Netflix’ The OA, which I am about to spoil profligately here, dropped to critical acclaim, but also some confusion, in early December. Depending on who you read, it was a transcendent, brilliant masterwork of brilliant craft, or it was completely appallingly offensive, or it was just a hot mess. A show that sparks such a varied response is worth talking about, because it highlights the fact that pop culture doesn’t just influence consumers — their response also reflects what they bring to it, and how they in turn influence it.
I have a lot of thoughts about The OA, which I consumed in bits and pieces because it’s a very rich, layered, complicated piece of pop culture. But there are some important themes in it that really do need to be addressed, both because they speak to nauseatingly tired pop culture tropes, and because they communicate something larger about how we look at each other. Some people think that The OA inverted these things and explored them in a thoughtful, creative way. I do not.
The show revolves around a young woman, Prairie, who has returned to her home after many years of captivity following a mysterious abduction. Calling herself the Original Angel or OA, she tries to adjust to the world and narrates her adventures to a crowd of misfits including some kids and a high school teacher. She spins a fantastical and strange tale from a childhood in Russia to adoption to learning how to open an interdimensional portal with her fellow captives. Oh, and when she was kidnapped, she was blind — but she’s returned with her sight. Ultimately, the discovery of some artefacts in her room leads people to question whether any of this is for real — and in the finale episode, they foil a school shooting (the thing that has some people calling the show tasteless and offensive).
Is the story the OA tells real? Is she even real? Where does the truth begin and end? What does the school shooting even have to do with anything? These are the kinds of questions the show is trying to provoke, and people are definitely connecting with it. Many say that it explores themes like mourning, friendships, connection, love, and that it does so in a stark, intriguing, innovative way. This is the kind of prestige television we get on Netflix now — The OA wouldn’t fly on network television.
So, here’s the thing. From the start, The OA twinged every single one of my alarm bells as yet another show about a fragile mysterious woman who’s possibly/probably mentally ill. This archetype — often blonde — turns up everywhere I look in pop culture, and it’s exhausting. It is both sexist and disablist, creating some sort of mythical magical world where mental illness is represented and inhabited solely by elfin girls with big eyes and expressive gestures who move through the world like dancers, darting back and forth between reality and the other world. Are they mentally ill, and imagining everything, dragging us into their dream world? Are they sane, and dismissed as crazy because of the stories they’re telling are too fantastical? I don’t know, but let’s definitely make another 37 television shows exploring this pressing question for the ages.
Mental illness is poorly understood in society and the same holds true in pop culture. The number of depictions exploring mental illness fairly, accurately, and well are…pretty limited. This is definitely not going down as one of them. It’s also not the first time in 2016 that Netflix has showcased a version of this archetype — Stranger Things’ Eleven is also a wounded, mysterious, quiet, strange blonde girl with a history of being tortured and many strange stories to tell. Where Eleven is dangerous, the OA is singleminded and aggressive in her quest to save Homer, and she can also be extremely, shockingly violent.
There’s also the matter of her sight, which in her narrative was lost in childhood when she made a bargain with a mysterious figure to survive a crash. I’m always displeased to see nondisabled people in disabled roles, and it was painful to see Brit Marling lurch around the set in a grotesque parody of blindness. To have her cured of course justifies the use of a nondisabled actress in the eyes of the creators, but is also steeped in disablism. Blindness is turned into a temporary, terrible state that cuts the OA off from society, rather than becoming a part of who she is and how she navigates the world.
Her sight is what makes her both piteous and daring during her time in captivity — here’s Prairie, so fragile and delicate and in need of protection, and how bold and supercrippy of her to try to become the architect of a daring escape. The strange plot holes that surround her (why would a man who’s allergic to tomatoes bring tomato products into the house?) only serve to create a strange sense of exceptionalism. She leads a charmed, fantastical life, apparently — right down to being given back her sight so she can go save the world.
There’s a lot to talk about here not just in terms of the handling of mental illness and blindness, but myriad other issues woven throughout the shadow, including both serious technical flaws and the really atrocious finale. If talking about them forces people to think about pop culture archetypes and expectations, that’s a good thing, but I worry that the conversation won’t lead to meaningful change.
This is clearly an attempt at building on a perceived market for a particular brand of quirky, ethereal science fiction. That brand also tends to heavily rely on the crazy/fragile/mysterious girl archetype, rather than branching out and exploring ways to be more creative. The end result is that you get this endless series of repetitive things featuring basically the same character in different environments, and it gets old really fast. What many are describing as innovative I see as just a repackaging, and a reskinning, of a very old series of tropes mashed together for your viewing pleasure. The critical acclaim is also a reminder that people are very responsive to these tropes, that they find something very compelling about this depiction of mental illness, and that says a lot about what they think mental illness looks like, and what they want it to look like.