Besides The Shawshank Redemption, I’m usually not into films or TV shows that talk about prison life. Recently, Orange Is The New Black has been another exception. It’s hard to resist a show that has an array of interesting characters such as the ones in this series. An interesting thing to note is that the show features a number of female characters that fall into different places regarding their orientation and gender identity. Even though I haven’t finished the first season, Sophia Burset has become one of my favorite characters from the show.
Sophia is one of the hairdressers at the prison. Although we don’t see her, she has competition with Danita, another hairdresser at the prison. Besides Danita, she gets along fairly well with her fellow inmates. She does help her other inmates, even though it may require them to give her something in return. This was seen when the protagonist, Piper, needed cocoa butter as part of a scheme to eat food at the cafeteria again.
Early on in the show, we find out that Sophia is transgender. While in prison, she’s still able to receive hormones to continue her transitioning. However, if someone tries to get between her and her hormones it’s not going to end well. As a result of her reduction in her hormones, this led to her making an unlikely friendship with Sister Ingalls, a nun at the prison.
In episode three of the show, we learn about Sophia’s backstory. Before her transition, she was a married firefighter named Marcus. Sophia’s wife, Crystal, tries to help her through her transition. Although Crystal is losing attraction towards her, it’s still obvious that she loves Sophia. Unfortunately, Sophia’s son, Michael, still has difficulty accepting Sophia’s transition. It’s later found out that Sophia used credit card fraud to help fund her gender reassignment surgery.
While I love Sophia’s personality, I also love how the show portrays her character. Even though there have been recent portrayals of trans* individuals in a more sympathetic light like Unique from GLEE and Adam from Degrassi, there are still instances where revealing a character as trans* is seen as a joke or worse. Thankfully, the show averts this. I think many viewers watching Sophia’s story arc in the series can relate to her. Whether a viewer is transitioning themselves or not, all of us want to live a life where we can be who we truly are and want the people in our lives to accept who we are as well.
Sadly, while Sophia is given the right to serve her sentence in a prison that matches her identity, there are many others such as herself in real life that doesn’t have that luxury. Trans* individuals who haven’t transitioned before their prison sentence are sent to prisons that match their birth sex. This has led to a number of pre-op MtF individuals to be victims of sexual violence in prison. It’s also difficult for trans* prisoners to obtain hormones while serving their sentence. Those that do get hormones still have to deal with the possibility of not receiving the appropriate levels for intake.
Hopefully viewers watching OITNB can gain more insight about trans* individuals. With a well-rounded character who has an interesting story arc like Sophia, fans of the show have a refreshing portrayal of trans* people. Perhaps with more characters like Sophia in film and television, it can help people change their views on gender identity politics.
Janelle Smith is a TV & Film Writer at Girls in Capes. She is a senior at Ohio State University majoring in film studies and minoring in studio art.