Going easy on the message is exactly why Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is so effective.
Feminism isn’t new. It wasn’t invented in 2009 by someone on Tumblr - it’s always been here. It will be with us for as long as we need it, and we we are always going to need it. If you think that there’s too much of it around, you’re either someone who believes that it’s unnecessary, or worse, someone who believes it’s somehow aimed at you personally. And it shouldn’t be. Because you’re such a nice guy.
Orange is the New Black shows us that no matter where we are right now, everyone has their own tale of how they got here
Orange is the New Black is not a show about feminism. Nor is it a show about hating men. No one says patriarchy, or privilege, or mansplaining, and the male characters aren’t all portrayed as ogres, or potential rapists (well, apart from Pornstache, natch). It’s a show about people, and how we interact when life overdoes it on the lemon-giving. It shows us that there is beauty and joy in the harshest situations and environments, and that no matter where we are right now, everyone has their own tale of how they got here.
So why is it good for feminism? The mainly female cast? Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives had mainly female casts. ITV’s Bad Girls was wall-to-wall ladies, and was set in a women’s prison too. Were any of those shows good for feminism? They might have been, but they didn’t cross the gender divide in ways that were positive or useful. Orange is the New Black is a very different animal.
It’s astonishing how quickly we warm to all of the girls in the show, even the ones with harsh exteriors. There is almost no transition period from ‘clunky exposition’ to ‘this show is my happy place’, and that’s down to the amazing writing. Like The Wire before it, Orange is the New Black doesn’t reserve its sympathy or humanity for the show’s supposed protagonist(s). Everyone is a person, everybody has their story, and no one is exclusively light or shade. As a result, we have a show which champions the strong female character, without ever putting her on a pedestal for too long.
Like the characters in the show, you are allowed the opinions you arrived with, and it’s up to you whether you learn something
The women are three-dimensional human beings who talk to each other about subjects other than men, bloody bastard men, or why I am I so bloody attracted to men who are bloody bastards? The Bechdel Test people go home satisfied after every episode. Yes, some of these girls are wives, mothers, girlfriends – but there are few whose purpose begins and ends with those qualifiers. Not only is this rare in film and TV, but it’s incredibly healthy for people (male or female) to be exposed to it.
The most important difference with Orange is the New Black, and the one which sets it apart from most other shows which have a message regarding sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or any other ism or phobia, is that it doesn’t really have a message. It doesn’t judge you, or force you to come to terms with your prejudices. There are no tricks or emotional bait and switches. Like the characters in the show, you are allowed the opinions you arrived with, and it’s up to you whether or not you learn something. That’s the key.
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In the first episode, Morello is prejudiced against black people – a decision she explains as being tribal rather than racist. When we arrive at the start of season two, we see that she still feels the same. We’re not invited to judge her, and no one goes out of their way to write a heavy-handed situation where she has her life saved by an African-American chum. It’s just not that sort of show. For a show about prison, the writers are very careful not to make it about women being punished for who they are. We have enough of those shows already.
The women of Litchfield are beautiful in ways which are multi-faceted, realistic, and not just of the usual Hollywood standard
Racism, homophobia, and transphobia are ever-present in the attitudes and words of the inmates; the situation never changes, mirroring the frustrating, monotonous routine of prison life. We, the viewers, are just observers. Our personal experience, our take on it all, is up to us. We don’t have to agree with the views of the antagonists, but we’re not made to feel ashamed either. What cannot be avoided though, is the positive effect of spending time with a show in which women come in all shapes and sizes, races, religions, and sexual/gender identities, where no one exists purely for titillation, or for them to be rescued by a man. The women of Litchfield are beautiful in ways which are multi-faceted, realistic, and not just of the usual Hollywood standard of Scarlett Johansson in a tight catsuit.
Orange is the New Black is not a perfect show. It has a protagonist who isn’t even interesting enough to be unlikeable, and the sex scenes are often both gratuitous and unrealistic (they had an entire episode devoted to inmates’ ignorance of their own sexual organs, but the director seems convinced that cunnilingus involves tonguing someone’s navel). Neither of these things matter in the big picture. What is important is that this show is being watched by millions, and it’s impossible for its positive portrayal of women to fail to have an impact, however subtle. And perhaps subtle is the way to go, considering how successful casual misogyny has been, without even trying.
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All images: Netflix