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Equality is the New Black

When Orange is the New Black premiered as a Netflix Original back in 2013, I was reluctant to watch. This reluctance stemmed from the fear of it being an over-sexualised product of a man’s wild lesbian fantasy: a bunch of hot women locked behind bars. After taking the time to watch, I really couldn’t have got it more wrong. What Jenji Kohan had created, based on Piper Kerman’s memoirs about her time in prison, is inarguably an intelligent feminist piece – the way it empowers women will most certainly empower next generations.

In a society where almost everything seems to be dominated by men – from television producers to panel show guests – Kohan’s quirky, female-led show is all the more refreshing. The focus is solely on women and its female dominated cast is a rarity in this era of testosterone TV. These women are defined by their experiences and personalities, rather than being a product of their appearance. As the opening credits roll, we’re faced with a reel of women’s faces of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages, soon to be matched with equally diverse bodies as the show plays out.

Although, in 2018, this should ultimately be the norm in the media, the fact is it’s not. Women who appear in prominent roles usually fit the rigidly normalised category of straight, white and under 30 – if they deviate from this, they’re most likely cast as the less serious sidekick. Now, what does this tell every woman out there who isn’t straight, white and young? They’re not ‘right’? Jenji Kohan fiercely punches these harmful media stereotypes in the face, reaching out to women across the globe, representing their faces, experiences and voices.

With cast members of Black, Spanish, Latina and Asian origin, it’s most certainly a representative show, which encourages audiences to embrace their culture and individuality. Yet, the most socially pertinent casting is that of Laverne Cox, a beautiful ally of the trans community who portrays the genuine struggles of a male to female trans while spending time in an all-female institution. Her character illuminates the injustices and exclusions trans women face, whilst also highlighting the highs of finally feeling comfortable in the skin you truly belong in and finding support in fellow women peers. As well as the crafted depiction of multidimensional trans and culturally diverse characters, there’s also the necessary representation of strong, powerful older women; represented as fierce rather than frail; flipping the assumption of older women as passive, weak and vulnerable on its naive head.

Importantly, the show avoids the problematic portrayal of any type of woman as lesser than another, while still validating and recognising the problems and issues these women face – in somewhat humorous ways. Kohan gives us a rarity in the media: true and raw depictions of real women’s issues. Looking at childbirth and motherhood in the show and exploring the unbreakable bond of child and mother, audiences become compelled to consider mothers in prison, possibly sympathising with such – especially considering that a proportion of mothers behind bars are there through self-defence in situations of domestic violence. With the closer look into the difficulties parenting can bring Kohan also delivers the much needed message that motherhood doesn’t suit every woman and, ultimately, that this is okay.

Unlike most big shows today, Orange is the New Black isn’t processed by the idea of what a woman ‘should’ be and that’s what makes it great. Kohan reveals all the dimensions of what we can be – anxious, scared, compassionate – and recognises that all of these things have a justified place within us.

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