Transsexual Character and Actress – Orange is the New Black- Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset.
Rather than go into the already well known roles which are easily found on Wikipedia about Laverne Cox’s filmography, let’s just concentrate on this drama and what it means in real terms to the transgender community.
[notice]Warning! This Review contains spoilers![/notice]
In a nutshell ‘Orange is the new Black’ is a drama based in a US women’s prison near New York. It is built around a middle-class atypical sexually attractive, white, educated, blonde female called Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) AKA prison name ‘Chapman’, who 10 years earlier got mixed up with a lesbian drug trafficker called Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) who reminded me of Sue Perkins with Long Hair. Just before the statute of limitation expires on the case, someone ‘grasses-up’ Chapman so she hands herself in to the jail, and so her journey begins. Chapman is by now engaged to ‘American Pie’ Star Jason Biggs who plays wannabe journalist by the name of Larry Bloom. Many episodes focus on their telephone ‘reverse the charges’ calls from the prison and visiting hours (of course). Chapman discovers that Alex grassed her up, but Alex at first denies it and they enter into a lesbian affair.
This series manages to play the flashback angle quite well. Each inmate has a subplot that we see in each episode. This helps us understand why they are there, and often the injustice of the system that put them there.
There have been no shortage of women’s prison dramas over the years, from ‘Within these Walls’ with Googie Withers (great name), Tenko, Prisoner Cell Block H, with its low-budget sets and shaky bars :). To ‘Bad Girls’, and now a new series is coming called ‘Wentworth Prison’.
However all of them suffered in one department, they brushed over the sex. ‘Orange is the New Black’ does not! And how! So this is one the men will love to watch as much as the women – as will all those in between. It is an adult programme, in fact it is a little shy of pornographic, but just enough for Netflix to have seen the value in this as something they wanted to produce for their own in-house service. This will be happening more and more as television goes on-demand and internet based. But it is quite simply a ‘les fest’ – no question about that. Sometimes to the point of being gratuitous, well, this is a drama and not real life, so watching someone reading a magazine or playing pool would not cut it. The sex is definitely the hook that holds this entire series together. And it has to be said this was very well played by Netflix, a company who have done what I have been arguing for for for many years, they have employed a transperson to play a trans character! After watching this I had the same feeling I had after watching Candis Cayne in ‘Dirty Sexy Money’, I just felt embarrassed watching non-transpeople pretending to be transpeople on television, as no matter how well they do it I cannot get past the fact that its like they are taking the pi*s! It is our version of ‘blacking-up’ or ‘browning-up’, and sorry, but this has to stop – all the television executives in the world should watch this and see what they must do – it is not rocket science! So for this alone and the common sense Netflix had producing this they must be applauded – well done Netflix!
I suppose you will have to watch the entire series or read the series reviews on sites such as IMDB if you do not want to sit through the episodes. But I will focus on the few that interested me (the Leads) and Chapman, Vause, Burset and Red (Kate Mulgrew) as Galina “Red” Reznikov, who is herself an inmate that manages the prison’s kitchen. Better known as Captain Kathryn Janeway from ‘Star Trek Voyager’. At first I didn’t spot her as she now has a Russian Accent, has put on a few pounds, is 10 years older and got a short cropped red hairstyle, but I then went ‘Ohhhh I know who that is…’. But she is a very good actress and her years as a tough but likeable woman running a starship set her in good stead for this role. She runs the prison – same role? Other subplots include, Chapman’s roommate who killed a man who abused a vulnerable young housekeeper in her charge as the manager of a cleaning agency, ‘Crazy-Eyes’ who wants Chapman to be her wife, but there are so many other roles that are beyond the scope of this review. Let’s keep it on track and talk about the transgender role.
Sophia Burset – Transsexual Inmate
So, Sophia Burset is a transsexual woman, her episode is episode 3, entitled ‘Lesbian Request Denied’, and if you do not watch any other episode this is the one to watch if you simply want to find out about this character. Sophia runs the hair and beauty salon, she is at this stage still married and has a son by that relationship.
The episode opens with a look at Sophia as a male Firefighter looking at and I assume stealing information (and identities) from documents in burned out buildings. This is quite a big deal, Laverne’s Twin Brother M. Lamarr had to play her pretransition for this part.
We see him finish his shift and then take off his jacket in the toilet to reveal female underwear, many transpeople do wear male (FTM) or female (MTF) underwear as for some this is as close as they can get in comfort without exposing their true-selves. It then cuts to him looking in the mirror and pressing his face up a little with his fingers and arching his eyes (cat-like) to want to look more feminine then goes down to wash his face. Then it cuts to her head coming up in jail and patting her face dry – clever editing.
In the next scene we see Sophia applying make-up and posing in front of the mirror proud of what she has achieved – this is in the build up to not getting her hormones, of course she does by the end of the series.
Pill gate – The first we really see of Laverne acting is when she discovers that the Prison funds cannot support her medical needs. Unbeknown to her these very same said funds are being fraudulently pilfered by the female deputy warden – who seems to have a camera permanently panning up and down her stockinged legs and heels in every scene.
“This (pointing to herself) cost me $80,000 dollars and my freedom. I need my pills to be what I am supposed to be.”
Rather than give her her dosage they use her needing a liver scan as an excuse – but my thought was wouldn’t that cost more?
Where are they buying her pills? Tifanny‘s? – pun intended.
This is an often used cliche in transgender media, however as she is in jail we do not get the usual sliding the foot into a stilletoe heel etc, although we do see her posing in the latest home-made flip-flop. So rather we see an adaption and how she is managing to create makeup using Vaseline and Jelly powder mixed with a cotton bud to tint it and add flavour to ‘a make do and mend’ lip gloss.
One scene has her urinating (all the doors but one are broken on the cubicles and even that one is broken come the end).
Chapman sees her and apologises to which Sophia replies, “Don’t worry hunney! I have spent a lot of money on it.”
It is understandable that there must be some ‘dumbing-down’ to ensure the most stupid viewer can understand who Sophie is and how she came about.
The Guards speak about her out of earshot – “Now that’s a whole different species! Freak!””Don’t tell me you wouldn’t ‘knock that’ (have sex with her), she used to have a d*ck so knows what you likes, I live in the present not the past!”
This is an underhanded compliment if ever there was one – but they are far worse with the other inmates so on balance actually nice – but you really have to work at it to see it!
We see a flashback in this episode which was poignant and perfectly played. We see her ‘dressed’ and a bit of a mess – no fashion sense – and her wife standing there and taking a dress from her rail and saying, “try this on?” And she does, and she is told she looks beautiful in it. The wife asks that she continue to dress like this but not to remove her penis (in an abstract way sounds like she can unbolt it, but you get my drift!). But Sophia refuses and explains she has to see this through. they embrace and her son sees his father kissing his mum dressed like a woman. To which he runs out the door.
This starts the path of transition, we later see them (Sophia and son) together in a shoe shop, Sophia by now has transitioned although it is unclear if she has surgery by this point. The son wants expensive trainers and she is broke. A person comes in who recognises her (the old her – him) and the son can see just how awkward Sophia is treated by others, this is an important message.
People cannot get away quick enough when they realise she is trans. The son runs out with the trainers still on upset and Sophia is left to pay for them, over time Sophia apparently runs up a massive debt, not only through pampering her son – to buy his love – but to transition and pay for her surgery. This lands her in jail for credit card fraud. I suppose what is often misunderstood is that many transwomen would rather be in her position and transitioned and be the woman they are and suffer jail than be in a physical jail outside with no hope, and this is where I feel she gains a lot of sympathy. It is something that required medical treatment, and why should she be ashamed of that? I am not condoning card fraud to get it btw, just in the context of this fictional drama.
Sister Ingalls – “Your transition came at a great cost to your wife and family, isn’t it fair you now stand by her choices?”
Sophia – “I Can’t let her go!”
However, as time goes on we see that Sophia’s desperate need to hang on to her relationship inside the jail, is unfair when Sophia now has what she wants, but her wife does not, and a later episode addresses this issue, where Sophia decides to just let her go and be happy.
Sophia to wife on the phone – “You do what you gotta do, you have my blessing!”
Wife to Sophia – (in tears) “Thank you!”
She later got her hormones.
At the end of the series they did run out of ideas a little with Sophia, that’s a bit of a worry, so they had her produce the Prison Nativity, well trans are often seen as ‘performers’? So maybe a bit of stereotyping there. This is my only worry, that the writers need to step away from her ‘transness’ slightly now and settle her in to some other juicy story-lines and flashbacks. As quite often when the transangle is exhausted writers struggle as to what to do next – write for her in the same way you would write for any woman – she just happens to be trans that’s all.
Script Mistakes – Although Laverne is not likely to argue with the script writers, there were some real gem bloopers, such as:
“If I do not get my hormones…when my penis was split in half and inverted, I don’t have any testes, I will get hot flushes, and my body will sag.”
The old ‘penis split in half and inverted’ is an urban myth that has been said by non-trans people or the ignorant from the very beginning of GRS. This is not what happens, it is a bit more sophisticated than that (this same gag was said only recently by Keith Lemon on ITV’s ‘Celebrity Juice’ but he was far more crude even doing the hand gestures of doing it!), so this seemed out of place in an otherwise clued-up drama.
‘Tranny’ was used, ‘Ladyman’ was used, another example was when the religious (inmate) leader in the prison said, “God is angry there is an abomination in church, ‘IT’ must leave!”
“I got a tranny [in there] complaining about her hormones!”
The Assistant Warden – the one in Killer Heels –
“Who would give up being a man, it is like winning the lottery and then giving the ticket back.”
The irony here is she is exploiting femininity to within an inch of its life in every episode, so that just didn’t make sense. There are plenty of butch women in the prison who could have maybe said that line and it have worked better.
However unlike every other example of this being used on television, and we have over 25 years of archives here, Laverne Cox was standing there at the other end of it, and stood up to it, so yeah it can be said, and it has been said, but for once it was done properly!
The character is in for 3 years so this means she is unlikely to exit early and we will see her in the next series!
She is a transwoman! And although quite often transpeople can be a bit wooden, I cite ‘Ticked-off Trannies with Knives’ as an example, if a transperson is playing a transperson then the viewers kinda make allowances for that, in the same way a wheelchair user may struggle to climb the stairs. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Laverne Cox is actually a very good actress. The scene where she is with her partner trying on the dress was very moving and perfectly paced. I believed her and that’s not something I have said for a very long time! She and Candis Cayne have now set the benchmarks, and sorry UK you now have to follow!
Prison Drams and comedies (like BBC’s ‘Porridge’) often work well because they are institutions where a lot of people are contained in one place. Unlike society which seems to be growing apart. All dramas and Soaps need places where people will meet up, the pub, the cafe, or in a sitcom – the living room. So a prison is a perfect vehicle for a transperson to escape the traditional fayre of being a sex worker in a bar or similar, prisons allow for power, violence, vulnerability, abuse of power (and there is plenty of that with voyeuristic guards). Of course this is highly sexually charged drama (some might say to the point of being ludicrous), probably more so than in any other prison drama of it’s ilk. Sophia manages to stay out of this (for now at least whilst she finds her feet and is loyal to her wife) and thats a good thing.
She is one of the many who are criminals and as such this levels it all out. In fact she is probably one of the most feminine in there apart from Chapman. So cleverly played stuff!
I do not say it often but this was music to my ears and eyes. This is what the BBC and Channel 4 (and all the others) could of and should have done years ago I have told them again and again but do they listen? They have missed out as now they do not get to set the benchmarks, now they have to live up to other people’s and that’s a real shame. The BBC could be boasting that they did this first and they didn’t. I still say get a REAL transperson in BBC ‘Eastenders’ before another soap does it (‘Coronation Street’, despite Hayley, and ‘Hollyoaks’, depsite Jason still have not managed to do that!) – I mean an actual real life transperson – not someone pretending.
I loved this series, I watched the entire series over a few nights taking notes, it was the highlight of the year so far for me and for that I give this a rare but well deserved.
5/5 TZ Stars – Excellent!