“Orange is the New Black” offers new opportunity to discuss trans* issues

lavernecoxI can’t say that I love Netflix’s latest original series “Orange Is The New Black.” I haven’t finished watching the thirteen episode season, but find myself agreeing with the critiques laid out by Autostraddle and The Nation, specifically regarding uninspired stereotypes of women of color, the absence of sex lives for queer women of color, and the dismissiveness of sexual assault. I’m also just not in the market for “Weeds in Prison,” considering how terrible that show became in its later seasons.

All that aside, I appreciate “Orange Is The New Black” for introducing me to Laverne Cox, the actress who plays Sophia Burset, a black trans character who found herself in prison after committing credit fraud in order to fund her transition. She’s one of the more complex and interesting characters on the show, as so many of the others (particularly the protagonist, an middle-class cis white woman in a “fish out of water” story) are familiar to the point of boredom.

In an interview with The Takeaway, Cox said:

“So often trans stories have been told in ways that sensationalize our identities, that objectify our bodies, and sort of focus on transition and don’t really have the human piece, or the takeaway becomes all about surgery. What’s exciting to me is that there’s a lot of realism, in terms of the real life lived experiences of trans people.”

I think about this as director dream hampton (check out her Feministing Five interview here) and producer Natasha Miller near their Kickstarter goal to fund their film “TransParent; A Story of Loss in a Community Misunderstood.” The film, they write, is about “the life of Shelley ‘Treasure’ Hilliard, a Detroit 19-year-old girl, beloved by her family and friends. TransParent is a film about Shelley’s murder, about a hate crime that wasn’t prosecuted as one. TransParent is about the struggle to forgive. TransParent is about Detroit. TransParent is about projections and perceptions and communities misrepresented and misunderstood. TransParent is about incredible beauty and horrific violence. TransParent is about a grieving mother and her commitment to honor her daughter, Treasure.” 

It’s the telling of these stories, whether fictionalized like that of Sophia Burset or the true story of Shelley Hilliard, that bring us (and I specifically mean us woefully uninformed cisgender persons) closer to understanding the issues facing the trans* community so we can actively work toward change. It’s that lack of understanding and empathy that has CeCe McDonald locked behind bars for her defending herself.

Whatever my misgivings about “Orange is the New Black” as a whole, the potential it has for opening up dialogue among people who would otherwise act as if the existence of trans* people is no concern of their own is worth commending.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon.

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