feminism is currently in and on the air. Top and Orange joined the many other female-led “quality TV” series that have animated early twenty-first-century television.9 Touted for their rich writing and complex roles for women, these series have generated extensive feminist-inflected commentary on television’s golden age for women who they supposedly represent.10 Among the numerous programs getting attention, Top and Orange are two of the few created by women and, notably, by women identified by viewers, fans, and/or themselves as feminist.11 Within their respective oeuvres and genres, Campion and Kohan’s work consistently focuses on women and their series share deep structural concerns with power, inequality, and gender-based violence.12

Campion and Kohan share other similarities. Though they emerged in different historical moments and professional generations and have worked in different media, both are understood to be, though for different reasons, auteurs. In the mid-1980s, Campion began making films and a name for herself as an auteur in the world of international art cinema. Her third film, The Piano (1993), secured an enduring distinction for her already burgeoning reputation: the Palme d’Or, the only one ever awarded to date to a woman for feature film direction. When Campion took her idea for the series to the BBC, they jumped at it, seeing it as an example of their brand. The Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning observed: “Although set in New Zealand it is a BBC drama through and through with all the values of great British drama and an ambitious vision from a world class talent that we have been able to give full rein to.”13 Kohan started her career in the mid-1990s and consistently worked on female-centered programming, writing for the show Tracey Takes On before becoming the creator and show runner of Weeds in 2005 and Orange Is the New Black in 2013. Her deal for Orange, with Netflix ordering thirteen episodes without requiring a pilot, gave her such unprecedented creative control that critics began to identify her as an auteur.14 Campion’s reputation fits the pattern of quality television’s cultivating of cinematic and auteurist talent as markers of its superior aesthetics, while Kohan’s distinction derives both from her oeuvre and from the creative freedom offered by Orange‘s streaming format.15

Title sequences can be used to “decode” the programs they introduce.16 In decoding the title sequences for Top and Orange, I argue that they reference and incorporate distinct “parafeminist” frameworks through their creators’ reputations, generic appropriations, and critical reception, precisely because of their liminal composition and transactional function. The term of parafeminist is meant to refer to the range of social, cultural, aesthetic, and critical feminist discourses insinuated within and through these title sequences. Their referential field and rhetoric combine to prepare and enable the anticipated audience to discern the articulation of a worldview previously rare in television.

Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake‘s title sequence (see video 1) transitions its viewers from either the real world or other television programming into an imaginary space and image: an animated painting accompanied by eerie piano and strings.17 The viewer accesses the program, then, through painting and piano, through visual and audio art.18 The animation sequence’s pastoral yet otherworldly landscape—a lake surrounded by mountains—evokes mystery and nightmare through its ebb and flow. The lake water/paint spills over and down, as does the image, the camera tilting vertically down, deeper and deeper. Credits appear and disappear as three apparitions float onto the screen, turning around, coming into brief focus, and then disappearing. First, an antlered stag’s head comes into view, then a young white girl who morphs into a fetus and baby, and finally, a falling piece of paper becomes a snapshot of Tui, the girl at the center of the drama that will follow.

Throughout, credits appear and disappear, introducing the flagship celebrities who anchor the series. These begin with the show’s star, Elizabeth Moss, an American actress already famous for her role on Mad Men in the world of producer-driven quality television, followed by Holly Hunter, another American actress, who earned an Oscar for her work in Campion’s The Piano (1993). The credits culminate with three iterations of Jane Campion as executive producer, co-writer (with Gerard Lee), and director.19 These credits and the enigmatic visuals of stag, girl, fetus, and photograph blend aesthetic and commercial/professional references to gender and generational distinctions. The stag’s head evokes hunting and its trophies, a stark and gendered contrast to girl and fetus that signal both human reproduction’s vehicle and its distinct generational outcomes.

These visuals presage the series’ narrative concern with feminine youth and reproduction, while the credits document generations of actors (Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter) and professional media makers, beginning and ending with women. Moss’s Robin reprises elements of Hunter’s Ada (protagonist of The Piano in 1993), a woman struggling in a hostile New Zealand environment dictated by patriarchal law and privilege. In Top, Hunter’s character, GJ, also serves as a pointed visual avatar for Campion: she wears a gray wig identical in length and style to Campion’s own hair. GJ is a crone, a guru who pronounces inscrutable truths and sets up an alternative, postmenopausal women’s community in Laketop called Paradise. Through GJ, this somewhat wacky and definitely angry cohort, usually excluded from or at most glimpsed in the margins of media narratives, is identified with this narrative’s creator, Campion.

In this brief thirty-second title sequence, what is being represented (a lake, water) becomes the basis of representation (paint spilling over). The audience seems to begin somewhere (a topography, a paradisal landscape) and end somewhere else (in the depths, with a photograph). The proto-narrative markers—what lies beneath, for instance, or getting to the bottom of things—indicate a search, staging “a hermeneutic course of deepening investigation,” as Roland Barthes has termed it.20 The sequence moves from the outside, objective and monumental, to the inside, a deep, submerged, surreal terrain; the enigmatic floating images connote the unknown as subjective, as the unconscious, as nightmare, but with a notable twist in the form of the photo that floats into view at the end. The vertical movement aligns a psychological passage with an aesthetic trajectory that moves from painting to photo, locating a mechanically reproduced image as its endpoint, its transition to the program. The passage associates human (the fetus) and mechanical (the photo) reproduction, encompassing them both within a highly aestheticized representational mode that combines painting with cinematic animation.21

This title sequence goes beyond identifying characters (Tui) and genre (art and mystery) to invoke aesthetic, narrative, philosophical, and feminist motifs. Surface and depth, prominence and obscurity, the transformations of developmental life forms (girl to fetus) and representational media (painting to animation to photography) all shape this vertical plunge. At the bottom of it, there are the images of two girls, one white, one Thai, both New Zealanders: it is that relation between Robin Griffin and Tui Mitchum, albeit enigmatically expressed, that will be the central subject matter of the investigation pursued in Top of the Lake.

In tone and style, the paratext of this series signifies, in a highly self-reflexive way, mystery, menace, and generation from a female perspective in which masculinity is only implied (stag) yet already threatening. It references salient plot points—hunting, killing, and giving birth—through enigmatic talismans: trophies, memory or dream images, keepsakes or evidence, represented by the stag’s head, girl’s head, fetus, and photograph. The program that follows situates its investigation plot in relation to female cohorts at distinct phases of sexual development—teenage girls, postmenopausal women—and their disparate challenges—sexual vulnerability and irrelevance.

These life stages bracket that of protagonist Robin Griffin, a detective resisting marriage, avoiding commitment, and reliving her past through Tui’s present. Robin and Tui’s rapes, separated by a generation, uncannily reiterate one another but with important differences. Robin’s adolescent experience of being victimized by a gang of local toughs had destroyed her budding romance, irrevocably damaged her, and shaped her professional life and passions. Tui and her friends are victims of a commercial venture operated by state agents (the police) who drug them for profit, selling unconscious teenagers to rich businessmen to rape without fear of consequence. Tui has no recollection, no memory, no story to tell of trauma, sexual assault, or assailant; only her (pregnant) body and paradoxical lack of knowledge can tell the tale.


Top‘s intervention into both genre and gender emphasizes generational distinctions, as evident in Robin and Tui’s seemingly different experience and consciousness of trauma, rape, and teenage pregnancy.22 Robin knows who raped her, has long wanted justice, and avenges herself against one of her rapists in a bar scene, stabbing him in the abdomen with a broken bottle. Tui and her cohort are collectively targeted for financial gain; they do not know their rapists. Tui’s answer to Robin’s “Who did this to you?” is both truthful and indicative of Campion’s larger point. “No one” references both Tui’s knowledge and the fact that no one man did it. Top renders Tui’s generation’s experience as generalized, structural, commercialized, and unconscious, as a rape culture within which any singular victim’s trauma must be understood.

Campion’s series reveals that Robin’s personalized search for and vanquishing of individual perpetrators, while necessary and important and required of its genre, cannot address or solve the foundational problem and its magnitude, i.e., the economies and official structures of patriarchal culture. The teenagers’ lack of consciousness (in both senses of the word—actual and political) accords with a social order pervaded by rape and gender-based violence and supported by the very institutions charged with preventing or punishing it.

The final image of the title sequence, the one that transitions to the live-action series, is a painting of a photograph of Tui. At series end, she is ambivalent about her baby and seeks out an adolescent, and postfeminist, pastime: she wants to go to the mall and hang out with her friends. Yet unlike innumerable young female victims in this genre, she is no Laura Palmer.23 She is not blonde, she is not white, and triumphantly, she is not dead. In the series, faced with a situation she does not fully understand, twelve-year-old Tui grabs a rifle, heads for the hills, and survives, pregnant, in hiding for four months. With only her friend Jamie’s assistance, she gives birth, and when she thinks her father is threatening her baby, she kills him.

Top intervenes in the fetishizing of white, adolescent girls and eschews the inherent vulnerability that the genre ascribes to femininity and that drives its sexualized pathos. In making the protagonist biracial and transnational, a Thai New Zealander, Campion and Lee refuse the codes of racialized value that have persistently informed the gender politics of this genre and its affective appeal.

Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black‘s credit sequence emphasizes a dynamic and distinctly minoritarian realism (see video 2). Percussive montage set to the rock beat of Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time” displays sixty or seventy extreme close-ups (ECUs) of multi-raced, multi-ethnic women’s eyes, noses, or lips. These brief shots are interspersed with those containing the credits scripted in orange: shots held slightly longer of hands in handcuffs; fingers being fingerprinted; a woman’s torso in an orange prison jumpsuit; a Weekend Visiting Hours sign on a chain-link fence; three pay telephones on a prison wall; an outdoor prison guard tower; and razor wire framing a blue sky. The rhythm of alternating hard and soft passages of lyrics and music punctuate the cadence of faces in alternating patterns of dynamism (e.g., nine shots in split-second succession) and arrest (one shot held for a second or so).

Paradoxically, these ECUs do not emphasize the singularity or distinction of each face. Rather, the emphasis is on quantity and speed—serality, anonymity, and multiplicity. The camera is literally up in these women’s faces, as is, by implication, the viewer. The framing enables a view of every pore, yet not of any individual woman, for nobody can be recognized from close-ups so tight or editing so fast. In contrast to this intimate anonymity, other images register the carceral and its material constraints on mobility (handcuffs, razor wire), identity and individuation (the prison jumpsuit), communication and social interaction (the severe time limits on phone calls and visiting hours and the complete lack of privacy therein), and the ubiquitous control and surveillance exercised over all elements of everyday life (fingerprints and guard tower).

Orange‘s title sequence identifies its genre (women in prison) through an associative montage that aligns diverse faces with carceral constraints. The framings indicate its style (realism) while the sequence’s structure, series title, and women’s faces connote a tone that is ironic and double-edged, suggesting there is more to see or know than is immediately evident or discernable in the text and images. In contrast to Top, the structure of Orange‘s title sequence presents a horizontal rather than vertical axis. It is an axis that is reversible, reiterative, and devoid of any progression from beginning to end, other than one that is simply open and shut: the sound of a cell door unlocked at the outset and locked shut at the close. Unlike a linear, narrative title sequence, Orange‘s paratext could be run in reverse and its meaning would not change, even if specific faces were added or subtracted. Its reversible semantic flow emphasizes seriality without direction or progress, a fitting structure for its prison setting.

The title, Orange Is the New Black, appropriates a fashion colloquialism to describe mandated prison attire, producing a double meaning. Its use of the color black articulates an implicit transaction between two radically different systems of class and appearance-based compulsion: the fashion system’s compulsory consumption, for which black serves as a color standard, and the criminal justice system and its compulsory system of incarceration, in which people of color are overrepresented. In the ironic association that the title articulates between these two systems, taste and race emerge as the rationalizations for class privilege on the one hand, and for the criminalization of poverty and skin color on the other hand. Where the fashion system personalizes and individuates affluence and privilege through the appearance-based standard of “good taste,” the criminal justice system personalizes and individuates social problems through the appearance-based standard of race. Both systems use appearance, coded through the title as “black,” to obfuscate class and its effects. The series’ central narrative arc reveals their fundamental connection by showing Piper Chapman’s transition from the privilege of the former to the restricted rights of the latter.

The paratextual faces (tattooed, studded, with glasses, freckles, brown eyes, blue eyes) emphasize differences of skin and feature, without those differences being recognizably personified or embodied. Up close, nobody can see well enough to identify these women—or to identify with them. Such a plethora of diverse faces, especially female, has rarely, if ever, been seen on fictional television before, whether in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender casting or in terms of these particular faces. These are not the visages of cast members, as viewers might assume, but rather of real women who have done time, including Piper Kerman, on whose memoir the series is based. This information, the nonfictional content of these shots, alters the meaning of the ECUs rendering these faces: the up-close-and-personal framing intentionally protects these women and obscures their identities, while forcing series spectators to look closely at people they otherwise might never see. (Similarly, the show presents actors who previously might have never been seen on network or cable shows.)

Orange‘s paratext thus defies the ritual function of the title sequence; rather than transitioning the viewer from one textual universe to another or out of real life and into the life of the program, it transitions a certain privileged demographic (Netflix subscribers) through a documentary montage that marks the limits of the fiction that is about to unfold. It also transitions viewers in the other direction, emphasizing the world outside the show, its referent, specifically the real women from whose experience its narrative derives.

Orange also makes a signal intervention in its use of genre: the show exploits an exploitation genre and its conventions as a way to suspend the customary investments in the high production values and lush mise-en-scene of many current female-centered television series. In The Good Wife, for example, the predominantly white female lawyers’ wardrobes, jewelry, hair, and makeup equate their power and professional accomplishments with their appearance and expertise as consumers. Alicia’s business suits and apartment evidence a decidedly postfeminist ethos. Orange‘s generic setting, however, disallows any such production values, particularly related to mise-en-scene; instead, the inmates wear shapeless uniforms and live in close, spartan institutional quarters.

Orange‘s inmates and their lives are arrested, both legally and figuratively. As convicted criminals, their citizenship claims—freedom of speech, assembly, privacy, protection from invasive search and seizure, as well as personal choice and independence—are suspended. Along with these civil constraints, there are nearly absolute constraints on the inmates’ consumption. In prison, significantly, the requisite commodity supports of postfeminism and neoliberal citizenship are precluded: no malls, no fashion (save shower thongs made of duct tape), no money (inmates cannot touch cash), no shopping, and no makeup (though Alex has eyeliner tatts and transwoman Sophia can be seen applying Vaseline mixed with Kool-Aid to her lips).24 The genre, setting, and realist style necessitate motivated and politically productive constraints on representation, notably in its denial of popular culture’s well-worn recourse to empowerment through commodity feminism for its female characters.

The paratextual faces that introduce Orange pointedly do not include any of the glamourized whiteness of commercial media, a special effect created by cinematography, lighting, and makeup; rather, the framing, editing, and lighting dispel whiteness in favor of a range of distinctive complexions. Kohan reportedly insisted that the credits convey “the show wasn’t just going to be…the story of Piper Chapman,” intervening in and changing the design team’s original idea of presenting the credits “from the lead character’s point of view.”25 The arc of season one actually dramatizes this revision. Its initial episode begins with Piper’s life outside prison and her initiation into it. Early episodes do focus on her and the dilemmas that her white, privileged femininity cause her, but they also recount other inmates’ backstories (e.g., Red in episode two; Sophia in three; and Claudette in four). Midseason, subplots become more significant—Dayanara and Bennett’s romance, Taystee and Poussey’s friendship, Red’s increasing conflicts with Mendez—and temper Piper’s narrative centrality.

In episode eleven, “Tall Men with Feelings,” Larry, Piper’s fiancé, gives an NPR interview recounting Piper’s initially self-centered and mostly critical assessments of her fellow inmates, all of whom are depicted listening to the program. The episode powerfully centers viewer identification and sympathy on the inmates Piper unfairly judged and criticized, effectively savaging Piper and Larry’s point of view. In episode thirteen, the season finale culminates with Piper beating Doggett (Taryn Manning) to a bloody pulp. Season one has progressively registered Piper’s sense of her rights being taken away: she cannot talk to her boyfriend, cannot make grievances against the prison administration, and, in this episode, she cannot count on the prison guard to protect her from Doggett. Her violent response, which far exceeds self-defense, dramatically illustrates that the very condition of being civil, the capacity for civil behavior, is itself a privilege.

Attention is paid to the inside vs. the outside in the opening credits of Orange Is The New Black

Piper’s lack of knowledge structures many of the first season’s narrative dynamics. The audience learns about and adapts to prison culture as Piper does, while also being made privy to the extent of her ignorance and its source in her prior lifestyle and entitlement. The final episode resolves this narrative and thematic arc in the terms that were first established by the series’ paratext, its opening credits. The episode pointedly reveals what Piper doesn’t know about herself—that the civility and niceness she experiences “inside” as her innate character, her self, utterly depends upon the civil, racial, and economic privileges and protections that exist “outside” of that self. Her subjective experience of explosive violence shatters that illusion, unmasking civility as privilege by depicting the consequences of its loss.


Top of the Lake intervenes in the conventional hermeneutics of the detective story or police procedural—the quest to find individual perpetrator or perpetrators, to get to the bottom of what happened—by insisting on the structural and pervasive character of gender-based violence. Generic hermeneutics and the specificity of any given case actually obscure the cultural and historical ubiquity of the violence that frequently motivates the genre. And, at the bottom of this series, this paratext, is Tui. Against the series’ pessimism in the present, it offers Tui and her infant son, Noah, as the future. Noah’s maternal line is biracial and transnational and his father is “no one,” an anonymous rapist. In an obverse of his “group” conception, his parenting, the ending suggests, will be collective, rather than traditionally familial, and possibly ameliorative, shared across traumatized generations that include Tui, Johnno, and Robin at a minimum.26

Orange Is the New Black mobilizes an altogether different dynamic, its spatial and temporal organization articulated through multiple meanings of inside and outside. Against Piper’s imprisonment narrative, told as a psychological as well as experiential story, the transitions and transactions of Orange‘s paratext contain double meanings of which the viewer is initially unaware. It provides viewers a transition into the series, while also underscoring the hidden outside from which the series derives. The anonymous women depicted, like the creative personnel credited, exist outside of the series’ narrative world. But the outside world of these women is a very different one than that of the series’ creators.

Orange fictionalizes this distinction, of diverse “outsides,” in several ways. It tells character backstories through flashbacks (inmates’ lives before prison) that are also flashouts (inmates’ lives outside of prison). Piper’s backstory of a good life to which she wants to return deliberately emulates the “outside” of its intended viewers; it contrasts sharply with Taystee’s outside, where freedom is so grim that she returns to prison because its provisions and resources provide the only version of a “good life” available to her. Through Taystee and other inmates, the series identifies Piper’s clearly postfeminist backstory—her freedom, personal choice (to start her own soap business), and independence—as singular, unique, and not at all representative of what the “outside” looks like for most women, many of whom are women of color.

What Orange‘s inmates do possess, what they’ve got, as Regina Spektor sings, is “time.” The second stanza of the title song actually specifies the canny intervention of the series’ focus: “Taking steps is easy/Standing still is hard.” The compulsory “standing still” inside prison for someone like Piper is matched, for most inmates, by the enforced “standing still” of their so-called freedom outside of it—the socioeconomic arrest of opportunity, any meaningful choice, and/or progressive forward movement.

Top and Orange each, in very different ways, disallow the neoliberal, postfeminist framework of personal choice, freedom, and independence through their generic interventions. Both series and their paratexts emphasize female collectivities over individuation (and both sequences exclude men from their credit images). Top locates its heroine’s singular perspective and traumatic experience within a generational and gender continuum that stresses the ubiquity of gender-based violence as well as the diversity of its outcomes—Tui’s life will be different than Robin’s. Orange repeatedly presents social collectives and solidarities, often over and against Piper’s individual vision of how things should be done—the most notable example being Trish’s memorial; everyone avoids Piper’s planned event and instead communes in Trish’s bunk, sharing food and drink with each other.

In conclusion, Top of the Lake and Orange Is the New Black use the genre conventions of the police procedural and women in prison to intervene in postfeminist representational paradigms and values that, in televisual and online worlds, pointedly disregard material, social, political, and gender inequality. Their title sequences (or paratexts) articulate the character and logic of their interventions, blending textual and aesthetic significations with feminist discourses developed outside the boundaries of the series. This parafeminism, then, is a function of a discursive circulation of ideas rather than any representational modality. It derives from the paratext’s discursive network that interrelates information concerning: series production (auteurs, actors, creative and production personnel); social and political context (rape culture, prison industrial complex); and the aesthetic and generic logic of the series to follow. The paratext thereby provides a frame, an access point, and a mode of liminal codification within which feminist discourse enters along, beside, and near—perhaps even disguised as—the normative concerns of entertainment shows.


1. I use the term postfeminism in its negative sense—what Chris Holmlund has referred to as “‘chick’ postfeminism …hostile to the goals and gains of second-wave feminism.” “Postfeminism from A to G,” Cinema Journal 44, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 116.

2. Amanda Lotz, Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 1.

3. Hilary Radner, Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks and Consumer Culture (New York: Routledge, 2011), 2, 6–7. See also Toby Miller, Makeover Nation: The United States of Reinvention (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008), 1–39.

4. Angela McRobbie, “Young Women and Consumer Culture: An Intervention,” Cultural Studies 22, no. 5 (September 2008): 538.

5. The term “paratext” originates with Gerard Genette as does the point that these liminal texts are both transitional and transactional. See his Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.

6. Annette Davison, “Title Sequences for Contemporary Television Serials,” 147–148; John Ellis, “Interstitials: How the ‘Bits in Between’ Define the Programmes,” Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture from Television to YouTube,” ed. Paul Grainge (London: BFI, 2011): 66.

7. Davison, “Title Sequences,” 147–49; Ellis, “Interstitials,” 61–62; Jonathan Gray, “The Twenty-Second Text: Opening Credit Sequences and Proper Interpretations,” Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010), Kindle edition, 1501–58. Orange has sustained a narrative arc through its first two seasons and kept the same credit sequence. It was recently announced that Top, initially publicized as a single miniseries, will have a second season. It is unclear whether it will continue with the same characters and location (and credit sequence) or present an entirely different narrative.

8. See Lisa Coulthard, “Feminist Gothic: Forensic Femininity and the Uncanny Landscape of Sexual Difference in Top of the Lake,” paper delivered at Society for Cinema and Media Studies Annual Conference, March 20, 2014.

9. Lotz, Redesigning Women, 1–8, identifies and analyzes the rise of female-centered texts with a focus on one or more female characters launched in the mid-1990s. Their twenty-first-century counterparts include: Borgen (2010–), Bron/Broen (2011–), Damages (2007–12), Grey’s Anatomy (2005–), Homeland (2011–), Madam Secretary (2014–), Nashville (2012–), Orphan Black (2013–), Scandal (2012–), The Bridge (2013–14), The Fall (2013–), The Good Wife (2009–), and The Killing (2011–), and in comedy: 30 Rock (2006–13), Girls (2012–), New Girl (2011–), Nurse Jackie (2009–), The Mindy Project (2012-) and Veep (2012–).

10. Opinion is divided, with many seeing these strong roles for women as cause for celebration and others seeing them as deceptive, insofar as women are still significantly underrepresented in front of and behind the camera. Commentary on television’s greater opportunities for women include: Benji Wilson, “Jane Campion Interview for Top of the Lake: ‘The world is focused on sexiness,’” The Telegraph, July 13, 2013,; and pundits and actresses on superior television roles: Willa Paskin, “A Good Time for TV Ladies,” Slate, July 19, 2013,; and Alanna Vagianos, “Hollywood Stars Explain Why TV Is a Great Place for Women to Work,” Huffington Post, May 22, 2014, For documentation of the fact that these quality roles have not changed women’s overall underrepresentation in the television industry, see Martha M. Lauzen, “Boxed In: Employment of Behind-the-Scenes and On-Screen Women in 2012–13 Prime-time Television,” Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, The report summarizes the trends from 1997 to 2013.

11. Others series with female showrunners are Girls, Scandal, and The Mindy Project. Campion is often referred to, frequently disparagingly, as a feminist: Serena Davies, “Top of the Lake, BBC Two, Review,” The Telegraph, July 13, 2013,; Michael Sicinski, “‘No One Can Survive in That Water’: Jane Campion and Garth Davis’ Top of the Lake,” Cinema Scope Online, July 2013,; Michael Tabb and Katherine Dieckmann, “New Again: Jane Campion,” Interview, January 1992,; Natalie Wilson, “Top of the Lake: A Non-Watered-Down Depiction of Rape Culture,” Ms. Magazine Blog, April 18, 2013, Kohan explicitly calls herself a feminist. See Maria Arseniuk, “Guest Blog: Feminist Felons: How Orange Is the New Black Transgresses Traditional Television,” Shameless, October 3, 2013,; Melissa, “Smart Ladies Love to Ask, Why Aren’t There More Jenji Kohans?” Smart Ladies Love Stuff, July 31, 2013,; Ivan Radford, “Feminism Is the New Black: Why Orange Is the Most Important Show on TV,” Vodzilla, June 10, 2014,

12. Jane Campion’s films consistently feature female protagonists, most of whom contend with sexual- or gender-based violence. See my own study, Jane Campion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007), 51. Kohan’s work as showrunner, for series like Weeds and especially Orange, engages these topics as well.

13. “A New Drama for BBC Two From Writer Director Jane Campion.” BBC Media Centre. Campion relished the freedom afforded by the extended time of the miniseries format and the creative freedom and support from the BBC and See-Saw Productions. In the July 13, 2013 Telegraph interview cited in note 11, she indicated her new and decided preference for working in television.

14. Aaron Cooley, “Showrunners: The New Auteurs?” Frontier Psychiatrist, September 6, 2013, Kohan is the only woman Cooley cites. Her deal was similar to the one David Fincher secured for House of Cards.

15. Davison, “Title Sequences for Contemporary Television Serials,” in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, ed. John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman, and Carol Vernallis (London: Oxford University Press, 2013), 151.

16. Ellis, “Interstitials,” 60.

17. The sequence, from a painting by artist Seraphine Pick, was animated by Leonie Savvides, an animator and designer who also served as a visual researcher for Campion on location in New Zealand. Brandon Nowalk, “Top of the Lake‘s Opening Titles Perfectly Capture the Miniseries’ Appeal,” AV Club Online: TV Club, posted July 16, 2013,

18. The title sequence also articulates Campion’s signature and aesthetic autobiography through self-referential images, sound design, and music, a strategy she has used in several of her films. Kathleen McHugh, “Jane Campion: Adaptation, Signature, Autobiography,” in Jane Campion: Cinema, Nation, Identity, ed. Alistair Fox (Wayne State University Press, 2009), 139–54.

19. Campion directed the first and last episodes, and co-directed the other four with Garth Davis. She co-wrote the entire series with Gerald Lee, a collaborator on her earliest work, including Sweetie (1989).

20. Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 158.

21. It seems relevant to Campion’s formative years and generational cohort to note the floating photo, which calls to mind two feminist classics contemporaneous with her emergence as a filmmaker—The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991). Both prominently featured photos in relation to violence and human reproduction (The Terminator) and rape (Thelma and Louise).

22. The narrative strongly suggests that Detective Sergeant Al Parker drugs and rapes Robin when he has her over for dinner, but the narrative does not explicitly confirm that plot point one way or another.

23. The series clearly references David Lynch’s classic cult series, Twin Peaks, in numerous ways, pointedly in the stag’s head, which is a prominent visual motif in both series. Through Tui, Top retells and perhaps corrects Twin‘s sexual fetishizing of a dead, blonde cheerleader.

24. Taryn Manning’s performance of Pennsatucky Doggett requires extensive makeup to render her ruinous teeth and ravaged face. The resulting authenticity—signaling that this is what you look like when you don’t have access to healthcare or consumer culture—is produced in a register of deprivation, not augmentation.

25. “Orange Is the New Black Opening Credits Feature Real, Formerly Incarcerated Women,” Huffington Post TV, August 20, 2013,

26. Tui’s mother briefly appears with Johnno early in the series, never to be seen again.

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