'OITNB' cast on how the show revolutionized television: 'More people see themselves now'

As beloved Netflix Orange Is the New Black comes to a close this summer, many are reflecting on the show’s powerful legacy on and off-screen.

The ladies of Litchfield, although confined within the walls of its maximum security facility, broke down barriers and set women of every race, age, size and sexual orientation free in the entertainment industry.

Speaking with MAKERS, the OITNB cast members look back on how the launch of the show in 2013 changed the face of television forever. “There is no show that has been created like this,” says OITNB actress Jackie Cruz. “[One] made by a woman, written by women, and starring women.”

Before “diversity and inclusion” was a common phrase in the entertainment industry, hit television shows and films were churned out of major production studios with an almost formulaic predominantly white cast.

But, Orange is the New Black disrupted the overwhelmingly white status quo by showcasing a cast of women typically ignored by Hollywood within the story of an educated white, middle-class woman (Piper Chapman) sent to jail for participating in a drug conspiracy.

"In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. 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,” Jenji Kohan told NPR in a 2013 interview. “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.”

After convincing Netflix to take on this ambitious project, and becoming the streaming service’s first — and most-watched — original series, the rest was history. Viewers fell in love with these poor, black, trans, immigrant, curvy and mentally ill female inmates, who looked and acted more like the complicated women in their real lives.

“Orange has kind of led the way that said like, ‘You can do this, you can include more people and people will still watch,’ because more people see themselves now,” actress Daniella De Jesús tells MAKERS at the final season’s red carpet premiere.

Actress Dale Soules adds that OITNB simply told the stories of real people: “You can tell the human stories of human beings. Our audience is as diverse as the stories about the people that told them.”

OITNB has heralded in a renaissance for diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry for people of color and women. According to a study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 24 percent of leads across 1,200 popular films were women in 2012; in 2018, the number of female leads nearly doubled to 40 percent. Meanwhile, there was an even larger boom for minority lead characters in the same time period after OITNB. While underrepresented leads only made up 12 percent of leading characters in popular films, that percentage more than doubled to 28 percent in 2018.

“It's so wonderful to watch women of all shapes and sizes being represented and being multidimensional and just human, as we all are,” Elizabeth Rodriguez, who plays Aleida Diaz, tells MAKERS.

Leading up to the revolutionary show’s seventh and final season, OITNB is being lauded as the most important TV show of the decade, whose characters’ diverse, authentic narratives pushed the boundaries of what a hit television show looks like.

You can binge-watch the entire season — along with 105 million OITNB fans beginning July 26.

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• This 21-year-old ‘period warrior’ is taking the taboo out of tampons: ‘Menstrual hygiene is not a luxury, it's a right’

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