With returning series like Orange Is the New Black and Sense8 and the upcoming Dear White People, Netflix brings inclusivity to their original programming in a big way. With its current slate of programming, the streaming network is constantly upping the ante on bringing audiences charismatic casts that exemplify diversity in race, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Last February, ahead of Iron Fist‘s release and backlash over its alleged whitewashing, Netflix brought a slew of stars and creatives to New York for a day of panels. There it became clear that inclusive representation has become a major focus of the emerging online network, even amid its fumbles.
Since 2013, Orange Is the New Black has utilized the setting of a women’s prison to bring together characters from different backgrounds and diverse identities, sharing stories hilarious and heartbreaking. During the “Strong Female Leads” panel, Danielle Brooks, who plays the spirited Taystee, recounted how the show’s creator Jenji Kohan used the central story of uptight White woman Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as a sort of Trojan Horse to lure in audiences for stories less often explored in film and television.
“[Jenji] knew that that was her gateway into telling all these diverse stories,” Brooks declared. “So now you don’t have one female lead–you have a transgender female lead, Hispanic, black female leads.” Brooks when on to share how working on the show impacted her personally. “I know that it’s really shifted my perspective on what it is to be a woman in this business, to be a woman of color, what it is to be a leading woman. There’s not one formula of what beauty is. You can have a hint of mocha chocolate latte, a hint of fat back, a hint of pimples and zits–you can have that and it’s still beautiful, because people are seeing themselves on TV. Finally!”
Jessica Henwick of Iron Fist agreed with her co-panelist. Though the whitewashing issue was not addressed in her panel, the actress of East Asian heritage said, “I’ve made an effort to stay away from stereotypes. I took a lot of roles which weren’t specified as Asian, but now I’m interested in roles that are specified as Asian and what are roles telling an Asian story.” She recalled how formative watching The Joy Luck Club was for her growing up, and how it reflected her relationship with her mother. Then Henwick added, “I want to make that moment. I want to recreate that for someone else.”
The power of representation was a recurring theme through the day. In the “Dare to be Different” panel, Sense8‘s trans actress Jamie Clayton spoke about how fans of the sci-fi series created by two trans women, the Wachowski sisters, have expressed appreciation for the show’s promotion of trans visibility. “The fans are so grateful,” she said. “They just want to say thank you because they feel represented in a way that they’ve never felt represented before.”
“Everybody wants to feel they belong, and I think it’s one of the really amazing things that creators with these Netflix shows are able to do,” Clayton explained. “One thing that impressed me: [Orange Is the New Black] included trans character [played by Laverne Cox] but it had zero to do with her story, because trans people just exist. Which is why I really like Nomi because I’m trans. I exist. I’m sitting here. That’s what Nomi does but it has nothing to do with the story. She just is. Trans people just exist.”
Key to the success of Orange Is The New Black, Sense8, and Dear White People is having a behind-the-scene team that reflects the inclusivity onscreen. In the “Netflix Creatives” panel, Dear White People‘s creator Justin Simien touched on why this is a crucial detail in production. “I’m a person of color. I get that you might be ‘color blind,'” Simien said, “But I’m having a specific experience I want to tell you about.” In this case, Dear White People will expand the collegiate story of Simien’s acclaimed indie comedy of the same name into a 10-episode season. Each chapter will present the perspective of a new character, allowing for a richer exploration of the Black experience.
When the show’s first teaser hit following Simien’s panel, Netflix was confronted by a new scandal, this time from customers who claimed the title Dear White People was insulting. But ahead of this outrage outburst, Simien said, “It’s not just, ‘Hey, white people, these are things you need to know.’ It also allows people of color to see themselves… That’s a big mission for Dear White People. These are people. They happen to be people of color but they have weird shit going on, like anybody.”
Simien also challenged the myth that film/television shows that don’t feature the standard White, cisgender, straight male protagonist won’t sell outside the U.S., a popular excuse echoed by Hollywood producers accused of whitewashing. “I’m sorry to cuss, but it’s total bullshit,” he said before recounting how Dear White People played in France, Germany, Scandinavia, and South Africa to appreciative crowds. “It really struck a chord everywhere.” Essentially, Simien argued creatives need to give their audience more credit.
In the “Dare to Be Different” panel, Zal Batmanglij, who co-created The OA with Brit Marling, echoed this statement. He recalled how, when location scouting for the fantasy series, he and Marling met scads of unexpected fans of Orange Is the New Black. “We would meet truck drivers and they were like, ‘Orange Is the New Black is my favorite show,'” Batmanglij said. “And we’re like, ‘What? This looks like a Red State, Trump-voting guy and he loves Orange Is the New Black?’ I think that’s the power of storytelling.”
“I think what Netflix is doing that is revolutionary,” said Uzo Aduba, Emmy-winning Orange Is the New Black star. “But really it’s just honest. It’s telling open, all-inclusive stories, and that feels new because we haven’t necessarily seen that done show to show to show and watched such a wide cross section of different forms of stories being told.”
Basically, freeing creatives from the constraints of a White/straight/cisgender/male lead, means they have different perspectives to explore and new stories to tell. And far from alienating audiences, these shows can offer them something unexpected and fresh, inspiring empathy. Aduba vocalized this mission best:
“I think that’s incredibly important to who we are as a global family in the end,” she said. “Because when you are able to see people for their humanity, it becomes more and more challenging for you to impose on them your preconceptions, your discriminations, prejudgments, what have you. Because you now look at them as a person, for who they are as an individual, and perhaps not as just a group.”
Which upcoming Netflix series or new season are you most excited to see?