Hollywood’s Surprising New Character

How a Netflix show is opening the door for transgender roles on television

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Orange is the New Black, the acclaimed new Netflix drama, has hooked fans with its fish-out-of-water tale of a WASPy soap designer who is sentenced to prison. But it’s another unlikely character who has snared the attention of the audience, and now television programmers are taking notice.

Orange is perhaps the first popular show to feature a black transgender woman as a sympathetic lead character. Following the show’s successful debut, transgender characters appear poised to enter a number of other programs, ushering in a new chapter for television.

The Sundance Channel recently green lit a series about a transgender man. Chelsea Handler will play a transgender woman on Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy on Showtime next season. The woman Donald Trump kicked out of the Miss Universe Canada Pageant last year for being transgender will star in her own reality show on E! Canada. The BBC Writer’s Room held a contest earlier this year asking for comedic scripts about transgender characters, with money to produce the pilot for the network as the grand prize. And the character Unique, who is a transgender woman, will return as a recurring character on Glee next season. (Originally the character was only contracted for 2 episodes this past season.)

And with Orange‘s success, we may see even more transgender characters. Since the show premiered on July 11, fans have inundated Laverne Cox, the transgender actress who plays Sophia, with messages online and through Twitter. One blogger wrote that she used to be prejudiced against trans people, but after watching the show’s third episode, she can sympathize with their struggles. Another fan of the show tweeted at Cox that he still doesn’t fully understand transgender people, but he’s beginning to learn because of the show.

“I think the positive reviews and buzz that actresses like Laverne have received are a clear indicator that there’s an interest from the audience and from critics to see more trans people onscreen,” said Rich Ferraro of GLAAD, the LGBT media advocacy organization.

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Up until now, Cox and her fellow trans actors tended to see only two types of scripts: those where they would play trans characters who are sex workers, victims of violent crimes or villains; and, less frequently, they have played young men and women struggling with coming out as trans. “There’s the script that exploits trans identity and the script that focuses on transition,” Cox said. “There’s a lot of the same trans stories being repeated over and over again. Orange breaks that in a lot of wonderful ways.”

Some members of the transgender community are not as happy with the Sophia character. “There are some people who say it’s still a stereotype character: it’s a trans person as a criminal; it’s a trans woman as a hairdresser,” said Susan O’Neal Stryker, Director of the Institute for LGBT studies at the University of Arizona, who is launching the world’s first program in transgender studies.

But Stryker said the role does have its nuances. “Laverne Cox’s character plays to transgender stereotypes and yet because of the way the show is written and acted, it has this sort of ironic undertone,” she said.

Orange isn’t the first show to experiment with breaking trans stereotypes. Both TeenNick’s Degrassi: The Next Generation and Fox’s Glee featured trans characters on their shows this year. Those story lines—aimed for the most part at young audiences—usually focus on teenagers’ transitions into their trans lives and finding acceptance with their family and their peers. But the adult versions of such plot lines have been missing from cable or network lineups.

“In reality, as a trans person, who lives and breathes and knows other trans folk, there’s so many transgender stories that need to be told,” Cox said.

Sam Chambers, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins and the author of The Queer Politics of Television, said that the Sophia character could lead to other even more complicated portrayals of trans characters on TV as Orange is the first popular show that has seriously explored a transgender character’s transition from one gender to another.

“It’s the kind of dramatic role that changes the face of television. You have a show that’s exploring the backstory of that character, including the character’s transition and what that meant for her, and what that meant for her family, over the course of a long story arc,” he said. “I have no doubt that Sophia will be a character that people are going to write about and point to in the future. She will have created the foundation for even more complex post-Sophia transgender characters.”

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Cox’s success may also encourage producers to cast transgender actors in these emerging transgender roles. Often, cisgender actors are cast for roles as trans characters. “I love it when non-trans actors get to play a trans role that brings humanity and depth to the character,” said Cox. She praised Hilary Swank’s performance in Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman’s in TransAmerica, and Kerry Washington’s in Life Is Hot in Cracktown. “At the same time,” she said, “as an actor, I want to play everything.”

“I’ve been on set with actors who are amazing, and I think I’m just as good as they are. But they work more than I do because there’s more roles written for them,” Cox added.

Ferraro said that the increasing prominence of transgender actors will likely mirror the growth of gay actors and characters on television, a factor cited by everyone from Rick Santorum to Joe Biden as influencing Americans’ attitudes towards gay people.

And, Stryker points out, America is ready for such shows. “At some level, it’s just a TV show,” Stryker said. “But I do think it point to a larger and deeper shift in our culture about how we understand what gender means and the acceptability of gender diversity.”

Cox said she hopes that her performance will inspire both show makers and audiences to think differently. As she considers the future of her career, she looks to actors like Whoopi Goldberg for inspiration.

“When her career got started, no one looked like her. Conventional wisdom would say she couldn’t be a star, but she was so talented it transcended these preconceptions people had,” she says. “When I think of the career that I want and that I deserve, I look to people like that. I know I’m going to have to be really good. And I’m okay with that. I’m okay with working really hard on the craft of acting.”

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