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I have been watching Orange is the New Black and I have some problems with the way it has handled its transwoman character, Sophia.

(Minor spoilers up through the third episode)

To start, I find that she is a caricature of what someone expects a transwoman to be. She is introduced as a black, queeny hairdresser with every mention of her drawing attention to the fact that she is trans. In the third episode, Lesbian Request Denied, which features her backstory, the show goes as far as having other characters discuss her using all the standard transphobic slurs ("he/she", "tranny") and general misgendering across the board. None of this is challenged, it is presented without context as who the character is.

Yes, these are very realistic examples of abuse that transpeople (and transwomen in particular) have to put up with. And yes given the harsh nature of the prison system that the show presents, this seems in line. My problem is that the show uses these scenes as the basis for the character without giving us any reason to expect anything different. It accepts the framing device that considers her a "he/she" without question, which to me hobbles the character into a regressive stereotype.

With this in mind, that Sophia's arc (at least in the third episode) is that she is being taken off her hormones which will "make her turn back into a man" is especially troubling. The episode ends with her choosing not to prostitute herself to get hormones from a creepy prison guard, which good for her I guess. But if you thought we might have a transwoman character without associating her (even a little) with prostitution, you were wrong!

I am also really bothered by how frequently the characters bring up her SRS or her "missing penis", it comes up in almost every conversation. It reduces Sophia to a walking (missing) dick joke without giving her any of the freebie positive traits that other characters get (eg: Piper is loving and a victim of the system, Red commands respect first and foremost). And by framing Sophia in this way, it teaches the audience that it is okay to treat all transwomen like this. I have gotten into arguments in the past over if it is appropriate to ask a transgender person if they have had SRS (It is not.) and the way Sophia is treated only reinforces the widely mistaken idea that knowing if a transwoman still has a penis or not is the most important thing to know about her.

That said, the show does an all right job of handling flashbacks where Sophia comes out to her wife and son. I found the scene where she awkwardly runs into a former co-worker and then is immediately misgendered by a store employee hard to watch because it really hit home.

But I take issue with the conversation Sophia and her wife have at the end of the episode, where her wife accuses her of being selfish and Sophia has no response. This reinforces another negative stereotype about transgender people: that we are selfish to the point of putting our families and friends out.

Transition can be incredibly difficult for anyone it touches, but it is extremely common for loved ones to frame it as "how can you do this, what will the [other family members/neighbors/friends/coworkers] think?" and more simply "how can you do this to me?". To imply that someone transitioning genders has all the power in the situation is a complete inversion of privilege and is flat out wrong.

The show makes one good step in that they cast an actual transwoman to play Sophia, and Laverne Cox does the best with what she is given, but frankly it bums me out that this is of note at all. Cisgender women playing transgender roles (especially lead or at least speaking roles as has almost universally been the case) in place of transwomen is the equivalent of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's. This is very literally the least they could have done, but I guess kudos on them for doing this where others have not.

Even though it feels like Orange is the New Black was trying to do well with Sophia, this is not progress. Being inclusive is not a rehash of tired stereotypes and cheap shots that would be inexcusable if the same character's only notable characteristic was she was lesbian. I am led to believe that Sophia gets some good character moments later in the series, but the foundation of her character has so many inexcusable problems that I have to call the whole effort a miss.

I thought this was really funny.