Laverne Cox is a powerhouse of raw talent not to be reckoned with. Not only is she the first black transgender woman to have a major role on an American TV show, she is also the first transgender person to be nominated for a primetime Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset in the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black.
Orange is the New Black has become a poster series for transgender character visibility on TV.
The hit series takes a progressive approach to representing racial diversity, with the highly acclaimed cast of 37 women portraying characters from various places including: Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Ireland and Brooklyn, to name but a few. With the inclusion of the character of Sophia, Orange is the New Black has become a poster series for transgender character visibility on TV.
In the case of Jill Soloway’s masterfully written series Transparent, the plight of transgender awareness is rightfully deserving of its own show.
This thoughtful and bold series skilfully examines the complexities of the transitioning journey belonging to Maura (Mort) Pfefferman brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor.
While the series centres on Maura’s journey, a cavalcade of issues that surround transitioning are brought to life via her children and ex-wife – each of whom deal with their father’s evolving identity in extraordinarily different ways. This richly crafted series even uses Nazism as a narrative to explore the suffering endured by transgender people past and present.
The inclusion of the transgender experience through the stories we weave on television provides a vital platform that reaches mainstream audiences who may otherwise never knowingly have contact with trans men and women in the real world.
“I think there’s something shifting in terms of visibility and media representation,” Cox told The Telegraph U.K.’s Jane Mulkerrins last year. “But in terms of the day-to-day lives of trans people, we still experience violence at a disproportionate rate, as well as homelessness, unemployment, the denial of health care, and being criminalised and incarcerated. There are still over 30 states in the US that don’t have any anti-discrimination protections for trans people at all.”
“in terms of the day-to-day lives of trans people, we still experience violence at a disproportionate rate, as well as homelessness, unemployment, the denial of health care, and being criminalised and incarcerated.”
Platforms such as Netflix and Stan are creating opportunities for vital stories to be told as they have the courage, backing and audience base to bravely venture into territories that the big film studios are still reluctant to explore – an issue Sophie Atkinson raises in her feature “10 films that will open your eyes about transgendered people”.
“While Golden Globe winning TV like Transparent and the prominence of Orange Is The New Black’s trans actor and activist Laverne Cox may have convinced you that trans issues have been integrated into the mainstream, cinema still has a way to go before it catches up with television’s evolving attitudes to the world beyond cis-gendered perspectives,” Atkinson writes.
The Wachowskis, who established themselves as Hollywood heavy hitters after directing the Matrix Trilogy, have migrated their talents from big screen to live stream to co-create the hit Netflix series Sense8 featuring trans character Nome Marks, a trans hacktivist living in San Francisco, played by trans woman Jamie Clayton. This should come as no surprise considering the Wachowskis themselves are both trans women.
“cinema still has a way to go before it catches up with television’s evolving attitudes to the world beyond cis-gendered perspectives”
A more recent and perhaps the most understated trans presence in a Netflix series is in The OA with Buck Vu – a trans teen played by Ian Alexander; who got the part after responding to a call out on social media for a young Asian trans actor.
In the same way that Will and Grace pioneered the visibility of leading gay characters in a highly successful series that claimed its own spotlight in primetime TV, the momentum being created by subscription TV platforms around transgender stories may influence Hollywood to wisely follow suit.