There’s been a lot of talk this summer about Netflix’s hit original series Orange is the New Black. None of the fantastic ensemble has caused quite as much of a stir, however, as Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate at Litchfield Prison who serves as the resident hair stylist for her fellow inmates.
According to GLAAD, a watchdog and advocacy group for LGBT interests in the media, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters accounted for just 4.4 percent of series regulars in 2012 TV shows, up from 1.1 percent in 2007. Of the 111 prominent LGBT characters GLAAD considered, only three were transgender (major studio movie fall even further behind the curve with no transgender characters at all last year). With the release of Orange is the New Black, the number has risen to a whopping four.
Of course, there are more transgender characters that are not recurring characters. Shows such as Law and Order, Grey’s Anatomy, and CSI have featured transgender characters in onetime or limited roles. In fact, 5 percent of LGBT television characters in 2012 were transgender.
While this figure may seem paltry, it is a significant increase from 1 percent in 2011. GLAAD, which formerly stood for Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has expanded its reach to specifically include transgender media representation in its efforts. Caleb LoSchiavo, social media director for Everyone Allied Against Homophobia at Columbia, notes that there has been a change in recent years, but not a significant one. “I can think of two or three trans characters instead of literally none,” LoSchiavo says.
First, a little history. The very first American television show to feature a transgender character was All That Glitters, in 1977. The sitcom, about a world in which women dominated and objectified men, featured transgender fashion model Linda Murkland, portrayed by actress Linda Gray. The show lasted only three months. A transgender character did not appear as a regular character on broadcast television again until 24 years later, with the production of The Education of Max Bickford. Like All That Glitters, the show lasted only a season. But it was an early example of a non-mocking portrayal of a post-operation transgender woman. More recently, Dirty Sexy Money, Ugly Betty, Degrassi, and Glee have all prominently featured transgender characters, bringing them into more of a spotlight on mainstream TV.
Despite the slightly more regular appearance of transgender characters on a number of shows, the majority of transgender characters lack nuance and sympathy. Professor Susan Stryker, director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona and an award-winning author and filmmaker, describes the portrayal of transgender characters as, in a word, “simplistic.”
The few shows with recurring transgender characters generally present these characters in a positive light. Problems arise when transgender characters appear as guest stars. Of course, not all depictions are negative. According to LoSchiavo, “It’s so often a story of tragedy, or the trans character is a villain or an unexplored death used as a plot device.”
The ways in which transgender characters are treated and received have changed for the better in some cases, though not all. On the popular sitcom Friends, Chandler’s father, played by Kathleen Turner, works at a burlesque show in Las Vegas under the name “Helena Handbasket.” While she only appears in three episodes, her gender identity remains cause for confusion and the butt of many jokes among the friends.
Multiple crime shows have featured transgender characters for a limited number of episodes, either as victim or perpetrator. GLAAD found that between 2002 and 2012, transgender characters were cast as the victim 40 percent of the time, and portrayed as killers or villains 21 percent of the time often conform to what Stryker calls “psycho-killer-in-a-dress stereotypes.” By the nature of a crime show, guest characters are almost by necessity cast into the role of victim or villain. Yet rather than featuring a varied and diverse group of people, one-fifth of all non-recurring transgender characters in that same time period were sex workers. Plus, Stryker says, the media still generally portrays transgender people as “kind of pathetic, or weird, or tragic.” CSI introduced a transgender character early on: Paul Millander is a serial killer and main character Gil Grissom’s nemesis. A later episode of the same show opens with the murder of a transgender woman, and eventually leads to a transgender surgeon who has performed and botched many illegal gender reassignment surgeries. GLAAD singles out CSI as one of the worst offenders when it comes to negative portrayals of transgender characters.
Law and Order: SVU has had two episodes focused on a transgender character in its 14-year run. Both episodes, one in season four and one in season ten, showcase an array of attitudes toward the central characters’ identities. Upon first learning that the suspect is transgender, some of the detectives express incredulity and make the occasional transphobic joke. This is particularly pronounced in the 2003 episode “Fallacy,” in which the detective immediately comes to the conclusion that the woman must be a sex worker—as one points out,“boys get more money on the street.” While both suspects are unjustly found guilty, the show at least takes a more sympathetic stance toward the characters by portraying them as victims.
This May, British television show Hit and Miss premiered. Chloe Sevigny plays a transgender contract killer-cum-mother, the first transgender lead character in a TV series. Of course, the main character’s identity is still considered shocking: IMDB’s synopsis warns that she is a “contract killer with a secret: she’s a transgender woman.”
But what makes Sophia Burset of Orange is the New Black so different? For one thing, she is put away for credit card theft—and not for prostitution or other sex-related crimes. And Stryker says that Burset is the “only African-American trans lesbian I’ve ever seen in any media anywhere.”
Sophia is no different from the rest of the characters—which is perhaps what makes her stand out. LoSchiavo calls her a “funny, strong character with an actual backstory.” The audience sees Sophia struggling with her transition—her desperate attempts to get enough hormones to maintain her identity, her heartbreak when she sees that her son is ashamed of her. This struggle receives the same amount of attention as those of other characters. Sophia’s character is not perfect, but neither are any of the others. True, Sophia is another example of a transgender character as a criminal. But, to be fair, she appears on a show entirely about criminals. Orange Is the New Black not only takes its transgender character out of the stereotypical sex offender role, but also peels back the curtain on Sophia’s whole life. Much of that is related to her gender identity, but the show allows her to be a whole person rather than a token.
Of course, other television shows have portrayed transgender characters in a fair and positive light. Orange is the New Black is merely the latest in a line (albeit a short one) of characters breaking down stereotypes. LoSchiavo notes, however, that “the show was released on not a major network but on Netflix.” It has garnered much critical attention and is paving the way for more widespread media portrayals.
LGBT advocates are in agreement that work remains to be done. “I would love greater representation of non-binary trans people, trans people of all genders, races, abilities, etc.,” says LoSchiavo. Stryker cautions, however, that media representation should not be used as the greatest indicator of the status of the transgender community. “At best,” Stryker says, “mass media representation can help change public attitudes and perceptions. But that is a very instrumentalist notion of media. I think that art needs to be art first, and shouldn’t be subjected to standards of political correctness.”
But even if it isn’t their main role, shows such as Glee, Dirty Sexy Money, and Orange Is the New Black are slowly opening doors for the transgender community, both on-screen and off.