Does TV have to go to prison to give women their own lives?

Most people* who’ve seen “Orange is the New Black” are thrilled with it—the Netflix-only series even got renewed for a second season before the first was released on the site in July.

Based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman, a Smith College alumna who served 13 months in the women’s prison in Danbury, CT, the show’s main character is Piper Chapman, a similar-but-not-carbon-copy of the real Piper, who serves the same sentence in a fictional Litchfield prison.

There are many reasons the show has gained such avid fans: stellar performances, references to the Kinsey Scale, “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan at the helm, the awkward return of “American Pie” star Jason Biggs to something that’s actually popular.

Top among the reasons for its overwhelmingly positive reception is the way that the show uses a white woman (which is pretty typical on tv) as a kind of bridge that exposes viewers to other women’s stories—fully fleshed-out, 3 dimensional stories, at that.

WASP-y Piper Chapman, despite being the “Main Character,” is less interesting and less sympathetic than the women around her, which include (in numbers and heterogeneity virtually unprecedented on television thus far): women of color, poor women, elderly women, queer women, trans*women, and women without her prestigious collegiate degree.

These women rarely make appearances in mainstream culture, so an entire show centered around their lives is brand-spankin’ new to viewers.

However, beyond all these great reasons is one reason I haven’t seen pop up in any articles:

It’s the only show on television that passes the Bechdel Test almost 100% of the time.

Are you familiar with the Bechdel test?

Here’s the definition:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

Now, there are plenty of other shows with lots of female characters – even main characters. Shows like “Scandal” and “Once Upon a Time” and “Girls”.

(I actually haven’t seen “Scandal”, but it was referenced as a rebuttal to that “I Hate Strong Female Characters” article that was floating around a few weeks ago, so I want to open the floor for fans to make its case).

But despite the fact that (for example) “Girls” literally has 4 women as its main characters, most scenes don’t pass the Bechdel Test.

Now, not every scene needs to pass the test for something to be worth watching.

But when it’s rare for most shows or movies to have even one scene that earns it a passing mark, I think the antidote should be something stronger than, “a show that passes it kind of often.”

Just because a show has a qualifying scene doesn’t mean the show is the best it can be, and media is totally on board with the whole feminism thing. I’d argue that a show like “Orange is the New Black” (where nearly every scene qualifies) is much more of a true standard toward which scenes and characters should be aspiring—the Bechdel Test is really just the bare minimum threshold.

Even in shows that have female leads and pass the Bechdel test frequently, there’s a lot left unexplored.

For example, when the women on “Girls” aren’t talking about men, they’re usually still talking about how better to live up to some societal standard or another—how to act at their jobs, what to wear, what their parents expect of them, yadda yadda.

“Orange is the New Black” is different.

In OitNB, the women don’t have an external society whose expectations they have to live up to.

They’ve been removed from traditional society, and placed inside prison society, whose rules are completely different.

And in the prison setting, a new society is built from scratch—by the women themselves.

Of course, the (mostly male) guards have rules they enforce, but those lie only on the surface of prison society, just like the laws in our country are only a fraction of the influences we operate under in the non-prison world.

So when we watch OitNB’s Piper, Taystee, Pennsatucky, Big Boo, Poussey, et al go about their lives inside the prison, it’s a rare opportunity for viewers.

The women’s interactions are calculated exclusively to satisfy their own desires, aspirations, and agendas. They are not performing for the Male Gaze (in fact, it’s all from women’s perspectives). They are no longer conforming to standards anyone else created. They are “free” to create a society that exists only to support themselves, not to keep them down in relation to another, more privileged group.

And the show itself is free to give them the screentime to do this.

Though the women have literally less freedom than female characters in most shows or film, by removing traditional societal rules from the playing field, “Orange is the New Black” gives its female characters fewer limits and more room to portray a wide swath of women and interpersonal dynamics than any other show.

The time the show gets to spend—and the characters & actresses get to spend—purely on women’s stories can now take up almost the entirety of the show, instead of being restricted to just one or two scenes.

That’s progress. That’s what I think the Bechdel test is really trying to achieve.

But isn’t it kinda messed up that, in order to set female characters free from these boundaries, TV had to put ‘em in prison?


*Of course, as with anything that’s gaining near-universal acclaim, there are dissenters. There’s even someone who thinks it’s today’s modern Slave Narrative. (But, really, when even Jezebel commenters think you’re overreacting—and you haven’t even watched the whole series—your argument may not be water-tight).