As its seventh and final series hits Netflix, it's worth remembering that when Orange Is The New Black first aired back in 2013, it was a gamechanger.
For one, it was Netflix’s third-ever original series, but unlike the first, House of Cards, no major film stars were attached. In fact, the only familiar faces were Kate Mulgrew, best known at the time for playing Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, former teen actor Natasha Lyonne, her American Pie co-star Jason Biggs, Laura Prepon of That 70s Show and comedian Lea DeLaria. For another, its cast was much more diverse than other big-budget TV dramas, with African-American and Latina actors playing key characters. And finally, that cast was overwhelmingly female.
In a world where female characters makeup just 35% of speaking parts in Hollywood movies and only 31% of leading roles, something strange happens when women take up most of the space on screen. In men-centric stories, women often find themselves perpetually placed into the position of love interest, sex object, mother or child, archetypes that serve to drive the male characters’ stories.
And these women’s lives, or at least the bits of them that we see on screen, tend to be focused on men – there’s a reason so few movies and television shows pass The Bechdel Test, inspired by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that requires female characters to be (a) named, (b) talk to each other and (c) talk about something other than a man.
But if nearly all the characters in a television show are women, many of those archetypes become redundant. If all the characters are women, then women get to be all the different sorts of characters – the active hero, the complex villain, the love interest and the lover, the white knight and the saved girl, the boss and the scheming underling, the aggressor and the victim. They get to be complicated and funny and real. They get to be people.
And so in OITNB there were characters who were, at least initially, variations on archetypes we’d seen before – like Morello, the obsessive girlfriend, and Cindy, who came worryingly close to a "sassy black woman" stereotype. But those characters were given space to grow and become more complex. And we also got female characters of a kind we hadn’t seen much of before, like Natasha Lyonne’s wisecracking addict Nicky, or Laverne Cox’s good-natured but determined transgender hairdresser Sophia.
Orange Is The New Black wasn’t the first to demonstrate what can happen when women take up the main roles. It’s not even the first to demonstrate it in the context of women behind bars, which isn’t surprising – in daily life, most people don’t live in a single-sex world. Back in 1944, director Frank Launder made Two Thousand Women, a funny and exciting drama set in a women’s internment camp in Occupied France, whose wide range of female characters includes an intrepid journalist, a nun, a stripper and a stuffy matron. Think of it as OITNB with Nazis and less sex, drugs and swearing.
Watch a clip from Two Thousand Women
Almost forty years later, the Second World War provided the backdrop for another female-centric drama, Tenko. Set in a brutal Japanese internment camp in an island off Singapore, its characters were British, Australian and Dutch women, all struggling to survive in horrific conditions. Apart from their Japanese captors and the odd appearance of male British prisoners, the cast was entirely female, and again there was a wide range of female villains and heroes, doctors and good time girls, all of whom had the chance to drive the action and tell their own stories in a way female characters don’t always get to do when men are around.
But it shouldn’t take prison bars and barbed wire fences to create interesting female parts. As OITNB draws to a close, with a final series taking on the brutality of current U.S. immigration policy, let’s hope the future brings more programmes and movies full of interesting, complicated roles that show there are many ways to be a woman. We can all raise a glass of Poussey’s prison hooch to that.
The seventh and final season of Orange Is The New Black is currently available to stream on Netflix.