On Orange Is The New Black 11.12.17
It was only a matter of time before I wrote about this show. Orange Is The New Black is the Netflix drama with one central location, where no one can escape, not the prison guards or their captors. There are several strong characters, all suffering from bad decisions that have cost them in life, from drug addicts to the dealers, from the murderer and bank robber to the one who committed fraud or petty theft. It does make you reflect. Who hasn't made bad decisions that they either got away with, or managed to avoid by luck? I'm not talking necessarily about crime. I think about my adolescence, how I once drove a car too fast round a corner and lost control. I remember thinking then: if a truck had come the other way, or a car carrying children . . . Let's not pretend we're perfect, or that the ones who have fucked up in life aren't us, but not as lucky.
Regardless, it's for the crimes of theft that the trans character of Sophia, played by trans actress Laverne Cox, is housed. Perhaps the character needed the money for her transition, it's not clear after Season 2, where I'm at in this 6-Season show. But for all the hype you may have noticed, the character of Sophia is not central to the drama; she appears every couple of episodes, often in her role as the convict / hairdresser. This is something to celebrate from my perspective: we don't get trans as something to laugh at, or to provide some extreme, one-dimensional thrill of subversion. You feel for Sophia, with the wife on the outside who's wanting to move on with her life, and the barely adolescent son who's only ever moody and monosyllabic with her. This too is to be noted; Sophia is not a figure to pity as the one-way victim. You can understand the frustration of Sophia's wife – Crystal – evidently a heterosexual woman who thought she was marrying a man, and who has a son to raise. With her husband transitioning and now in jail, there's a need for sympathy and empathy on both sides.
Things to criticize? Not every trans woman is a natural at the stereotypical feminine arts of beauty and hairdressing, certainly not me. In Season 2 Episode 4, hairdresser Sophia even educates several female inmates on female genitalia, and while I get that she's going to be well-informed given she's post-op, I found the scenario a bit contrived. Yet Cox's character is otherwise convincing, and one more realistic figure to connect with in a drama that celebrates humanity.
But my favourite scene so far, a moment that spoke to me and my own life, doesn't involve Cox's Sophia, but instead the central character Piper. Convicted by association to a drug-dealing lover, Piper is the girl-next-door gone wrong, at least according her family. She enters prison as a rabbit in the headlights, her middle-class comforts and etiquettes replaced by fuck-you stares and threats of violence. By the end of Season 2, Piper has begun to accept she's not her parents' pride and joy anymore. With special permission she attends a family funeral, now the black sheep of the family. An old, well-meaning couple tell her they recall her as the person from the past, that same girl-next-door. The new her is, they say, just an aberration. Yet Piper looks around her, and tells them that they're wrong. The confession acts like catharsis. Later she leaves the family get-together, fetches a bottle of something strong and a hamburger, and sits alone, her heels kicked off, the city lights behind her. There is no self-pity in this scene, only recognition of the way she's changed, how she doesn't want to keep up the illusion as her family's girl-next-door anymore.Perhaps every adult goes through this eventually. Whatever it is your parents wanted you to be, you're different, and like Piper chomping on her burger in the night air, you've made your peace with yourself. The rest of your life, whatever happens, is on your terms.