It’s easy to lament the depictions of women and girls in today’s media.  Some are purely decorative; some are overly sexualized.  Some are one-dimensional and dull, simply “there” to fulfill a role as wife or assistant to the main character.  And even more fit neatly into the narrow female mold: young, thin, well-off, white, straight, and beautiful.  Depictions of women and girls in today’s media often fail to show the full range of real women’s experiences.
But when a television show as diverse and unique as Orange Is the New Black comes along, it seems like a step toward more inclusive media.  Even though the technical protagonist, Piper, fits mostly into the female mold (yup, she’s young, white, and privileged), it is the strong ensemble cast that pulses blood into the heart of Orange, leaving viewers desperate for more of Netflix’s original series about women in a federal prison.
Orange doesn’t shy away from highlighting the real-life topics shaping the viewpoints of women who stand on either side of the prison walls; religion, race, culture, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, mental health, gender identity, ethnicity, relationships, and drug abuse.
There’s the older Haitian woman sold into the labor market of the U.S. as a child, who hasn’t had a visitor in 20 years.  There’s the young Latina who bumps into her mother inside the prison walls.  There’s the strong-willed Russian chef who masters the kitchen and the social hierarchy, and whose vulnerability is captured only in fleeting flashbacks.  There’s the compassionate hairdresser who recently lived as a male firefighter and struggles to maintain relationships with her family.  There’s the sassy and spirited class clown, who finds life on the outside to be harder than she thought.
Granted, convicted criminals may not be the role models we hold in esteem for the next generation of girls.  But that doesn’t mean Orange shouldn’t play a part in media conversations with young adults.  This series is important to our current cultural dialogue for two reasons.  One, it humanizes the inmates as people first, criminals second.  It underscores the life-altering impact of one bad decision, or series of bad decisions for a woman who might be you or me.  Orange also highlights the rich, diverse experiences of women through all walks of life; not just behind bars.
We already know that the representation of women, especially women of color and LGBT women, is vastly outnumbered by the white, male perspective in the media.  To ensure meaningful participation in the bigger, cultural conversation, a wider range of voices must be heard in the dialogue.  We can only hope that three-dimensional female experiences will continue to spread through mainstream media.

Catherine Bailey is a long-time supporter of Strong Women, Strong Girls and served as a leadership coach in SWSG’s Strong Leaders program. She currently works for a women’s advocacy organization in Connecticut.
(Click here for image source)