One Equal World

“Orange is the New Black” Ignites Important Transgender Dialogue

Posted on: August 5, 2013

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black explores life in a female penitentiary.
Image: Netflix

The Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, has sparked a ton of controversy for its portrayal of life in a female penitentiary. There is drug use, sex, violence, and corruption depicted in every episode, with cutting dialogue and many women of different backgrounds, races, and orientations depicted. The show has also created much discussion regarding transgender women, and the implication of being trans in prison.

According to award-winning writer Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Orange is the new Black “is breaking new ground in a number of ways but is mainly doing so by ushering in a new and powerful representation of black trans identity through the character of Sophia Burset.”

Ziegler goes on to explain how despite the show’s having stereotypical racial pitfalls, one of its redeeming qualities is the portrayal of female sexuality, and the strength and sexual agency the characters exude. The depiction of Sophia Burset as a transgender woman of color has forced viewers to consider trans identities and rights for transgender people. Zeigler applauds the portrayal of Sophia in the show explaining,

woman behind bars

Sophia Burset is a black trans female in the show.
Image: Shutterstock

“in a predictable “trans” moment from the series, Sophia is advised to offer sexual favors to a sexually abusive guard in return for him sneaking in her life-saving hormones. Though she briefly considers the exchange in a well-written moment of desperation that toys with audience expectations, Sophia ultimately rejects the offer to seek out alternative means of trans survival. This powerful plot twist is extremely notable in a climate that assumes that trans women of color are innately prone to sex work as the only avenue of survival.” Orange is the New Black defies a stereotype in this groundbreaking moment, and challenges ideas about trans individuals, specifically those who are incarcerated.

Though the character of Sophia Burset is significant because of the dialogue it has ignited about transgender women of color in prisons, a disturbing fact is that in real life, trans women who haven’t undergone genital reassignment surgery would most likely be sentenced to a men’s prison. For a trans woman, life in a men’s prison would be unbelievably dangerous, and survival would prove immensely difficult. It is in a men’s prison where transgender inmates are subject to unthinkable violence, sexual abuse, humiliation, and mental strain; the anxiety of being denied your gender in such an environment with no protection or rights would be unbearable.

Unfortunately, this is the plight of many transgender women in prisons, something that Orange is the New Black has called much attention to with its portrayal of the struggles Sophia faces daily. For more information about transgender rights and incarceration, read this incredibly informative article.


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