by Adam Engel
26 September 2014
After the laughter fades and the credits roll, some of the most popular current television shows leave us with one simple feeling: “Well, wasn’t that nice?” The archetypical struggle, reconciliation, and ultimate triumph of a rag-tag group of ethnically, religiously, economically diverse individuals has been done to death on television, especially over the past decade. Consider Community, in which diversity all too easily dissolves into comedic quirkiness. In contrast, the beauty of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black (2013) lies in its challenge to this trope of difference as a solvable problem: the show builds viewers’ expectations for a warm, fuzzy narrative of personal growth and friendship while subtly—at times, disturbingly—gesturing toward the naiveté of any such story.
Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender African American wife, mother, and inmate, occupies a particularly uneasy space in this troubled narrative. In a poignant flashback, Sophia’s wife Crystal helps her to choose a dress. Crystal, who seems at the end of her emotional strength, makes one request: she asks that Sophia, who is pre-operation, keep her penis. When we return to Litchfield Prison, the fate of Sophia’s member is not revealed, though several inmates (and a guard) express curiosity. Sophia’s biological status thus becomes dramatized, both within the world of the show and in the minds of the audience. Her interactions with the other women, her attempt to find a niche as a hairdresser, and her efforts at long-distance reconciliation with Crystal are all overshadowed by a single fact: she is not just an individual, but a transgender individual. No magic is waiting in the wings to assimilate Sophia into the prison’s support network, rendering her part of a “modern family.” Rather, Orange invites us to notice both the characters’ and our own fixation on Sophia’s gender identity. This fixation is a social barrier not easily overcome.
Most viewers (or at least Orange‘s target audience) are inclined to interpret their own hypersensitivity to difference as constructive, an entertaining experience that exposes and dissipates cultural taboos. But viewers’ responses, both positive and negative, need not be generated by Sophia’s struggles. In a brief interview, Cox (herself transgender) claims to receive the most harassment in her daily life from other African Americans. This clip, only one minute and twenty-three seconds long, drew nearly 17,000 views on YouTube and prompted a bitter string of comments that range from spiteful blanket statements about African American intolerance of homosexuality to affirmations of shared humanity. This dialogue was generated not by a dramatization of the triumph of diversity, but by the mere appearance of an LGBTQ person in a popular, highly visible space.
Now that American television audiences expect humanizing treatments of transgender characters, Orange tries to render one such character not as a problem to be solved, but simply as a person. The character portraits in Orange do not derive their power from unlikely friendships, humorous cushioning, or happy endings: individuals aren’t so neatly defined. They can’t always cleanly and predictably resolve their differences. Orange insists that we recognize the unruliness of diversity, an unruliness that cannot—and should not—be confined to facile categories.
Adam Engel is a PhD student in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He focuses on twentieth-century British literature, especially the relationship between lyric poetry and music.