About a month ago we lost beloved poet and activist Maya Angelou. On the day of her death, May 28, quotes and excerpts from her writings floated across the web in memoriam, and many of us returned to her words in “Phenomenal Woman,” the 1978 poem from her seminal collection And Still I Rise. Maya Angelou had no way of knowing that the poem would somehow come to embody the transgender prison inmate Laverne Cox plays on the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black, but I can’t help but think of those words watching Cox sit at the head of a table at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel.
Similarly, there’s no way Sojourner Truth could have known that her words from her 1851 speech “Ain’t I A Woman” would be deconstructed—then reconstructed—into a speech given by Cox, a transgender woman who would also reference bell hooks and Simone de Beauvoir in her work. As movements evolve, and civil rights issues—new and old—remain, these seminal feminist texts are given a new life in fights against racism, classism, ageism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia (or all of the above).
So what does a Netflix comedy series have to do with all of this? Actually, quite a bit. Whether you’re fighting for the rights of women, people of color, lesbian, gay, transgender or gender-fluid individuals, you are seeking to redefine the way a culture understands and relates to those individuals. Through the brilliant work of Jenji Kohan (who has been bringing us wild and crazy, well-written women since Weeds) and her writing team, the cast of OITNB is doing just that. Regardless of one’s critique of the series—now with its second season on Netflix—it needs to be acknowledged (repeatedly, until everyone gets it) that this show is a hugely important cultural phenomenon that’s informing countless discussions and shaping new theories.
On June 21, I came face-to-face with a cast of women who have, in the past year, been offering powerful new variations on the so-called “Phenomenal Woman.”
Lorraine Toussaint (described to me passionately by her co-star Uzo Aduba as “art personified”) and Kate Mulgrew became the breakout stars of Season Two, but these two critically acclaimed actors broke out in Hollywood decades ago. That they are playing two of the most feared and revered inmates at Litchfield prison (Vee Parker and Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov, respectively) speaks volumes about the world of OITNB. We’ve been introduced to women over 50 who are running things—not because they can roll with the youngins, not in spite of their ages—but because they embrace the insight that comes with time. Alongside Vee and Red are other older women in the prison who play key roles in the plot—the Golden Girls and Miss Rosa, the cancer patient whose last scene in the finale is nothing short of epic. How is it that these kinds of characters are taking center stage on a show so popular among young viewers?
“This is Jenji’s genius!” Mulgrew exclaims passionately (and yes, those red locks are an incredibly fierce vision to behold). “She understands that this [focus on the older characters] is crucial. They’re called the Golden Girls but they’ve been many years in prison, and we have to look at them in order to understand what it means to be young [in prison].” Mulgrew goes on to say that the physically and emotionally violent struggle between her character and Toussaint’s is intensified because they are older women.
“In this relationship, we were dealing with our age. You don’t want to face that you’re of a certain age! I felt that acutely.” Mulgrew turns to Toussaint and asks if she felt it as well, and Toussaint explains that, not only did she feel it, but she felt that it added to the complexity of these two characters.
“Jenji’s changing the face of television,” Toussaint proclaims. “Because for the longest time you had to be 20 years old—22, tops— to command an audience. And I think she is actively changing the demographic. There are a couple of people who have been really focusing on women 40-plus and putting these women at the heads of shows. Because of Jenji that’s going to become more mainstream.
“And thank God! We’re so cussing interesting at this age.”
Mulgrew believes that this is the core of OITNB’s success: “The central reason why this show is such a hit is because women want to look at other women as they really are.”
Michael Harney plays Sam Healy on the show, and as another actor whose IMDb page runs deep, he can also speak to the important shift taking place right now.
“We’re getting to a place where there’s a really wonderful trajectory for women,” he says. “They’re not being corralled into a specific road or a specific pathway. A lot of women’s issues are being dealt with in a constructive manner. I felt very privileged to be a part of that movement and to also be a part of a movement where so many women are working.” Harney knows all too well that women “of a certain age” are only recently beginning to find a real space for themselves and their stories in Hollywood. “I know so many actresses over the years who, after a certain point, it just became impossible for them to get work. And that was really unjust. I think that we’re beginning to see some balance.”
Balance is, indeed, the name of the diversity game, and seeing women as they truly are also necessitates racial diversity in the cast. But even this isn’t enough for shows anymore. When the first season premiered, OITNB came under fire, as some felt that the black and Latina characters were largely based on stereotypes (a critique I could never fully embrace, especially after hearing classic lines like, “Accent à droite, b—ch!”). Danielle Brooks (who portrays Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson) knew this would be an issue.
“I thought about it a lot, from the minute I got the script,” she admits. “I knew I was going to be playing an inmate, and that made me nervous. But when I went in they told me Taystee was light-hearted and not malicious. And that was the exact route I wanted to take—not playing the angry black woman.”
Brooks goes on to defend her character, noting that we find out very early on “how smart and intelligent Taystee is—how much she reads,” and this also works to complicate the role. And for those who find the so-called stereotypical black woman problematic, Brooks adds that these stories are valid too.
“There is truth in stereotypes. There are black women that come from broken homes, and some who are adopted. And we get to play that and bring truth to that.”
Samira Wiley, her co-star and long-time friend from The Juilliard School, co-signs this perspective.
“People can sometimes be a little hypersensitive when it comes to stereotypes,” she says. ”[In spite of the critiques] nothing really changed in the way that I portrayed the character. A lot of the time people’s own stuff can get in the way of how they understand it.”
Lorraine Toussaint’s unique experience as an actor also works in a fascinating way with these notions of stereotypical roles for women of color. When I asked if she thinks more black women should be seen playing complex and fascinating villains like Vee, Toussaint is not so quick to respond in the affirmative.
“I think being black shouldn’t predicate playing only certain kinds of roles. I look a certain way, I sound a certain way, my background is this highly colonized one, and I’ve made a career of playing lots of attorneys and judges and police captains. And I thought I was due someone on the other side of the law. So it turns out Vee is helping to balance the scales [of my career] from the last 30 years,” she says, laughing.
Still, she goes on to say that she’s not necessarily interested in playing more villainous types.
“I’ve avoided playing bad people intentionally on some level because karmically and spiritually it’s taxing. It isn’t where I live. The psyche doesn’t know the difference between pretend and real.”
The Latina characters on the show have also been both celebrated and criticized. Selenis Leyva (who plays Gloria Mendoza) explains that, while she does feel a sense of responsibility to her community, she still wants and needs to do her job as an actor.
“You get to see so many different Latinas represented on the show,” she says. “And as an Afro-Latina I know that this is something that hasn’t really been done before. That in and of itself is a huge responsibility, but I can’t think of it so much because it’ll become too much. I’d lose some of my acting abilities.”
One of the best (and, perhaps, most overlooked) cultural critiques OITNB offered up this season dealt with the American adoption system and the many holes therein. A look back at Uzo Aduba’s character (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren) shows us that she was adopted by a white family, and Taystee also has an excellent scene in which she puts on an “audition” of sorts for a family she hopes will take her in. (Like many young people in the system, Taystee’s skin color and age will largely determine her “adoptability.”)
Aduba addresses this and notes that OITNB shows us how the adoption issue is also a racial issue. That there are even special adoption festivals for black children is a seemingly small but powerful fact that gets worked into the plot.
“I could relate to Suzanne’s experience of being different,” Aduba says. “My family is Nigerian and I grew up in a very small Massachusetts town where there were no Nigerians”—she laughs—”to say the least.”
“It was a challenge watching her go through some of those rigors, from something as simple as dealing with her hair, or the [predominantly white] community not being as welcoming as it could have been.”
In countless ways OITNB provides its viewers with stories of the traditionally marginalized members of society. But it does so by, first, creating these lovable (or hate-able) characters. Someone like Crazy Eyes is pie-throwing, pure entertainment in Season One, but transitions into this complex character with a powerful backstory and a compelling, heartbreaking relationship with the big bad of the series (Vee) in Season Two. It’s because we’ve already fallen for her that we’re interested in the race and class issues that her character brings into the plot. Jenji Kohan knows that we need a little dessert (pie works) to go along with the meat of the story.
In addition to its dealings with race and women of a certain age, sex and sexuality operate very differently within the confines at Litchfield prison. The fact that Laverne Cox (who plays Sophia Burset) became the first transgender individual to cover TIME magazine tells us that very real lives are being affected by the success of this fictional series. In this way, OITNB becomes more than a show and begins to earn the title “movement.” Cox and her activism have much to do with this shift, and she speaks at great length about redefining womanhood through her work and her character:
“What’s so deep about patriarchy and how it works is that it says, ‘This person is really a woman and this person isn’t,’” she says. “It denies certain people their womanhood, and I understand that womanhood is as much a social construct as race is.” She goes on to say that she appropriated Sojourner Truth’s speech title, “Ain’t I A Woman” for her speech in an attempt to claim her own womanhood “in a context which would often deny it.”
Cox explains that, historically, this is not a unique experience for women—Sojourner Truth had to do it, and now we see incarcerated women (and trans women who are incarcerated) having to do it as well. In a society that has, for so long, had little-to-no regard for trans women and for women in prison, it’s no small feat that a Netflix comedy series is working to break that cycle.
In addition to Cox’s trans role, there are countless sexual interactions among the women in the series. The explicitness of these scenes, and the nudity—which is more raw than it is glamorous, or even arousing—is another unique aspect of OITNB. Natasha Lyonne’s character Nicky Nichols has been at the center of much of the action, but when I bring up her starring role in the beloved 1999 movie But I’m A Cheerleader, Lyonne problematizes the idea that OITNB is considered to be innovative and empowering in its depiction of the LGBT experience. She even takes issue with aspects of the gay rights movement, which she says is—on a certain level—a slap in the face to those whom it seeks to empower:
“It hurts my soul that so many years after that movie we’re still commenting on this,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s still about labeling something a ‘gay’ show or a ‘gay’ relationship, or saying ‘I’m playing a gay character.’ At what point do you say ‘I’m just playing a person’? This is just a show about people.
“It’s really devastating to process the implications of that. Beyond that, even, to say ‘I’m gonna give you the right to get married’? Like, who the fuck do you think you are? Thanks for giving me my basic human rights.”
Yael Stone (who had an excellent storyline this season as Lorna Morello) also speaks to the diversity issue, as something to be both celebrated and questioned.
“Yes, it’s fantastic that we have a diverse cast of many shapes and sizes,” she says. “And it’s sad that this has to be the main focus of the conversation…and that our media—which should really reflect life, and should be the mirror that we look to—seems to be so far behind in this. It is disturbing and it is painful, but it’s great to be at the forefront. How wonderful that this show is getting the recognition that it’s getting. Hopefully Orange will become the new norm.”
For Laura Prepon (who plays Alex Vause), the experience of shooting these sexual scenes that were so different from what we as consumers are accustomed to—so incredibly authentic even to the point of being awkward—turned out to have major implications in her own personal life.
“This show has women of all these different shapes, sizes and colors—it’s so awesome. And everyone owns it,” she says of her fellow actresses. “On this show, it’s the most confident I’ve ever felt in my body.” And although her co-star Jason Biggs (Larry Bloom) cannot quite identify, he agrees that it’s “amazing” that the show depicts women in a more natural way, and also notes that his own role eventually began to reflect his personal life. Just as Larry was finding his way into pseudo-fatherhood this season via Piper’s best friend Polly and her newborn baby, Biggs was on the verge of becoming a father. In terms of his new role as a parent in real life, Biggs admits, “I feel like Larry was just a bit ahead of me.” Scenes he shot for the second season suddenly made more sense after his wife gave birth.
Prepon and Biggs are not the only cast members to be affected on a personal level by their work on the show. In one of the last interviews of the day, Taryn Manning (who plays the evangelical Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett) waxes poetic on the greater themes at work here. Her character teams up with Healy in Season Two and starts creating a “Safe Place” therapy group for the inmates. Like Piper and her newsletter, and Red and her garden, everyone seems to be looking for an emotional outlet in Litchfield prison (though the garden also has other purposes).
“Jenji is so wise to have created this bigger, greater, spiritual thing here. It’s about how human we all are. And how you can turn your life around and you can forgive.”
Like the woman in Maya Angelou’s poem, Jenji Kohan’s phenomenal women do not fit traditional standards of beauty. What’s more, they even veer away from a new hipster-quirky type that we’ve been seeing in a lot of indie films and new, seemingly progressive television shows. These variations on phenomenal women are gay, straight, transgender, or undecided in their sexuality—and this isn’t just because they are in prison. They’re addicts and villains. They’re Latinas who listen to The Smiths, and Latinas who don’t; black girls who speak German and read Harry Potter, and black girls who will destroy you in a game of charades. In many ways, these character embrace every stereotype, but they also confound them. This makes the women of OITNB some of the most truly human characters we’ve come to know. Years from now it will be impossible to talk about the changing climate of women in television and programming without talking about OITNB. We are witnessing a phenomenon, and it feels so good.