Wentworth and the Politics and Aesthetics of Representing Female Embodiment in Prison

  • Cornelia WächterEmail author


This chapter explores the representation of female embodiment in the Australian TV series Wentworth (2013-present). My focus will be on the series in the field of tension between depictions of female empowerment and narrative strategies catering to sensationalist and objectifying viewing. Wentworth ostensibly aims to “honestly depict life on the inside as it is in 2012” (Brian Walsh, Foxtel), and it addresses various concerns women face in a prison system that, by and large, treats them as an afterthought. These concerns include, for instance, the trials of motherhood in imprisonment, the specific health issues and stigmatization faced by trans* women, or intersections of gender and race. I argue, however, that Wentworth, instead of rendering a faithful, complex and differentiated depiction of female embodiment in prison, ultimately stigmatizes both the officers and the incarcerated women and thus caters to the justification of the prison industrial complex, as well as to the stigmatization of women whose gender and/or sexual identity does not meet heteronormative ideals.


  1. Ahmed, Sara. 2014. The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Second Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2018. “4517.0—Prisoners in Australia, 2018,” December 6.
  3. Australian Government: Australian Institute of Family Studies. 2012. “Addressing Women’s Victimisation Histories in Custodial Settings”. ACSSA Issues 13 (December).
  4. Australian Law Reform Commission. 2017. “Pathways to Justice—An Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples: Final Report.”Google Scholar
  5. Balint, Ruth. 2010. “Prisoners of the Media”. Global Medical Journal—Australian Edition 4, no. 1: 1–10.Google Scholar
  6. Bassichis, Morgan, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade. 2011. “Building an Abolitionist Trans & Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got.” In Captive Genders, edited by Nat Smith and Eric Stanley, 15–40. New York: AK Press.Google Scholar
  7. Beirne, Rebecca. 2009. “Screening the Dykes of Oz: Lesbian Representation on Australian Television.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 13: 25–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Buonanno, Milly. 2017. “Editor’s Introduction”. In Television Antiheroines: Women Behaving Badly in Crime and Prison Drama, edited by Milly Buonanno, Kindle edition, n.p. Bristol, UK; Chicago, IL, USA: Intellect.Google Scholar
  9. Burden, Elizabeth. 2019. “Letting Criminals Self-Identify Gender ‘Putting Women at Risk’”. The Times, March 14, sec. Scotland.
  10. Carlton, Bree, and Emma K. Russell. 2018. Resisting Carceral Violence: Women’s Imprisonment and the Politics of Abolition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ciasullo, Ann. 2008. “Containing ‘Deviant’ Desire: Lesbianism, Heterosexuality, and the Women-in-Prison Narrative.” The Journal of Popular Culture 41, no. 2: 195–223. Scholar
  12. Clowers, Marsha. 2001. “Dykes, Gangs, and Danger: Debunking Popular Myths About Maximum-Security Life.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 9, no. 1: 22–30.Google Scholar
  13. Docker, John. 1994. Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Ferraro, Kathleen J., and Angela M. Moe. 2003. “Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance”. In Women in Prison: Gender and Social Control, edited by Barbara H. Zaitzow and Jim Thomas, 65–94. London: Lynne Rienner.Google Scholar
  15. FOXSHOWCASE. 2019. “Kaz Proctor”. Accessed March 28.
  16. Herman, Didi. 2003. “‘Bad Girls Changed My Life’: Homonormativity in a Women’s Prison Drama.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 20, no. 2: 141–159. Scholar
  17. Hogan, Michael. 2015. “The 10 Best Prisoners on Screen”. The Guardian, June 5, sec. Culture.
  18. Hunting, Kyra. 2016. “All in the (Prison) Family: Genre Mixing and Queer Representation.” In Feminist Perspectives on Orange Is the New Black: Thirteen Critical Essays, edited by April Kalogeropoulos Householder and Adrienne M. Trier-Bieniek, 111–127. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.Google Scholar
  19. Irwin, John, and Barbara Owen. 2005. “Harm and the Contemporary Prison”. In The Effects of Imprisonment, edited by Alison Liebling and Shadd Maruna, 94–117. Cambridge Criminal Justice Series. Cullompton, Devon, UK; Portland, OR: Willan.Google Scholar
  20. Kate. 2013. “10 Reasons Why Your Next Favorite Lesbian Prison Show Is ‘Wentworth’”. Blog. Autostraddle, September 2.
  21. Knox, David. 2012. “Foxtel to Remake Prisoner”. TV Tonight, March 3.
  22. Levan, Kristine. 2012. Prison Violence: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. Solving Social Problems. Farnham, Surrey, UK; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  23. Lindsay, Duncan. 2015. “EXCLUSIVE Wentworth Prison Star Socratis Otto Discusses Playing Transgender Maxine”. Metro, July 22.
  24. Love, Heather. 2014. “Made For TV”. Virtual Roundtable on ‘Orange Is the New Black’.
  25. Mayne, Judith. 2000. Framed: Lesbians, Feminists, and Media Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  26. McKee, Alan. 2001. Australian Television: A Genealogy of Great Moments. South Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Meiners, Erica R. 2007. “Life After Oz: Ignorance, Mass Media, and Making Public Enemies.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 29, no. 1: 23–63. Scholar
  28. Millbank, Jenni. 2004. “It’s About This: Lesbians, Prison, Desire.” Social & Legal Studies 13, no. 2: 155–190. Scholar
  29. Moore, Linda, and Phil Scraton. 2014. The Incarceration of Women: Punishing Bodies, Breaking Spirits. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Morin, Karen M. 2018. Carceral Space, Prisoners and Animals. Routledge Human-Animal Studies. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. Neroni, Hilary. 2005. The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema. SUNY Series in Feminist Criticism and Theory. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  32. O’Donovan, Gerard. 2016. “Wentworth Prison: The Aussie Prison Drama Better Than Orange Is the New Black—Review”. The Telegraph, June 27.
  33. Penal Reform International. 2013. “UN Bangkok Rules on Women Offenders and Prisoners”. Penal Reform International.
  34. Plantinga, Carl R. 1999. “The Scene of Empathy and the Human Face on Film.” In Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, edited by Carl R. Plantinga and Greg M. Smith, 239–255. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Richards, Jen. 2019. “On Matt Bomer, Anything, and Casting Cis Actors in Trans Roles.” YouTube Video. Accessed March 23.
  36. Schwan, Anne. 2016. “Postfeminism Meets the Women in Prison Genre: Privilege and Spectatorship in Orange Is the New Black.Television & New Media 17, no. 6: 473–490. Scholar
  37. Shabazz, Rashad. 2015. Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago. New Black Studies Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  38. Sims, Paul. 2018. “Transgender Prisoner ‘Sexually Assaulted Four Female Inmates’”. The Sun, July 17.
  39. Stadler, Jane. 2012. Pulling Focus: Intersubjective Experience, Narrative Film, and Ethics. New York: Continuum.
  40. ———. 2017. “Empathy in Film.” In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy, edited by Heidi Lene Maibom, 317–326. Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy. London; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.Google Scholar
  41. Turnbull, Sue. 2017. “Top Dogs and Other Freaks: /Wentworth/ and the Re-Imagining of ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’.” In Television Antiheroines: Women Behaving Badly in Crime and Prison Drama, edited by Milly Buonanno, Kindle edition, 182–198. Bristol, UK; Chicago, IL, USA: Intellect.Google Scholar
  42. Turner, Jennifer. 2016. The Prison Boundary: Between Society and Carceral Space. Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  43. “Wentworth Recap 2.4 Booby Traps”. 2014. AfterEllen, June 13.
  44. Wlodarz, Joe. 2005. “Maximum Insecurity: Genre Trouble and Closet Erotics In and Out of HBO’s Oz.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 20, no. 1: 59–105. Scholar
  45. Yousman, Bill. 2009a. Prime Time Prisons on U.S. TV: Representation of Incarceration. Media and Culture, v. 10. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  46. ———. 2009b. “Inside Oz: Hyperviolence, Race and Class Nightmares, and the Engrossing Spectacle of Terror.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 6, no. 3: 265–284. Scholar
  47. Zalock, Beverly, and Jocelyn Robinson. 1996. “Inside ‘Cell Block H’: Hard Steel and Soft Soap.” Continuum 9, no. 1: 88–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ruhr University BochumBochumGermany

Personalised recommendations