“Strong on gender and race with a refreshing perspective from a transgender youth, The OA showcases minority voices that are largely ignored in American media.”
Title: The OA (2016)
Creators: Zal Batmanglij 👨🏽🇫🇷🇺🇸, Brit Marling 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Zal Batmanglij 👨🏽🇫🇷🇺🇸, Brit Marling 👩🏼🇺🇸, and various (2 👩🏼, 1 👨🏼)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Detractors see the plot holes, hokey New Age spiritualism, and pretension. I don’t deny these traits exist, but you’d be missing the point to fixate on that. Instead, take a step back and give this series a little room to breathe. If you do, you’ll discover an affecting, sensitive, and suspenseful journey in The OA.
I binge-watched this Netflix series and besides a slow first episode and iffy ending, I was ensnared by the mystery and reveled in its well-paced unraveling. The OA may not be technically perfect, but it does what I want my shows to do: experiments, plays, and pushes boundaries. And it’s entertaining to boot.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
This film is helmed by a female lead. As with many programs, however, they can fall a bit short past this point. In general The OA has complex, interesting women; however, there are a couple small issues that kept this category from getting 5/5:
The main character, Prairie (Brit Marling), falls into the trope of waifish women being either a conduit or allegory for the supernatural (see: Sense8’s Angelica, or heck, the entire Mystical Pregnancy trope in the horror film genre). On the plus side, Prairie is developed enough to escape the pitfall of being just a body that the supernatural speaks through.
The supporting female characters are not offensive, but neither are they inspiring: Prairie’s mother, Nancy (Alice Krige) is a classic “nagging wife” who constantly gets in the way of Prairie’s mission, and while the teacher Betty (Phyllis Smith) is a great character with inner strength, she is portrayed as a bit pathetic, playing on her traits as an older, overweight, and single woman.
By the numbers, The OA still veers significantly towards men. Of the group that aids Prairie in her mission, just Betty is a woman. The rest of the group includes Buck (Ian Alexander), French (Brandon Perea), Jesse (Brendan Meyer), and Steve (Patrick Gibson).
Marling and Batmanglij made an obvious effort to write a diverse story and the gesture does not go unappreciated. While it’s true that this is still a predominantly white cast with white leads, once we consider that The OA is largely set in a fictional, Midwest suburb we quickly realize that characters of color are actually overrepresented compared to their real life shares of the U.S. population. Specifically, we see interesting and well-rounded Hispanic, biracial Asian American, and South Asian representations.
One of the primary support characters, Buck, is transgender played by real-life trans actor/activist Ian Alexander. To the creators’ credit, they wanted to cast a trans person of color from the beginning. In an interview with Vulture, Alexander says, “The casting call was so specific. It said ‘14-year-old Asian American trans male to play 14-year-old Asian American trans male character.’”
The OA goes beyond just writing inclusively; Marling and Batmanglij shine a spotlight on a hidden subgroup within this group. While the transgender conversation in America is largely focused on white individuals (ie Chelsea Manning, Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono) with a few strong Black voices (ie Laverne Cox), it also skews heavily towards trans women rather men. With Buck, we get a refreshing insight into what it’s like being a young teenager with his particular background.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.50/5
With its spacey, folkloric tenor and compelling narrative structure, The OA is a cult classic in the making. It’s strong on gender and race with a fresh perspective from a transgender youth—products of a concerted effort by Marling and Batmanglij to showcase minority voices that are largely ignored in American media.
As television continues to experience a boom and more and more scripts are being written every year, The OA stands out as experimental and forward-facing in a sea of copycats and re-makes.