If I can be critical of the Orange is the New Black review from Issue 2, I want to ask why so little mention was given to the show’s truly ground-breaking story, the one of Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset.
Orange is the New Black is an important show for showing the inside view of prison life for women, specifically women of colour, as people of colour are disproportionately sent to prisons and for longer sentences in the United States, despite committing similar or lesser crimes than white citizens.
However, those critical of the show have pointed out that, while filled with characters of colour and those from impoverished backgrounds (the primary prison demographics), the show is still told from an affluent white woman’s perspective. The poor, black, and brown people are still “others.”
This is an important issue, but doesn’t negate that the representation in Orange is the New Black is still impressive, relative to the white, middle-class-dominated screens we are surrounded by. But all of this pales in respect to Sophia Burset.
Sophia is a black trans woman. In other words, she belongs to the intersectional demographic most likely to endure hate crimes and discrimination. She is someone we almost never see on TV or movies, and is rarely (or never) in the primary cast. Trans women are usually relegated to murder victims on crime shows or are the butt of a jokes when interacting with heterosexual men. They are rarely fully fleshed out human beings, complex and deserving of compassion. And black trans women?
My TV screen would argue they don’t even exist.
But even more than this, what I see as critical to my respect for the show is that Sophia is played by an actual trans woman. This isn’t necessarily because her lived experience can better capture the character (I have tons of respect for actors and their challenges), but because she is on display.
Studies show that exposure to different demographics normalizes them for humans, and with the murder rate standing at one in eight for trans women of colour, these women need all the exposure they can get.
Laverne Cox, now in the spotlight, can be a role model for girls and women struggling in a world that often rejects them, and, hopefully soon, to bring things to the epoche, this exposure will see her as a non-specifically trans character.
Orange is the New Black is not a perfect show, but it is so much better than most of the mass media out there that even criticism of it cannot be taken as a denigration of its positive aspects, and I see the shining star of that to be Laverne Cox.
While another trans woman of colour, Cece McDonald, is currently in prison for defending herself from a racist and transphobic attack on her life (more information at supportcece.wordpress.com), and many other trans women are forced into male prisons due to a systematic lack of protection for their human dignity, we need Laverne Cox, we need Sophia Burset, and we need more of them and women like them.