Netflix Categories as Paratexts?

I had a day off today as I’ve spent the last five days in Birmingham for work, and as most people do on their days off I stuck the telly on looking for something to watch. I actually watched the Crazy About One Direction documentary first, as I’m writing a chapter on it for an upcoming edited collection, but then I put Netflix on looking for something to stick on in the background while I pottered about online. Below the usual ‘continue watching’ and ‘popular on Netflix’ I saw this:


My first thought was ‘what?’, followed by ‘but they can’t watch Netflix in prison’ (yes I think of fictional characters as real, doesn’t everyone?) then followed by ‘do they mean the real Piper Chapman?’. But whether they meant the real Piper or the fictional Piper I wasn’t entirely sure what the point was. As I tweeted:

Netflix tweet

A couple of people on Twitter said that they and their friends had seen similar things on Netflix recently, including Hemlock Grove and The West Wing, which I found fascinating. Does adding a fictional characters’ name to a recommendation really encourage more people to watch it? Who decides what Piper, or Frank Underwood, would watch? Is there any correlation between the shows and the characters who’d supposdly watch them? Does Netflix need permission from the show’s creators to do that, because to some extent Netflix are changing viewers’ perceptions of the characters? The shows and films Piper watches, according to Netflix, are Clueless, Flirting With Disaster, Legally Blonde 2, Lost Girl, Love Crime, The Edge of Love, Brokedown Palace, Lady in a Cage, Fresh Meat, Along Came Polly, Oggy and the Cockroaches, The Whistleblower and A Perfect Ending. None of these struck me particularly as things that Piper, as we know her in Orange Is The New Black would watch. I can’t remember her expressing an interest in Dylan Thomas (The Edge of Love) and neither her nor Larry were adopted so why the inclusion of Flirting With Disaster (and really would Piper be watching a Ben Stiller comedy?)? Clueless and Legally Blonde II, possibly – Piper’s probably around my age and I watched Clueless and the first Legally Blonde film when I was a teenager, plus they’re easy to stick on in the background. But these are also all older films. What about the newer stuff that Piper would have watched (reading this as some sort of alternative universe fanfic where she’s out of prison catching up on TV)? And what do these films say about Piper if they are the sort of films she would watch? How does this category affect or alter our understanding of the character?

I started wondering, after seeing the last two on the list, whether we could read the shows as some sort of paratextual progression through Piper’s life. A Perfect Ending is about a married woman who begins exploring her sexuality with a high class call girl: Piper is engaged but when she’s in prison she rekindles a romance with Alex; and The Whistleblower is about a policewoman who uncovers evidence that UN peacemakers are covering up sex trafficking: there’s no secret in OITNB that the prison administration are covering up their own immoral behaviour. But what about the rest? Clueless is perhaps Piper when she first meets Alex and gets caught up in her drug trafficking. And Lost Girl is an analogy for Piper feeding on the energy of people around her… That’s where that theory begins to fall down. And even if the films were a paratextual analogy for Piper in OINTB why would we need it? We see Piper’s life before and during prison in the course of the first two seasons of OINTB, and we get a lot more from it that we would trying to decipher what Legally Blonde II might mean.

There are two ways that this new category could act as a paratext then – one in affecting the way we see Piper and the other affecting the way we see her life story. But I don’t think either of these really work. I can’t see any logic behind the choices given for Piper’s Netflix selection.

What about the financial benefit then? Disclaimer here, I have no idea what Netflix’s finance model is like and I’m just going on a newest = higher cost theory here. But if Netflix is using this ‘watched by Piper Chapman’ to make money from viewing figures wouldn’t they want to encourage people to watch the newer stuff? On Sky, for example, you have to pay to watch the most recent releases. Older ones you get on the movie channels (which you still have to pay for) and older ones still you get on terrestrial TV. So Sky will get films quicker than the BBC do, for example, because they’ll pay for more them. So why wouldn’t Netflix push the newer releases like The Hobbit, etc.? In all honesty I have no idea. In fact I have no idea about this category at all! I can’t see how the selections like to Piper Chapman or Orange is the New Black. I can’t see what it is about those films that would make people who’ve watched OITNB want to watch them. There’s a world of difference between OITNB and Clueless. I don’t think this new category, at least in relation to OITNB, functions as a paratext and I’d be interested in hearing other people’s opinions about the category and other characters from other shows. I’m genuinely curious, and fascinated, by Netflix’s decision here.


5 thoughts on “Netflix Categories as Paratexts?

  1. OK, I don’t watch OITNB, and I don’t know a bunch of these films, but here’s a thought: the category here is actually “woman-centric films that show a developing character arc and empowerment.” This is less about Piper’s taste in films, or even about the particular narratives of the movies drawing parallels–but that the general category they belong shares something with Piper’s narrative. Does that work at all?

    • It does. It’s something I considered and failed to mention but I can’t work out where the cartoon or the Ben Stiller film come into it from that angle. (I haven’t watched either of them so there might be a link I don’t know about.) I think the general category of development/empowerment might fit though. But then why use ‘watched by Piper Chapman’ instead of ‘because you watched Orange Is The New Black’? *ponders*

  2. It seems to me like another attempt at advertising to fans that kinda backfires because the people making these lists haven’t analysed the characters as ridiculously in depth as fans do. I could totally see the process of making a list of films a particular character would like as something that could actually be pretty fun, though, in the vein of fanmixes. (And something that is already done a bit, if not particularly in depth, in pretty much any fluffy fic involving watching a film.)

    • Yes that’s the impression I got! And I think you’re right that there’s a much deeper level of analyses that takes place among fans than there is by Netflix, at least here. I like the comparison with fanmixes too, definitely something else to consider.

  3. Pingback: 2014 Blog in Review | bethanvjones

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