Rationale – Michael. Sophia’s character being an established member


As society is becoming more modern in the Western sphere, people’s perceptions of certain ideologies and social groups have changed. Whilst I agree with Gherovici (2010) that transgender people are much more present in mainstream media today than they were twenty years ago, this representation alone is not enough. Often when minority groups do attain visibility in the media, they are portrayed negatively; thus, the way in which these characters are portrayed on television also matters. Within this thesis, I thus hope to answer the following question: How do the TV producers choose to represent transgender in Orange is the New Black. Despite the transgender community gaining more visibility in the media, they still remain an underresearched group, being ”treated as a generalized, silenced, and insignificant faction of a bigger LGBT agenda” (Minjie, M. 2017. p. 6). This exclusion and suppression may be led by the fact that transgender issues are gender concerns in nature, whilst LGB issues center around sexuality.  Thus, by focusing on the representation of transgender, I also hope to fulfil the existing gap in qualitative textual analysis in transgender-related media content.

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Orange Is the New Black is a television series created specifically for the online streaming website Netflix. Since its creation in 2013, it has enjoyed global success, standing out from other typical popular media texts through its dynamic variation of women. But one remarkable character who should be noted, is Sophia Burset, played by the actress, Laverne Cox, whom I will be focusing on throughout this analysis. Rather than focusing on Sophia’s physical appearance, I instead aim to observe how transgender is represented through the way other characters’ respond to her gender identity. In this section I will briefly describe Sophia’s life and the people who she interacts with on a daily basis.


Sophia Burset is a transgender woman, serving time at Litchfield Penitentiary for committing credit card fraud which was used to fund her gender reassignment surgery. Before transitioning as a woman, Sophia was known as Marcus, a firefighter married to Crystal, with whom she had a son – Michael. Sophia’s character being an established member of the respective cast was critical, as this ensured there was a sufficient amount of content to analyse.  


Literature Review

Visual Culture

The first move towards visual culture is a recognition that ”visual culture is not static: it can change just as another aspects of culture can change” (Henderson, K. 1998: 57). It has revolutionized from being a useful phrase for people working in media studies, film and other aspects of visual, to a new means of doing disciplinary work (Mirzoeff, 1999). Thus, rather than witnessing the end of an era of the visual – we have in fact witnessed a visual turn – ”with tremendous interest in understanding the function of the image in its own right as well as interanimation of the visual and the verbal in our means of (re)presentation” (Hill, C and Helmers, M. 2004: 111).

It is equally as important to note the role of the reader within visual culture. According to Hall, there are three ways in which individuals read a media text – dominant, oppositional and negotiated (1993). For example, negotiated reading may occur in the television programme Orange Is the New Black, when audiences accept the dominant reading, but resist and modify it in a way that reflects their own experiences and position in society. Conversely, other audiences may show oppositional reading, by refusing to accept the dominant reading.



Whilst birthday parties and football games are called presentations, since they take place in ordinary time and space, films and television products are referred to as re-presentations as they construct time and space (Van Leeuwen, T. and Jewitt, C. 2001). Representation can be defined as ”using language to say something meaningful about, or to represent, the world meaningfully, to other people” (Hall. 1997: 15). While being portrayed, beyond a dominant trait of their gender identity being ‘different’, several stereotypes are also emphasized and reinforced in some representations of transgender characters. For example, transwomen have typically been represented using three tropes: deceptive, pathetic and artificial (Serano, 2007). The deceptive trope portrays transwomen as merely ‘passing’ as women, hiding their gender identities from those around them; the pathetic trope portrays women as weak and or vulnerable, and lastly; the artificial stereotype, which portrays transwomen as an artificial or fake woman, due to the fact that she has used medical surgery or hormones to appear more like a woman (McKinnon, 2014). Further, transgender characters are often represented as isolated and distant from other LGBT individuals, and when characters do have a partner they are still portrayed as non-sexual (Raley & Lucas, 2006). These stereotypical representations may emerge in Orange Is the New Black during experiences and flashbacks related to Sophia.  




With new mediums such as Netflix and Now TV emerging, the field of Television Studies is evolving more rapidly than ever. The fact that Orange Is the New Black is a Netflix original series, says a lot about its core values. By not having to conform to cable regulations, the television show is able to bring inclusivity by challenging traditional gender norms. Also, unlike broadcast of public television programmes, all episodes of Orange Is the New Black were released in one go with the intent of being watched back-to-back. This has allowed the Producer, Jenji Kohan, to create a more complex storyline for Sophia, whilst also building a dynamic relationship between the audience and the character.


According to Richard Dyer, how ”social groups are treated in cultural representations is part and parcel of how they are treated in life” (Dyer, R. 2002: 1), thus the idea of an accurate visual representation on television is vital for any minority group, as this impacts how the group is understood by society, and by extension, treated. Another way in which television acts as an ‘important discursive medium’ (Lipsitz, 2003: 40), is by providing vicarious experiences on which to model beliefs, attitudes, and behavior when real-life experiences are more limited (Pearl et al., 1982). Thus by portraying transgender people on television, audiences are able to learn how to interact with transgender people, who they would not otherwise encounter, whilst also helping transgender audiences come to understand their own identities. It is for this influence of television representations, that I seek to understand how certain messages and stereotypes are created about transgender people through Orange Is the New Black.




In order to dissect the representation of transgender, one must understand the distinction between the terms sex and gender. Sex denotes biological criteria, such as chromosomes and genes (Holmes, M. 2007), whilst gender is ”a social construction that refers to how differences between girls and boys and women and men are created and explained by society” (Denmark et al., 2005: 5). Transgender individuals experience gender dysphoria, which refers to ”discomfort or distress that is caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and that person’s sex assigned at birth” (Coleman, et al. 2011: 165). Therefore, transgender individuals do not identify as the sex into which they were biologically born.



In this rhetoric study, a method of genre analysis was applied to gather qualitative data on how producers choose to represent transgender. The study of film rhetoric is useful to the interdisciplinary field of media and communication, by showing how verbal and visual elements of a text can work together to construct a particular representation of a marginalized group (Hill, C. and Helmers, M. 2004). Fiske’s basic ‘codes of television’ was also employed alongside my genre analysis, to demonstarte how the producer’s choice in editing techniques developed further meanings to Sophia’s character (1987). Codes can be defined as ”links between producers, texts, and audiences, and are the agents of intertextuality through which texts interrelate in a network of meanings that constitutes our cultural world” (ibid: 4). Fiske divided these codes into three levels which spill into each other: reality, representation, and ideology. It is important that all three levels are addressed throughout this essay, since ”sense can only be produced when reality, representations, and ideology merge into a coherent, seemingly natural unity” (Fiske. 1987: 6). However, as my aim is to understand how transgender is represented through the way other characters respond to Sophia, I will be paying particular close attention to levels two (representation) and three (ideology), as opposed to level one which focuses on physical appearance.


Genre analysis is not the only method available for examining the topic of transgender representations in television. Content analysis could have been applied, which would allow for a numerical understanding of the instances of certain narrative conventions and visual codes that create a certain transgender representation. However, for this particular research project I found an application of genre analysis to be the most efficient method, as it allowed for a deeper understanding of how visual codes work together to construct transgender representations in a way that goes beyond just the quantity of these elements.


Orange Is the New Black season one consists of thirteen episodes, with each episode being between 50 minutes to an hour in length. However, after watching the entire first season to better familiarize myself with the show, I decided to analyse the first six episodes only since this is where Sophia’s identity was found to be formulated the most. I also found an analysis of six episodes to be an efficient sample size in order to engage in a balanced act and to support my convincing conclusions (Bryman, 2012). Finally, as this is a contemporary textual analysis, I do not attempt to offer a fixed reading of this particular text, but rather various ‘reading positions’ to help form a ‘dialogue’ around which transgender representations can be discussed (Creeber, G. 2006). 



Honesty and openness  

Episode three ‘Lesbian Request Denied,” begins with a flashback of a group of fire-fighters in the changing room. Rather than undressing in front of everyone, one team mate, Marcus, goes into a private cubicle to get undressed which seems rather odd. It is only at this point that we realise it is in fact Sophia before she transitioned as a woman. As Marcus takes off his uniform, the first signs of his transgender character are revealed, as he is wearing a hot pink bra with matching pants (see frame 1). Despite Marcus coming to terms with his transwomen identity, it is implied that he is having to hide this from his work mates, in fear of being ridiculed. The fact that the producers would portray Sophia in such a hyper-masculine job is also particularly interesting. ”When an employer hires a man to do a ‘man’s job’ ‘he or she typically does not expect this man to announce that he intends to become a woman and remain in the same job” (Schilt and Connell. 2007: 596). Thus, it could be insinuated that Sophia had no other choice but to hide her hyper-feminine identity in order to sustain her high-powered position. Marcus then gazes into the mirror at his reflection, trying to adjust his features to make him look as if he has had plastic surgery. The look of dissatisfaction and sadness on Marcus’ face suggests that he is not satisfied with the sex he was born with, creating an overall atmosphere of sympathy (see frame 2). This is highlighted in a later conversation between Sophia and her wife, Crystal, where Crystal confesses that she supported Sophia through her transition because she could ‘see how much pain’ she was in, and thought it would be better for Michael have ‘two mums than a dead Dad’.


The scene then switches back to present-day, with Sophia admiring her naked body (now with breasts) – in the mirror of the prison bathroom (see frame 3). Sophia is clearly satisfied with the results of her physical transformation, and the fact that she is stood openly naked in the changing room suggests that she is confident, honest and open about her new gender. This challenges the deceptive narrative, as according to Serano (2007), trans women are often portrayed as passing as well as hiding their transition from those around them. By representing Sophia being open about her transition may also encourage other people to publicly identify as transgender, since it opens up possibilities for a continuum of gender identities (Schilt and Connell. 2007). However, through this narrative it is also insinuated that undergoing gender reassignment surgery is the only way to happiness for the transgender community, which is obviously something not everyone has the privilege of achieving. The fact that Sophia has had to go to great lengths of stealing credit cards to cover the costs of her surgery procedures, clearly shows that this is not something she could have funded herself, despite leading a middle-class lifestyle.


Physical appearance

Throughout the six episodes, Sophia always makes herself presentable, spending time creating perfect hair and make-up to ensure that she looks as feminine as possible. Taking an interest in one’s physical appearance is often encompassed by members of the female gender rather than male, thus producers may have been generalizing Sophia’s character as the effeminate type. Sophia’s interests and knowledge about beauty techniques further adds to her womanly character. For example, during episode three we are presented with an extreme close-up shot of Sophia mixing together pop candy and Vaseline to make a sugar lip scrub (see frame 4). All these visual elements therefore work together, to create Sophia’s character as Hyper feminized (Serano, 2007).



Later on in the episode, Sophia’s heteronormative identity is clearly privileged over her transgender identity by the fact she gets denied hormones. Sophia desperately needs her dose in order to maintain her gender transition. However, when confronting this as an emergency to former corrections officer, Mr. Healy, he simply dismisses her, arguing that the prison doesn’t consider this as an important issue. In American society, when individuals surgically modify their bodies within their assigned gender it is normally viewed as ‘normal’ and socially acceptable (Morgan, 1991). However, when individuals modify their bodies outside of their assigned gender, like Sophia, it is viewed as a form of deviance and socially unacceptable, and it becomes stigmatized (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Thus, through this representation, it is clear that Sophia’s character has been ‘stigmatized’ purely because her gender identity (Goffman, 1963), and is not taken seriously by other heteronormative characters. However, by depicting this negative representation, audiences will hopefully have a better understanding and a more empathetic view of what it means to be a transgendered person in today’s society.



Julia Serrano (2007) argues that the media focuses exclusively on the physical transition to oneself rather than the discrimination that transsexuals face on a daily basis. Although, I would like to argue that Orange Is the New Black challenges this, as Sophia is shown experiencing direct discrimination and direct sexual identity confrontation on a number of occasions. For example, whilst Sophia is presenting her speech for better health care in episode six ‘WAC Pack’, another inmate, Tasystee, brings Sophia’s gender into question, calling her a ‘fake woman’ with a ‘plastic pussy’. Not only does these derogatory comments conform to the artificial stereotype of a trans women, (McKinnon, 2014), but words such as ‘fake’ and ‘plastic’, also insinuates that transgender is still viewed as something artificial and not entirely ‘real’. Consequently, this negative representation may deter other people from publicly identifying as transgender, as it suggests that they will be verbally abused and discriminated. On the other hand, by portraying Sophia as isolated because of her gender identity, viewers will hopefully be better able to understand how marginalized transgender people are made to feel, and perhaps be more supportive of the daily problems they face.


The extended contact effect

Despite experiencing discrimination from one or two characters, Sophia has a good relationship with the majority of her inmates. Sophia initially befriended Sister Jane Ingalls, a heterosexual nun, to get some of her hormone replacement therapy when her hormone medication was reduced. However, after Ingalls told Sophia she knew what she was up to and wouldn’t be giving her any of her medication, they developed an even closer relationship. The extended contact effect postulates that the mere “knowledge of an in-group member having a close relationship with an out-group member can lead to more positive intergroup attitudes” (Wright et al., 1997: 7). Thus, by showing the heterosexual character Sister Jane, having a close positive relationship with an out-group member like Sophia, it could be suggested that audiences will be more open about interacting with a transgender in life. Furthermore, heterosexual audiences are likely to share similarities with heterosexual characters, and so watching Sister Jane interact with Sophia may propose a transitive inclusion, leading the audience to feel as though they are interacting with Sophia themselves. In other words, when individuals perceive the closeness of the observed friendship between Sister Jane and Sophia, the existing psychological connection between the self and the in-group partner may lead one to build a closer relationship with the observed out-group partner (ibid). In addition to this, by portraying Sophia as part of a nuclear family, in-group members may be convinced to look past the perceived differences, as both members share something in common.



Sophia does not only struggle with her gender identity in front of her inmates, but also her own family. In Episode three, after getting denied hormone pills, Sophia asks her wife, Crystal, to smuggle them in. This leads to a very heated argument between the two of them, with Crystal telling Sophia to be a ‘father’ to their son, and to ‘man-up’. Here, Crystal encourages heteronormativity, by reinforcing the dominant ideology of Sophia being the father. The words ‘man up’ further reinforces Serano’s ‘pathetic’ trope (2007), as Sophia is portrayed with negative female characteristics such as being passive and weak. What is particularly interesting about this scene, however, is the fact that her son, Michael, is nowhere to be seen. By not showing Michael visiting Sophia in prison, it is suggested that he is not supportive of the lifestyle she wishes to have. It is relatively common for older generations to not accept transgender, since their mentalities being formed during times when this gender identity was a taboo. However, the fact that Michael comes from a younger generation and is still not supportive suggests that transgender is still something people struggle coming to terms with. This representation confirms Rich’s concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (1980: 11) as he suggests that everyone is educated from a heterosexual perspective. Therefore, in this circumstance, it is understandable as to why Michael struggles to understand Sophia’s identity, because it challenges the traditional beliefs about gender norms. Again, this representation may deter others from publicly identifying as transgender, since it suggests they won’t be accepted by their family. However, as an audience we should also be mindful of the wider messages this representation brings. For example, through this narrative the Producer has highlighted the urgency for schools to educate young people about various gender identities and not just one from a heteronormative perspective.  

Moreover, the six episodes sets a tone that the sexual non-binary is weird and exclusive. During a flashback in episode three, Marcus and Crystal are shown being affectionate towards one another (see frame five). However, when the scenes show Sophia as a woman, there is never any affectionate exchange shown between the couple. This may be the producers’ way of handling transgender sensitively, as some viewers may find this intimacy offensive. However, the overall themes are progressive, as despite Sophia’s transition, her wife Crystal has stayed and supported her.   



Despite some transgender stereotypes that the Producer draws upon, the overall themes of the show are progressive. Orange Is the New Black has facilitated a mainstreaming effect, essentially drawing those strongly opposed and those strongly allied towards a common ground of general acceptance and better attitude towards the transgender community (Calzo & Ward, 2009). It is through Sophia’s negative representation, that the Producer has been able to bring the real experiences and complex issues against transgender individuals to the forefront of debate, from obtaining adequate medical care to the repercussions of coming out. Whilst we don’t condone the credit card fraud that Sophia committed to undergo her transition, we are sympathetic towards the daily struggles she is presented with throughout the six episodes. The show is especially constructive by portraying Sophia as a likeable character, whom is part of a nuclear family, rather than as an out-group member.


The visibility and accomplishments of Laverne Cox, the fact that a show like Orange Is the New Black has been well received, and the inclusion of Facebook’s 56 gender identifier options (Goldman, R. 2014): all show the media’s changing perception of transgender lives.


However, it is important to note that the experiences and stories of Sophia’s character are fictional and so cannot be related directly to the real-life experiences of transgender individuals. Moreover, as these findings are limited to the first season of the series, future studies should examine how Sophia’s identity changes as the story progresses throughout all three seasons. This will allow for a more comprehensive rhetoric analysis of how the producers choose to represent transgender.