Fresh off their Emmy nominations for House of Cards, Netflix recently released their fantastic new original series, Orange is the New Black. In the show, we follow Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a young, mild-mannered, well-to-do woman who is on her way to a women’s prison to serve her 15-month sentence for a 10-year-old crime of smuggling drug money. Ultimately, Piper’s martyrdom and self-righteousness is not the most engaging aspect of the show. What makes Orange is the New Black great is that every character, in a cast made up almost entirely of incredibly diverse women, has a unique backstory, and the show does not rely on the tired, stock characters we are so used to seeing on television, especially with women of color.
This means that the relationships between the women in this show seem more real and true than the cookie-cutter types of relationships that allow the spoken labels of “best friend” or “friends with benefits” or whatever else to stand in for any real showing of the closeness between a group of people, and these labels often confine and restrict what those relationships are allowed to be. The women in the show have constantly changing and evolving relationships, and no one character is completely evil or completely nice or completely anything. The show goes through flashbacks for most of the prisoners, which is a brilliant way for the show to create such fully formed characters who are not defined by their crimes or by their race or by their families.
The interactions between the characters can range from kind to spiteful to romantic in an instant, regardless of whether it’s between Piper and Alex, or Red and Nicky, or Daya and Aleida, or anyone else. These evolutions of their characters and their relationships can happen fluidly because of the genuine reactions they can have to each other as complex people in their own right, who can make snap decisions that sound ridiculous out of context (i.e. Pennsatucky deciding she needs to kill Piper, or Crazy Eyes calling Piper her “wife”), but make complete sense to the audience, who has followed their stories and can make sense of why.
A great strength of the show, which has been discussed plenty, is the attention to diversity. There are Latino women. There are black women. There are white women. There are Asian women. There are gay women. There are straight women. There is a very prominently placed trans woman. There are all different sorts of women. What Orange does differently is that in the storytelling, they approach all of these women as equals. They interact with each other, and the show especially draws attention to the still-existent tensions between races. But the minority characters are not used for background noise to the drama between Piper and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), Piper’s former drug cartel-employed girlfriend.
The mostly male prison guards take the background roles in this show as a constant threatening presence, drawing even more attention to sexism and ownership of women. Although this aspect can be brushed off as a side effect of the prison setting, the prison is used as just one example of a place where men are in authority and women are subservient. The portrayal of women prisoners versus male prison guards here is unlike any other of prisoners, who tend to be shown as men in television and movies and who do not have the same issues that women would in the same situations.
The success of the on-screen representations of these women can be attributed to a triumph in the writer’s room. One of Orange’s writers, Lauren Morelli, has written about her experience working on the show:
The “Orange” writing staff is currently comprised of five women and two men, much to the chagrin of the latter whenever the topic of vaginas come up, which is approximately 62 times a day. Outside the cozy bubble of our room, only 30.5% of television writers are women. I don’t have any other statistics to share with you, as that was the only one easily available via Google. What I can tell you is that throughout every step of creating this show, I’m constantly struck by how many women I’m surrounded by—not just in the room, but beyond it: the cast, the crew, the people in charge on every level. It’s in stark contrast to the executive floor at the Important Studio, where without exception, every executive was male and 99% of the assistants were female. It was easy, maybe even necessary, to start questioning how low my glass ceiling was, and wonder if I’d already bumped up against it as I scurried around buying groceries and paying bills.
I’m not an expert on anything, really. I can’t tell you how our show will affect the landscape of television or how it advances the importance of diverse female narratives. I know casting the show was thrilling. The array of skin color and the range of bodies were unlike anything I’d seen on television before. Even on the frustrating days, when a script was due and I was convinced I was a talentless hack, I consoled myself by trusting that it felt important to be telling stories about women who are largely ignored in the mainstream media. In my more assured moments, I knew that we were attempting to give a voice to the miles that fall in between black and white, gay and straight, good and bad. That is: giving a voice to most humans.
The women of Orange is the New Black, both on-screen and off, have proved without a doubt that representation matters. The popularity of the show goes to prove that audiences want complex storytelling with diverse casts who can interact authentically.
Written by Shelby Rosten