How 'Orange is the New Black' changed Hollywood for Latinas and women forever
By Ingrid Cruz
When Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) was released in 2013, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the show. At the time, I hadn’t read Piper Kerman’s memoir of which the series was based off and was afraid it would use Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) to poke fun of the prison experience. But then I got a terrible cold and friends of different backgrounds all agreed I’d enjoy the show.
I became one of the show’s loyal fans and cried many moments during its seven-season run. Unlike other shows, just about every character we see on OITNB serves a purpose. For most people, keeping up with this many stories would be time-consuming. OITNB, however, made sure that everyone had a story; allowing it to make history. The series made social commentary about topics relevant to people of historically oppressed backgrounds, and provided many opportunities for women in real life.
It’s true that real prison experiences aren’t this funny, and there are many poetic licenses, but the show provided an understanding of prison for women that didn’t exist before.
OITNB’s legacy behind the scenes
In Piper Kerman’s memoir, she wrote about the hardships she experienced in prison and is now a bona fide advocate for human rights. She identifies as LGBTQ while also owning many of her privileges. Jenji Kohan is the Emmy-winning creator of the show and is known for working with other projects that empower women (Weeds, GLOW).
Shows about women’s experiences that are also created by women are a rarity in Hollywood. During a time when more women in Hollywood are speaking up about lack of opportunities for women directors and screenwriters, the show’s roster included talented directors such as the Jodie Foster, Allison Anders (Mi Vida Loca), and Uta Briesewitz (Jessica Jones, Stranger Things, and Weeds). OITNB also provided opportunities for some of the cast to direct as well. In addition to playing Alex Vause, Laura Prepon directed three episodes of the show.
The show did its best to embrace diversity, providing substantial roles for older actors and presented many different Latina experiences. In one of its most standout casting decisions, Laverne Cox not only portrayed Sophia beautifully, but she often used her wit to discuss the struggles of trans women. Then, Cox became the first trans actor nominated for an Emmy.
OITNB was also the first ever show to be nominated for comedy and drama categories during the 2015 Emmy awards. Thanks to its presentation of colorful characters, humor, and portrayal of prison’s realities, OITNB won a Peabody Award in 2013, an honor rarely bestowed to television shows.
Elevating the careers of women
Of course, OITNB did a lot for the women who portray its many characters onscreen as well. Samira Wiley went from being Poussey Washington to Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale. Diane Guerrero, the fabulous Maritza Ramos, went on to Jane the Virgin and Doom Patrol. Guerrero also wrote a memoir about her parent’s deportation when she was 14 years old.
Commentary on pressing issues
The show dealt with its characters’ flaws, including anger management issues (hello Aleida!), and many betrayals that cost some inmates more time at Litchfield. It also discussed abuse in a variety of forms, substance and alcohol abuse, LGBTQ issues, police brutality, and deportation. These issues affect the lives of women and those who love them.
Gloria Mendoza, played by Selenis Leyva, committed the fraud that got her arrested so she could leave her abusive partner. Tiffany “Pensatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) had five abortions in the past and experienced verbal abuse from her father, as well as rape. Her portrayal also showed a lot of growth while exposing issues of generational poverty in working-class white families.
Maritza Ramos was a lovable character that wasn’t as dim-witted as she seemed. Ramos’ heartbreaking discovery that she’s undocumented mirrors that of many who grow up without knowing their lack of legal status until it’s too late. Even new character Karla Cordova (Karina Arroyave) shows us that not all undocumented immigrants are powerless. Cordova deftly represents herself and uses the full extent of her knowledge so she can find a way to see her children. Her ending was heartbreaking, but Cordova’s help led Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez) to freedom. We can’t leave out Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maria Ruiz’s (Jessica Pimentel) story arc, as well as Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) scary changes.
Latina actresses were allowed to develop full characters informed by many experiences. OITNB did this without seeming pedantic or preachy. Television and film are first and foremost about the art of telling a story, and despite any commentary the show wanted to discuss, it was always about the story of how the women of Litchfield found themselves in jail.
After a successful seven-season run, it’s hard to imagine that one show accomplished so much for those who were a part of it. Despite the show’s end, as a fan, I have faith that other shows will embrace diversity in its many forms. Thanks to OITNB, Latina actresses can rest assured that the industry will slowly find a place for them that allows them to create art that changes lives.