Netflix is a new area of media, where the platform allows writers and audiences to create and explore different topics and characters that go against the stereotypes of “mainstream” television. The series Orange is the New Black explores different types of characters that are usually not dealt with in “mainstream” television. It explores women in prison and their relationships with those outside of the prison, lesbian relationships, and even transgender women. The idea of homosexual relationships on television has started to gain traction with shows like Modern Family. However, there is not a show I am aware of that touches on lesbian relationships quite like Orange is the New Black.
The most intriguing character and representation to me is Sophia the transgender hairdresser. When watching the Orange is the New Black episode entitled “I Wasn’t Ready,” I noticed the hairdresser named Sophia and she seemed to have interesting characteristics. I immediately thought she was transgender; however, I was not prepared for her story later revealed in the episode “Lesbian Request Denied”. Her story created a depth to the character I was not expecting. It showed the struggles faced by her and her family during her transition, but she is not portrayed as a victim of her decision, she is strong in her decisions, but there is a vulnerability. The article by Time magazine writes on how the character of Sophia is opening up doors for transgender actors and story lines that have never truly been present in television. Laverne Cox, the trans actor that plays Sophia, speaks on how “trans characters [are portrayed as people]who are sex workers, victims of violent crimes or villains; and, less frequently, [trans actors] have played young men and women struggling with coming out as trans.” The character of Sophia breaks these stereotypes throughout the episodes. The interesting part about Sophia is that it explores the transition of an established, middle-aged man to a woman. Sophia (or Marcus before the transition) is seen as a fireman (a typical manly position) with a wife and kid. The story does not portray Sophia as a typical victim of her body, but instead the plot explores the struggles within the family and how it in turn affects her life. The dynamic between her wife and son is fascinating. While a supporting role from a spouse can be seen in “mainstream”, the plot line of Michael (her son), really delves into the struggles of a transition on the people around the one in transition. How does this affect their identity and place within the family? The wife is viewed as a supporting figure, but then goes against this role during visitation when she tells Sophia to “man up” and be a father to her son. Sophia is stripped of the victim role yet again in this scenario, because she is told to face reality and deal with the decisions she has made. I believe this role is more progressive than regressive. While Time mentions some people still believe the role is playing to the criminal stereotype placed on trans characters in the mainstream, the role deeply and fully explores the effects and emotions of a transition and creates a sympathetic character. The fact that she is in prison is almost forgotten, because the emotion and reality put forth in the writing creates a whole persona that could exist in real life. The series pushes the typical “mainstream” ideas of transgender and truly makes one think of Sophia as a actual person. The character exploration goes farther than victim or criminal, and it makes audiences think about the world around them and how they perceive transgenders.