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Orange Is the New Black's Legacy of Inclusivity Comes With an Asterisk

Jenji Kohan’s Netflix drama featured dozens of women of color, but in the most unfortunate of circumstances.
  • Amanda Stephen, Adrienne C. Moore, Danielle Brooks, and Vicky Jeudy in Orange Is the New Black (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Amanda Stephen, Adrienne C. Moore, Danielle Brooks, and Vicky Jeudy in Orange Is the New Black (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black premiered 10 years ago. It can be hard to remember just how different TV was a decade ago. Original programming on Netflix and Hulu was so new that people didn’t know what OITNB was — they called it a “web series”. Of course, that terminology was short-lived as OITNB and its contemporaries ushered in today’s streaming era. But helping launch Netflix originals isn’t Orange Is the New Black’s real legacy. After all, House of Cards was first on that front and is not remembered as fondly.

    No, OITNB broke barriers with its representation. Specifically, it ignored the “you can only have one” rule that was prevalent at the time in shows ranging from The Good Wife to Glee to The Walking Dead, a rule that still rears its head at times today. The basic idea was that you could have one Black or Latinx (gay or Asian) character, preferably in a support or “best friend” role, but you couldn’t have more than one without the show becoming a Black, Latin, gay, or Asian show, thereby losing the “mainstream” aka white audience.

    With their plethora of content, Netflix and its competitors have the ability to be different — and the stats do show more diverse programming on streaming than cable or broadcast. As one of the earliest shows on such a platform, OITNB helped prove racial representation wasn’t niche. It was a huge hit before Netflix publicly released its Top 10 numbers (which makes sense since the platform had so few original shows). According to the company, around 105 million Netflix subscribers have watched at least one episode of the show. It was also a critical darling, racking up nominations and wins from the SAG Awards, Emmys, Golden Globes, ALMA Awards, Critic’s Choice Awards, GLAAD, and more.

    And yes, the series achieved all this success with Piper Chapman, a white woman, as its protagonist. Played by Taylor Schilling, she was the entry point: an everywoman, a character the audience was supposed to empathize with. White folks could think “there but for the grace of God” when they looked at her. Series creator Jenji Kohan told NPR she thought of the character as a Trojan horse, a bait and switch to tell richer stories.

    As the show progressed, Piper receded to the background — at the end of Season 3 Vice described her as a “bit player” and by Season 4, TV Guide was (more diplomatically perhaps) praising how the show “continues to broaden its focus.” In Piper’s place, the more interesting women at Litchfield Penitentiary rose to the forefront. And that’s where OITNB really shone. It may have helped revitalize Natasha Lyonne’s career, and given Kate Mulgrew a more morally complex role than that of a Starfleet captain. But the true joy of the show was always in watching the Black, Latina, Asian, and queer women display the full range of humanity that is still too often denied us on screen.

    Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) struggled against homophobia, negotiating ways to find joy, despite other people’s judgments. Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba) grappled with mental illness and a series of systems that failed to help her, but also found time to become a best-selling author in Litchfield. Dayanara "Daya" Diaz (Dascha Polanco), the romantic, learned the pitfalls of pinning all her hopes and dreams on someone else. Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) was a conflicted mother, both in running Litchfield’s Spanish Harlem and worrying about how her son is doing at home without her.

    It is still rare to see one Black or Latina woman get these types of complex, multi-season arcs. It is even more rare to have a dozen of them on a single show. And that’s precisely why OITNB was able to explore all these nuances of Black and Latina experiences with depth and authenticity. When a show has just one Black character, they become the stand-in for all Black people. Their particular traits are ascribed to an entire community. Not so in Orange Is the New Black, where Sophia Burset’s (Laverne Cox) skill with hair was just her own. The tight friendship that developed between Maritza Ramos (Diana Guerrero) and Marisol "Flaca" Gonzales’ (Jackie Cruz) was born of their complementary personalities, not their Latinidad.

    And because the show managed to run for seven seasons, OITNB was able to give so many members of its diverse cast compelling narratives. This wasn’t Law & Order, where actors show up for an episode and then disappear. The prison setting compelled OITNB to delve into its characters, showing their highs and lows, their growth and regressions.

    The series offered its Black and Latina cast members the rare opportunity to show off their skills, and they succeeded not just in earning a bunch of awards for the “web series,” but also in propelling their careers. Uzo Aduba now has 40 credits to her name, having recently led the In Treatment revival. Samira Wiley won the Emmy for her role as Moira in The Handmaid's Tale. Diane Guerrero wrote a book about her experience being separated from her immigrant parents as a teenager, and then got that Disney fame, voicing the perfect, eldest sister in 2021’s Encanto. Selenis Leyva is now starring opposite two Lopezes (George and his daughter Mayan) in their NBC sitcom and holding her own. Dascha Polanco, Danielle Brooks, Laverne Cox — the list goes on, to the point where there are almost too many to count.

    Researchers do count, though, and despite all of OITNB’s contributions, women, particularly women of color, continue to be underrepresented on screen. And that scarcity is definitely a problem, for delivering the best possible shows (by letting true talent rise to the top), for representation more broadly, and also for OITNB. It is noteworthy that the show that was able to launch dozens of Black and Latina careers is set in a prison. It is about suffering. All of the characters (including the prison officials) are criminals.

    Was the show able to accomplish all it did for racial representation because it presented Black and Latinas in an acceptable way for white audiences? Is “downtrodden” a prerequisite for commercially successful diverse representation? It’s possible.

    Because even as prisons in real life are disproportionately filled with Black and Latinx people, that doesn’t make up the majority of either group’s experience. In fact, even though Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans, only 1.2% of Black Americans are currently serving time in state prison.

    Now, no one TV series or film can represent all of a culture and it’s unrealistic to think any single production could. Shows like OITNB succeed because they are rooted in something specific and unique. In the case of the Netflix dramedy, it was the book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, recounting the real Piper’s experience in a women’s prison, and Kohan’s aesthetics and storytelling preferences.

    That specificity is good — it certainly works for OITNB, even as the show’s legacy suffers from a Hollywood ecosystem that lacks diversity more broadly. If there were a proportional amount of Black and Latina characters on screen, if we regularly saw Black and Latinx shows depicting a range of experiences, it wouldn’t matter that we had one show about Black and Latina women in prison. But there aren’t and we don’t, and so part of the legacy of OITNB is inviting its audience to view women of color as criminals. Complex, flawed people, yes — but also ones who broke the law and were punished for it. Is part of enjoying the show empathizing with them? Yes. Is part of enjoying it, also seeing ourselves as different from the women on screen? Also yes.

    That’s why Piper was there at the center of it all. It was her story that was adapted, her words that first became a book and then a multi-million dollar TV show. Because our society sees value in white women’s experiences but not so much in those of women of color, even when they’re largely the same.

    Centering white women is part of OITNB’s legacy, but not all of it. Instead, 10 years since it premiered, it’s clear that the show was an important stepping stone to Hollywood valuing Black and Latina talent. It proved that our folks are ready — we just need opportunities and we will impress beyond the wildest expectation. Now it’s time for more shows to follow the same diverse casting model of OITNB but minus the suffering. Then we’ll really be able to celebrate the show for what it accomplished without all the asterisks.

    A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture.