If you were to cut out every scene of Orange is the New Black that doesn’t contain Laverne Cox’s character Sophia Burset, you’d be left with a story about a transgender woman of color who is denied healthcare, separated from her family, beaten by her fellow inmates, and transferred to solitary confinement where she attempts suicide.
There would be none of the steamy lesbian sex for which Orange is the New Black has come to be known, nor would there be much in the way of humor, even though the series is classified as a comedy for the Golden Globes.
Hardly a scene would go by without other prisoners spitting out a heaping serving of transphobic slurs like “tranny” or “ladyman.” Every single aspect of the slimmed-down narrative would be directly tied to Sophia’s gender identity.
In other words, a Sophia Burset supercut would be a brutal slog to watch, no matter how brilliant Cox’s performance may be. On one hand, it would be realistic, given that prison is a humiliating hell for transgender inmates.
But in a wildly inventive series like this one, it’s disappointing that the writers haven’t found much for Sophia to do across 52 episodes besides be transgender and get punished for it.
In many ways, season four is the most significant yet for Litchfield’s only transgender inmate. Sophia spends most of her time in the SHU while her wife Crystal pressures the newly-privatized prison to release her. Ironically, it’s also the one in which she displays the most agency, devising new and increasingly dangerous ways to inconvenience the administration from her tiny, windowless cell.
“Either you let me out of here or I’m gonna keep flushin’ this toilet till I drown myself!” she shouts in episode four, defiantly staring down warden Caputo as she stuffs her shirt into the toilet bowl.
But by the last episode, after Sophia shares a brief but touching reunion with a former enemy, Orange is the New Black returns her to the status quo. In one of the season’s final scenes, Litchfield’s resident white supremacists walk past Sophia and sling a stream of insults that crosses over the line of realism into more gratuitous territory.
“Shit, now that’s a big one,” says one skinhead. “I haven’t seen Mandingirl around here before.”
“Heard he-she was in Max,” another chimes in. “Beat up a Mexican or something.”
The next few lines of dialogue refer to Sophia as “it” and “that.” She never appears onscreen again.
Most Orange is the New Black critics have been too entranced by the newness of a transgender character played by a transgender actress to scrutinize how that character is actually written and handled. Cox’s undeniable talent as an actress also helps to cover over the flaws in the writing.
But the mistreatment of her character hasn’t entirely escaped notice. After the show first premiered on Netflix, Teagan Widmer wrote for Youngist that she was “immensely uncomfortable” with the show’s portrayal of Sophia.
“Almost every time that Sophia is on screen the writers make some sort of reference to genitalia,” she wrote.
Sadly, that’s true. In fact, one of the only playful moments given to Sophia in the entire series comes in season two when she teaches the other inmates about the vagina, urethra, and clitoris, using the knowledge she gained from her sex reassignment surgery. It’s a rare scene in which Sophia isn’t being harassed by other inmates but it’s still about her genitals.
Widmer also addressed the realism question head-on: “These things are part of reality but, in a scripted TV show, it would be nice to go without seeing them in every scene that Sophia is in.”
What Widmer was discussing, so early on in the show’s history, was the fine line between realism and exploitation, a line that many felt Orange is the New Black decidedly crossed this season. How much can the show make Sophia suffer, after all, before it starts to feel like it’s taking a perverse sort of pleasure in her pain?
Season four may have answered that question. In a widely-shared critique of the season four finale, in which a beloved character dies, writer Ashleigh Shackelford called the show “trauma porn written for white people”—a critique that artist and writer KAMMs applied to Sophia’s subplot in an article for The Visibility Project.
“The only justifiable reason for giving Sophia’s story so little screen time would be if Cox was unavailable for filming,” she wrote. “If the writers and showrunners could not think of any other ways to fully explore Sophia’s story … without exploiting her pain and creating trauma porn, I have a list of writers I would like to submit for future consideration.”
It’s not like the writers weren’t warned. Critics have long been asking the show to “give Sophia more to do.” And before season four premiered, the queer women’s website Autostraddle basically begged the writers to grant Sophia a reprieve from her seemingly endless get-abused-for-being-trans plotline.
“Seriously, stop making terrible shit happen to Sophia, show,” they wrote. “Just stop.”
At its best—which definitely isn’t always—Orange is the New Black is honest about the hardships inmates face while humanizing them, too. And, for the most part, the show has found that balance with its most beloved characters.
We have to watch Big Boo’s painful backstory of rejection, but we also get to watch her develop important friendships with other women, especially Pennsatucky. We have to watch Nicky’s descent into heroin addiction, but the show also lets her have moments of levity, like season two’s sex competition with Big Boo or her tryst with Morello.
We know so many little details about so many of the women in Litchfield: Poussey is kind and loves to read. Red is tough with a soft spot. Taystee likes Planet Earth and Harry Potter. Piper’s the worst.
But Sophia’s character gets none of that humanizing flavor, apart from her brief stint in the salon. As Sady Doyle observed on In These Times, her dialogue is “entirely hair-based” for the first two episodes of the series.
Even now, after four seasons, we still don’t know much more about her than that: she used to be a firefighter, she’s transgender, and she faces transphobic violence every day. At this point, she’s more of a punching bag than she is a fully-formed character.
Sophia gets all of the pain with none of the pleasure, all of the gritty realism with none of the warmth that buoys the series. Orange is the New Black has already been renewed through season seven, and with Cox’s career taking off, there’s no telling how much—or how little—we’ll see of Sophia in the coming years. Hopefully, by 2018, she can get the love she deserves.