Unless you haunt particular corners of the internet, you may not have heard of the Netflix original drama series Orange is the New Black. The premise is this: white, middle class woman Piper Chapman is sentenced to 15 months in prison for a crime she committed a decade ago. You might think a female prison drama couldn’t sound duller, but Orange is the New Black and it’s nearly all-female cast is just fantastic. It’s incredibly funny while commenting on social issues like race, class, and gender, which is basically all some of us want from a television show. Released on 11 July, it has already captured the hearts of those craving for a television drama that doesn’t just feature women as the background characters.
What many find incredibly irritating about shows airing at the moment is the lack of female representation – in particular, the lack of representation of queer women and women of colour. As a self-professed feminist killjoy, the existence of a television show that features women of all sizes, colour, and sexualities is essentially a dream come true. OITNB’s first season consists of 13 hour long episodes; having watched the whole thing in about 24 hours, it was just so refreshing to see a vast array of diverse women on screen.
What makes OITNB so great is that it doesn’t just have one “token” African American woman, or one token Latin American woman, but whole groups. They’re not just there to assist the narrative of the white lead, either; the characters are given fleshed-out backstories, told through the medium of flashbacks (a method that does get better as the series goes on).
If you think a show having numerous women of different races on screen at once is good, then you’re going to love Laverne Cox’s character. Cox is a trans woman of colour playing a trans woman of colour, something that is essentially unheard of on national television. OITNB breaks new ground on numerous fronts, but it doesn’t feel like it’s being shoved in your face. It is not a show that shouts “look how progressive we’re being!” from the rooftops, but pulls you in with interesting characters and a good story like a good television show should.
OITNB has outperformed other Netflix originals, such as House of Cards and the fourth season of Arrested Development. This new trend of shows premiering on Netflix is interesting; it opens the door for potential for “riskier” shows (i.e. shows with a lot of women on them) to gain mass viewership without having to conform to the restrictions of network television. If something like OITNB can gain real popularity then networks will have to acknowledge that, actually, viewers might be getting a bit bored of shows about white straight men.