Complex Character or Punching Bag: Sophia Burset and Transgender Representation

One of the most debated, celebrated, and critiqued characters on Orange is the New Black is Sophia Burset, a black, transgender woman played by the black, transgender activist and actress, Laverne Cox. Through her role as Sophia, Cox has become “the first transgender woman of color in a leading role on a mainstream scripted television show,” a serious accomplishment and honor in every rite (Cox and hooks 2015, 26). 

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Laverne Cox for Time Magazine, retrieved from http://www.lavernecox.com/

The character portrayed by Cox has been celebrated by queer and feminist scholars, fans, and even international magazines such as Time, which featured the actress on their cover page in 2014 (Laverne cox on “orange is the new black” and blazing trails, 2014). bell hooks, a world-renowned queer feminist scholar, even said in an interview with Cox that the “only redemptive character in the whole show is Sophia because of how she deals in a just and kind manner,” arguing that the rest of the show comes off as problematic and caricaturistic (Cox and hooks 2015, 31). Much of hooks’s praise comes from Cox’s “‘humane’ portrayal of Sophia… as well as her fierce advocacy and embrace of intersectionality” (Cox and hooks 2015, 26).

While many agree with hooks’ perception of Cox’s character, others are frustrated by the fact that Sophia is constantly being tortured throughout the show. One critic commented that

“if you were to cut out every scene of Orange is the New Black that doesn’t contain… Sophia Burset, you’d be left with a story about a transgender woman of color who is denied healthcare, separated from her family, beaten by her fellow inmates, and transferred to solitary confinement where she attempts suicide” (Allen, 2016).

Allen notes that Laverne Cox is never involved in the “steamy lesbian sex,” nor often in the humor which make the show so beloved as a Golden-Globes-nominated comedy. Instead, her character is constantly surrounded by “other prisoners spitting out a heaping serving of transphobic slurs like “tranny” or “ladyman”” (ibid). While she notes that a “Sophia Burset supercut would be a brutal slog to watch,” she also acknowledges that it would be “realistic, given that prison is a humiliating hell for transgender inmates” (ibid). Cox herself often points out the all-too-real danger transgender folks, especially transgender women, face in their daily lives, whether or not they are incarcerated, noting that 41% of all trans people having attempted suicide and pointing out that the homicide rate in the LGBT community being highest among trans women (Laverne cox on “orange is the new black” and blazing trails, 2014). While it is important to depict the struggles many transgender people face both in life and in prison, it is also true of OITNB that “the writers haven’t found much for Sophia do to… besides be transgender and get punished for it” (ibid).

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Sophia Burset, season 5, retrieved from http://www.konbini.com/us/entertainment/laverne-cox-orange-is-the-new-black-art-activism/

Furthermore, in nearly every scene in which Sophia is present but not being harassed, there is some reference to genitalia; for example the moment during season two in which Sophia “teaches the other inmates about the vagina, urethra, and clitoris, using the knowledge she gained from her sex reassignment surgery” (ibid). While the backstories of other characters provide insight as to their likes, dislikes, histories, and life details, Sophia’s “gets none of that humanizing flavor” (ibid). Allen states that after four seasons that “we still don’t know much more about her than that: she used to be a firefighter, she’s transgender, and she faces transphobic violence every day,” painting her more as a “punching bag than… a fully-formed character” (ibid). 

Although Cox’s character can be criticized or praised depending on how you perceive of the issue, the impact her presence and inclusion in OITNB has had is nothing short of amazing. Laverne Cox has commented that while, yes, it has been difficult for her to film some of the more intense scenes of the show, it is “cathartic in a way” to be able to process the transphobic violence that still happens every day (Cox quoted in Olité, 2017). Her rise to fame through the role of Sophia has paved the way for other transgender actors and actresses to come forward, such as The OA‘s Ian Alexander and Sense8‘s Jamie Clayton (Olité, 2017). By using her fame and talent as a platform to discuss transgender and LGBT issues at large, Cox has started a chain reaction to bring light to far too-often ignored issues. Citing her twin brother (who played Sophia pre-transition in flashbacks throughout Orange is the New Black) as a source of inspiration, Cox poses a question to both herself and others: “What’s the point of having a platform if you don’t use it fight for a cause that’s great than yourself?” (Olité, 2017).

Works Cited

Allen, S. (2016, July 05). Why Can’t ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Stop Torturing Its Transgender Character? Retrieved December 08, 2017, from https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-cant-orange-is-the-new-black-stop-torturing-its-transgender-character

Cox, L., & hooks, b. (2015). Bell hooks: A conversation with laverne cox. Appalachian Heritage, 43(4), 24.

Laverne cox on “orange is the new black” and blazing trails (2014). Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/docview/1540977789?accountid=14656

Olité, M. (2017, June 18). Laverne Cox speaks out about art as activism in ‘Orange is the New Black’. Retrieved December 08, 2017, from http://www.konbini.com/us/entertainment/laverne-cox-orange-is-the-new-black-art-activism/

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