Representations of Trans Women in a Post-Orange is the New Black World
By Teagan Widmer
It seems Netflix has finally hit the jackpot with an original series. After the mediocre (and transphobic) 4th season of “Arrested Development”, the disappointing “Hemlock Grove”, and the underrated “House of Cards”, Netflix has finally hit its stride with the debut of “Orange is the New Black” (OITNB). The prison drama, conceived by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, tells the story of a privileged white lady named Piper Chapman who goes to prison for her involvement in a drug cartel that was run by ex-girlfriend. The show seems to have everything the fangirls on Tumblr love: drugs, sex, lesbians, and lesbian sex.
What makes the show interesting for me is the inclusion of a recurring character named Sophia Burset. Sophia is a trans woman of color, a kind of woman whose story is not often told on screen. The character is portrayed by actress and activist Laverne Cox (“TRANSform Me”), who is herself a trans woman of color. Online news sites like the Huffington Post, Autostraddle, and Buzzfeed have celebrated and lauded not only the performance of Cox, but also the depiction of the transgender character. I had heard so many good things leading up to the shows launch that by the time it released I was so excited to sit down and immerse myself in both Litchfields Federal Prison and Sophia’s story. However, as I watched more and more of the show, I found myself disappointed in the portrayal.
Let me be clear: Laverne Cox is incredible and OITNB is worth watching for her performance alone. Her portrayal is tender and multilayered. There is a deep emotional truth that she has access to as a trans woman playing a trans woman that no cisgender actress would be able to bring to the table. Her performance is honest and raw. She is breathtaking. I responded to her performance in a way that I have not reacted to any other performance before. Yet, I still found myself immensely uncomfortable with the way that Sophia’s story was told. However, my issues primarily lie with the writing and direction and not with the performance. Cox is not at fault – but the writers and creator should have given her more.
It’s not that OITNB isn’t a step in the right direction for how trans women are depicted; it is. But it’s a small step. And I expect better. As a trans woman myself, I’m tired of sitting below the giant dinner table that is media depictions of queer people and constantly being told “wait your turn.” When “our turn” does come, we are too often left with scraps and expected to be happy with them.
In other words, the depictions we have of trans women are incredibly rare: maybe 2 or 3 a year in television and film. When we do see trans women in the media, we are still depicted in ways that are incredibly problematic. Despite, this, everyone still gets so excited about them and gets so busy shouting, “HOORAY! A TRANS WOMAN! AND SHE’S BEING PLAYED BY ANOTHER TRANS WOMAN!! HOW GREAT! HOW INNOVATIVE!” that they forget that these are still scraps, which aren’t all that fulfilling.
So now let’s get down looking at the nitty-gritty of how OITNB tells Sophia’s story. The writers use a few techniques that undermine a lot of the positive aspects of the portrayal. Personally, these things trouble me enough to make me have a lot of conflicted feelings about Sophia’s story arc.
The first really major issue is how the show seems to take every chance they can to remind you that Sophia is different than the other inmates. Almost every time that Sophia is on screen the writers make some sort of reference to genitalia. I’ve seen this technique used a lot in other movies or TV shows that have a trans character. The constant fixation on genitalia serves as an reminder that the trans woman is not a ‘real woman.’ In episode three, the episode in which Sophia’s story is one of the central narratives, I lost track of the number of times there was some comment about her genitalia. It was the prison guards Bonnet and Mendez joking about her “cyborg pussy” and the fact that “she had a dick, so she knows what it likes”, or the Russian cook chopping a zucchini in half and then realizing what she did asking Sophia if it was “too soon?” The most heartbreaking of these reminders comes in a beautiful scene in which Sophia’s wife lets Sophia try on one of her dresses. After trying on the dress and seeing herself in the mirror for the first time her wife interrupts the moment by asking Sophia to “keep her penis.”
The constant reminders about genitals combined with the misgendering and transphobia that happen throughout the show make the show hard to watch for any trans person. Many of my transgender friends, who were initially excited to see the depiction, had to turn off the show after the third episode because of how hard it was to watch Sophia go through these things. One of the major story arcs for Sophia is about the prison cutting her hormone dose and then refusing to give her hormones altogether. Many of my friends gave up everything for the chance to start the hormones that allowed them to live authentically. The reminder that it could so easily be taken away was also a little hard to stomach for the trans audience of the show. I can’t recommend the show without mentioning those caveats.
It’s not that the show’s portrayals aren’t realistic. They are. I personally lived that scene in front of the mirror with my ex-fiancé. Many trans women are denied access to vital aspects (like hormones) of transition while incarcerated in the prison industrial system. These things are part of reality, but in a scripted TV show, it would be nice to go without seeing them in every scene that Sophia is in. Transphobia, cissexism, and ignorance about trans issues are something that trans people have to face every day. It sucks that we can’t watch our own stories on TV without being exposed to the same frustrating, and harmful, things we experience on a day-to-day basis. I don’t want to watch a trans woman face transphobia on TV. I want to see a trans woman succeed in life and go on live a life that is about more than just being transgender.
“Orange Is The New Black” is a step forward. I don’t hate the show, or even the depiction of a trans character. There’s lots to love. It’s a step in the right direction, but when the previous depictions are of serial killers in “Silence of the Lambs” and “Dressed to Kill”, any depiction in which the trans character isn’t a killer is a step forward. We should be holding depictions of trans women to higher expectations than “not a serial killer.” Especially since the majority of trans women (especially trans women of color) find themselves incarcerated not because of a violent crime but rather because many aspects of everyday life for trans women have been criminalized (using public restrooms, not having matching identity documents, sex work). There are also those who have been jailed for attempting to defend themselves in some way from a transphobic attack. The most famous recent example is CeCe McDonald (pictured below), a young woman from Minneapolis who was attacked by three individuals outside of a bar and in a desperate attempt to save her own life stabbed one of her attackers in the chest with a pair of scissors from her purse. CeCe is currently serving a 41 month sentence in Minnesota Correctional Facility - St. Cloud.
I’m hoping that next season we get to see more depth in the writing of Sophia’s narrative. I know there is more to Sophia as a woman than just being transgender. I hope Kohan and the rest of the writing staff look to expand her role next season – Sophia, and the fabulous talent that is Laverne Cox, really is one of the best parts of the show.
Follow Teagan on Twitter @Twidx.