The trans community has had little representation in film and television, and very few trans characters have been played by actual trans actors. I think that’s why when Orange is the New Black debuted on Netflix two summers ago, the transgender community praised the inclusion of Laverne Cox as Sophia, an inmate at Litchfield prison. Not only is Cox a trans woman, she is a trans woman of color, which makes her a part of an even more misrepresented community within the greater transgender umbrella.
As a trans person, I was excited that she was a part of the show, and her back story was both interesting and compelling, but then Season 2 happened, and sadly I felt like Sophia was relegated to a background player. She really didn’t have much of a character arc, and we often only saw her when she was doing someone else’s hair. I was supremely disappointed by the lack of representation within the second season, and I hoped for more Sophia in the third season. If I had known that this would come with Sophia being misgendered consistently, and her character taking on harmful trans stereotypes, I would’ve said that she was better left in the background.
At first, I thought I was alone in my criticism, but slowly I began to see other transgender people on social media who were just as upset as I was. For some, this was enough to turn them off from watching the show.
I've seen 3 or 4 scenes with Sophia so far + she's been misgendered in every single one of them.
— Markie Marcie Meh (@mburnhope) June 24, 2015
The first big issue is how Sophia has been misgendered. In one scene, she even identifies herself as a ‘former man.’ I am sorry, but no self-respecting transgender person would ever identify themselves in that way. We don’t see ourselves as former men or women. For those of us who identify as transsexuals, which Sophia does, we see ourselves as born in the wrong body. I have always been a male. It was society who mislabeled me as a female at birth. I was never a former woman. It is offensive for people to label those of us in the trans community this way, so there’s very little authenticity to this. It also reinforces stereotypes that often lead to the exclusion of trans people by cis society, because we are not male or female enough.
The second and most problematic issue is the clearly cisgender stereotypes that personify Sophia this season. The most prominent example of this is when Sophia is speaking to her son. She tells him to find an insecure girl to practice having sex with, so that by the time he falls in love, he will be good at it. Even Sophia’s son realizes there is something wrong with this statement, as he asks her if she wants to live in a world where women are treated this way. Her reply of, “Oh yes!” as she smiles gleefully, is even more disgusting.
There is this horrible stereotype that transgender women are not real women. Some people, including a small subset of feminists (though intersectional feminism doesn’t support this), believe that transgender women, because they were raised being perceived as men, are inherently misogynistic. As such, they are considered a part of the patriarchy, and a part of the problem. They are believed to not be able to sympathize with biologically born women, because they had male privilege.
— Kelsie Brynn Jones (@kelsiedarko) June 18, 2015
I think this is a harmful and damaging stereotype, but Sophia both personifies and embraces it. I was watching Sense8 at the same exact time, and watching the difference in how Nomi was written versus how Sophia was written just emphasizes a point I have been trying to make. Having transgender actors playing trans-roles is not enough. Transgender people need to be involved in crafting stories about transgender characters, if we want to get them right.
Right now, Sophia is not written as the personification of an actual transgender person. She is actually the idea of what cisgender people think being transgender is. It is sad, because the character had so much potential, which has been lost.
2) some bits were very hard to watch as a trans woman, especially the constant misgendering in one episode plus the assault #OITNB
— Catherine (@caephyn) June 15, 2015
While I have had some friends cis-splaining about why my opinion on this is wrong, all I have to say is this portrayal does not affect them. It affects my community, especially transgender women, and especially transgender women of color, who are still fighting to be recognized and treated with the acknowledgment and respect any human deserves.