Even though female characters have grown more prominent in entertainment, there is merit to the argument that women are still marginalized on screen. Sometimes a film or show will have only a single main female character, usually portrayed in a certain mold. That is not to say male characters aren’t also templates. But there are usually more of them, which means a broader range of personalities. Women are generally under-stocked and sold short. Inevitably most shows will present a character that is either princess or macho, bimbo or prude, ball buster or saint.
There have been shows that over time broadened the templates for female characters. In the past few years shows like Girls and Orphan Black have taken it much further. But the standout queen of female-fronted storytelling is Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s jail drama. Yet as one character proclaims in the first episode, this ain’t Oz. Thank goodness for that.
Orange is not better than its contemporaries, though it does still belong to a small group. But it carries by far the most range – the first season has at least eight characters who could be considered part of the main cast. In season 2 that expands as more inmates and prison staff are fleshed out. But initially the show focuses on Piper Chapman, a middle class engaged thirty-something who is sent to jail for a crime she committed a decade earlier. She has to come to grips with the place’s complex politics – a world run by bullying guards, Russian mobsters and crazy religious zealots. If that sounds terrifying, it really isn’t.
This isn’t a brutal, hard-nosed look at life behind bars. Either that or women are much more civil in lock-up than men could ever be. Orange walks the line between comedy and drama, playing as heavily on its absurd moments as the nasty things that do happen. It is true that women fight with words – violence rarely manifests itself physically, but there is never a dull moment with this lot…
As I said earlier, Orange has a lot of different characters and they slowly come to the fore over the first season. While Piper is our way into the big house, the show is really about the jail and its inmates. Red, the Russian mobster who runs the kitchen; Lorna, the woman obsessed with her looming (post-jail) wedding; Dayanara, the young inmate who has an affair with a guard; Nichols, who exchanged her junkie habits for lesbianism; Alex, Piper’s manipulative former lover; and so on. The characters are literally all shapes and sizes.
This is also why Orange is so much fun to watch. There really has not been anything like this on television before: a multi-character dramady that is overwhelmingly female. Yet it doesn’t feel like a chapter in girl power entertainment. Orange isn’t a show about women for women. It’s a show about a women’s jail for everyone. Yes, the writers do give several nods to the fact that it is woman-centric, particularly in how male characters are largely weak or just plain awful. But it also shows that here there are no knights in shining armour, one of several ways Orange knocks down or challenges gender stereotypes in entertainment.
But if that is too heavy – don’t worry. The show is not that serious. It is fun, almost too much. If I ever faced a spell in jail, I’d weigh two options: flee to North Korea or get a sex change.
Last Updated: August 12, 2014