“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. Meanwhile the third supporting female is actually a transgender boy, so if you tally the supporting cast members that aid Prairie in her mission, we see just 3 females to 6 males.
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 a transgender boy played by real-life transgender actor/activist Ian Alexander. To the creators’ credit, they wanted to cast a transgender 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 a transgender character; 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 transgender women rather men. In Buck’s character, we get a refreshing insight into a young teenager with the unexplored perspective of a biracial, Asian-American transgender boy.
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 refreshing 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.