Things haven’t been looking good for women in the television industry for a long time.
According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. With such a dearth of female representation in front of and behind the camera, it’s been a struggle to champion female stories and voices.
And then Netflix came along. With a staff full of female executives starting from the top down, Netflix is producing original programs that truly are telling important stories about women and raising the bar like no other network to date.
House of Cards, for example, which has been nominated for several Emmy awards, portrays manipulative, controlling female characters in which reporters and politicians are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. They aren’t the most likeable female characters, but they are interesting and it’s refreshing to see them outsmart men from one episode to the next. The only thing the show lacks is heart. But there certainly is bite and there are plenty of meaty roles for women.
And then there’s Orange is the New Black. The show looks so promising that Netflix picked up a second season before the first one even aired. Not only that, but the show is performing better than any other show Netflix has released including House of Cards and cult favorite Arrested Development. And it’s a show by a woman, about women.
Inspired by Piper Kerman’s memoir, OITNB tells the story of fictional Piper Chapman, a yuppie who ended up in a tough women’s prison in Litchfield, Connecticut. The show’s set-up is this — it’s been 10 years since Chapman’s “accidental’ involvement with international drug cartel her then-girlfriend was spearheading. After being implicated by her, Piper then spends 15 months in jail. The show is loosely based on the book, taking themes and characters and fully fleshing them out by creator Jenji Kohan, the show’s writer, who happens to be the creator of Weeds, another female-inspired series.
The first season of OITNB takes place over a period of two months. We watch Piper enter prison and see how her daily interactions and life unravel. Netflix makes it easy to binge watch with all 13 episodes with an instant download. Believe me — it’s very easy to get absorbed in this story-inspired saga.
Kohan has staffed the show with more female writers than male. She has hired female directors (including Jodie Foster, who produced an early episode in Season 1), producers and the majority of her cast is female. Male characters are truly secondary on the show. Piper’s fiancé, Larry Smith, who is waiting for her to get out of prison, has to deal with what he hears is happening on the “inside”, including Piper’s rekindling with her old flame, and his reactions are a sidebar to the real story. Guards and wardens are male, and they are mainly there as a commentary and to create conflict. The women maintain control of their situations behind bars and refuse to allow anyone to weaken who they are or who they are afraid of becoming. We can see their inner strength and their determination to get out to return to their loved ones, and to their lives, even as they turn to each other for comfort.
The women of OITNB are in jail for very different reasons – murder, drugs, or often because of a crime that was related to a male in their lives, whether it was something they did for their men or something against their men, the crimes tend to be related to their personal lives and the wounds run deep. Kohan uses flashbacks to bring the viewers deep into the complexities of these characters leading from childhood to incarceration, and these scenes further our understanding of how someone can easily blink and end up in prison. The show’s characters are people with real stories, and Kohan and her actors want viewers to care about and celebrate these women. After watching a scene where 100 women dance and sing to rejoice in the release of one of their friends, it is hard not to.
With the advent of these successful shows, Netflix seems committed to giving more opportunities to real women working behind the scenes, as well as to bringing more real women to the screen we watch. That’s how reality can and will unfold in original programming moving into the future.