TV

‘Orange Is The New Black’ Is Over, But The Golden Age Of The Anti-Heroine Lives On

TV is so much better because of 'Orange Is The New Black'.

Orange Is The New Black

Orange is the New Black drew to a close with its seventh and final season on Netflix last Friday. 

The show followed the incarceration of the privileged Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, as she navigates the world of minimum security prison.

The show is based on the book of the same name by prison activist and author, Piper Kerman.

Orange Is The New Black was hailed as revolutionary at the time, not only as Netflix’s first original series (House of Cards technically came first, but it was a remake of the 1990s British series) but as one of the first shows to portray women in all our complex, messy — and, yes, criminal — glory, ushering in the golden age of the anti-heroine.

Previously TV had been the domain of the anti-hero, with the Holy Trinity of Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and Walter White dominating prestige TV throughout the oughts and early 2010s.

Women in those shows were at the periphery of the story, whereas OITNB flipped the script. Sure, there were anti-heroines before Piper began serving time, such as Carrie Bradshaw and The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, but they were few and far between.

Trojan Horse Girl.

These original anti-heroines on television were also notably white, and their stories usually revolved around men.

Orange Is The New Black changed that by making Piper bisexual (with the lover who named her, and thus led to her incarceration, Alex Vause, locked up with her) and populating the upstate New York minimum security women’s prison called Litchfield with black, brown, trans, fat, disabled and old women.

Much has been made of this Trojan horse trope that the show employed. Inspired by the Greek myth, showrunner Jenji Kohan told NPR that “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”

It wasn’t just within the world of OITNB that stories about characters other than middle-class white women were smuggled into our viewing habits.

Since the shows premiere in 2013, we saw Jane the Virgin, How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Transparent all hit screens, many of which made controversial headlines for their “ethnic” casting.

This first wave of new anti-heroines, consisting of no-longer-virginal Jane Villanueva, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Claire Underwood on House of Cards, the Broad City gals and Rebecca Bunch’s titular Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, have washed ashore in the last year or so, or will shortly.

But now that networks have realised that audiences don’t need or want a nice white lady to couch complicated non-white and non-cisgender characters in, Chapman will hopefully and likely be the last of her kind, no longer pulling focus from the far more interesting women around her.

The End of an Era.

As others have noted, the television landscape has changed markedly in the six years since OITNB premiered, and Netflix and streaming services gained prominence.

We now have a wealth — too much, some might say — of TV coming at us from all directions. If one so chooses to ignore any modern anti-heroes in favour of women-focussed shows, one absolutely can.

Killing Eve puts a spin on the spy/assassin genre by casting the first Asian woman to receive a lead actress Emmy nomination (in the year of our lord 2019, can you believe?) and imbuing the show with ample lesbian subtext

Good Girls revolves around the struggles of three fed up mums as they do crimes and put men in their places. 

Claws is an exercise in Southern camp as a rag-tag bunch of mostly women of colour overcoming society’s limitations

Vida is about two queer Latinx sisters as they reckon with the death of their also-queer mother in rapidly gentrifying inner Los Angeles. 

Pose is unlike anything else on TV at the moment, portraying the 1980s and ’90s New York ball culture with a groundbreaking core cast of all trans women of colour.

And the Kohan-produced GLOW, about a rag-tag bunch of women wrestlers working on the real-life show of the same name in the ’80s, drops its third season on Netflix next month.

These shows prove that the seeds of diversity, interiority and women-created content that OITNB planted seven seasons ago have flourished in its wake.

Never Can Say Goodbye. Never Have To.

You know what’s also flourishing? Peak TV. So much so that there is literally a new show to watch or catch up on every week.

Just this year we’ve seen a smorgasbord of troubled youth in HBO’s Euphoria; the teens of Pen15 whose problems probably seem just as big in the heightened existence that is year seven; Aidy Bryant’s Annie in Shrill; murderous middle-class mums in Dead to Me; the diverse queer cast of Tales of the City and the perfect Russian Doll.

It will be sad to say goodbye to Piper and the women such as Taystee, Suzanne, Daya, Gloria, Red, Nicky, Blanca, Flaca, Martiza, Sophia (insert the rest of the cast here) she helped introduce us to, but we’re in good hands with the second wave of anti-heroines — nay, just characters — that will no doubt arrive in the second half of this year and beyond.

And we can always catch up with them again on whatever streaming service they happen to be taking up residence on.


Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.