Like the rest of America, I spent this passing weekend binge-watching the entire second season of Orange is The New Black, the Netflix hit that took the world by storm with its premiere last year (Note: a third season has been confirmed, and is in production now!) While there are various things that OITNB gets right, there is one major component that I feel like is more important than the witty dialogue or the compelling characterization. It’s the notion of visibility that is evident, sometimes obviously and sometimes not so much, but is always present throughout the show.
One of the major reasons that OITNB has reached such success is because it breaks down the barriers that television had previously followed, and is more reflective of the world we live in today. Yes, the first season focuses on new convict Piper Chapman, the middle-class, college-educated, white protagonist, but as the season moves along, the viewer becomes less interested in Piper’s manipulative behavior and we shift to the colorful, neurotic, realistic cast of supporting characters that reflect the stories the viewer may be more inclined to relating to.
OITNB does this carefully, though it’s stylistic portrayal of several characters in each episode choosing to highlight one particular character and even giving the viewer some of their backstory. Though I won’t list them all, it is the first time that viewers can see more realistic storylines on television. Laverne Cox has received praise after praise, with good reason, for her portrayal of Sophia, the transgendered inmate convicted of credit card fraud. There is complexities as the viewer sees her strained relationship with her son, Michael, and her wife, but the cast also features other heartbreaking characters as well.
There is Taystee, the inmate who has been in and out of the “system” all of her life, despite being quite intelligent and business-minded; Red, the tough Russian cook that struggled with acceptance before being convicted; and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, the tragic inmate with mental disabilities that alienate some of the characters from getting to know her potential. Though these are just a few examples, there is magic in seeing characters like Crazy Eyes and Sophia portrayed at the forefront of popular culture. These are the women who are usually shoved aside and given no starring power of their own. The transgendered and the mentally disabled are often plot devices or punchlines, and in a show like this, they are given the direction to make them human. The viewers laugh at their triumphs and cry over their sorrows; they are relatable.
The show tackles various issues–non-heterosexuality, pregnancy, the justice system, trust, and morality, just to name a few–and spotlights women from all walks of life. In just two successful seasons, OITNB has helped to redefine the protagonists of the media forefront, but what does this mean for the rest of popular culture?
We see change beginning to take place, with dialogue and fan support on social media. There are other shows slowly beginning to follow their lead, and bring different issues to the center of the small screen. Still, the best evidence we have is the knowledge that the stories–what drives the success of any popular media we have–are being told. That is the most important part of having OITNB at the center of popularity. We give the Taystees, the Reds, the Pousseys, and the “Crazy Eyes” a face and a voice in the spotlight. We can begin to reflect on the importance and the need for change to happen and we can push for the support of these kinds of shows and in that, create a culture that makes these stories commonplace, not rare.