Entertainment’s Unruly Women: Sophia Burset of ‘Orange is the New Black’

Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Image Credit: Netflix

Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Image Credit: Netflix

Welcome back to the Unruly Women series! Recently, we took a look at Joan Holloway from Mad Men, an ultra sassy, forward-thinking businesswoman of the 1960s. Today, we’re jumping forward to the 21st century to another groundbreaking female character: Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) from Orange is the New Black.

With the recent focus as of late being on Bruce Jenner’s gender transition, the topic of gender reassignment has become a huge conversation piece over social media, news broadcasts and pop culture. However, regardless of the limitless attention that it has been receiving, the topic is still one that is far from being fully accepted and understood. In this sense, Sophia’s character is quite a timely one to be featured on a show with such a huge following.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch OITNB yet, the Netflix original series is a story about female prison life. The ladies’ personalities range all across the board, from a naïve, young environmental advocate, to an aging, resilient Russian woman. And then we have Sophia: a woman imprisoned for credit card fraud while attempting to fund her sexual reassignment surgeries. Previously a firefighter named Marcus, married to wife, Crystal, and mother of son, Michael, Sophia did not have the easiest time coming out with her decision to transition. Although her wife took it hard, her son was initially completely unable to accept her choice and was the police informant of her fraudulent behavior.

The difficulties of being a trans woman do not end at home. Once in prison, Sophia makes the best of what she is offered and embraces the people that surround her; she opens up a hair salon to boost the morale of her fellow inmates, makes fashion-forward accessories out of materials she can buy at the commissary and has no shortage of friends among the prison. However, Sophia has to deal with disapproval of judgmental guards. This includes the occasional joke made about her sexuality, but is certainly not limited to offensive comments. As a woman who has gone through a sex change procedure, Sophia needs specific medications to sustain a correct hormonal balance. So, when the prison decides to take her off of estrogen due to budget cuts, Sophia must put up a fight for her medical rights. When she meets with the prison officials to discuss the issue, they brush it under the rug as if it is an issue of vanity, and say that there must be a medical emergency in order for her to visit a doctor. This doesn’t stop her, of course. Sophia resorts to swallowing a bobble-head on the officer Healy’s desk. That has to count as a medical emergency, right? Well, yes, but it’s not enough. The doctor’s best offer is an antidepressant. After this, she makes failed attempts at trying to get her wife to smuggle in estrogen and tricking a nun into sharing her menopause medication, as well as rejecting sexual propositions from creepy officer Mendez. Finally, six episodes later, we see Sophia being given the proper amount of estrogen that she’d been working so hard to get back.

As far as family goes, Sophia’s current status could be defined as “on the mends.” Towards the end of Season 1, we learn from Crystal that she is seeing her new church pastor. Sophia doesn’t love the idea of her son spending his time with a strange man, but she comes around and gives Crystal her blessing to pursue this new relationship. The series takes its attention away from Sophia’s personal life for some time, until we finally see her getting the first ever, long-awaited visit from her son in prison during Season 2, episode 10. Very few words are exchanged between Sophia and her son (who now goes by Mike), but a game of cards helps him warm up to her, and we see that there has been a major breakthrough between them.

A person must be strong to endure what Sophia does throughout the series. She is not afraid to break the rules to get what she needs. Although this may sometimes place her in sticky situations (like in prison or the infirmary with a plastic dog head lodged somewhere in her body), she knows that sometimes the rules need to be bent to get what she needs and deserves as a trans woman.

Tune into Netflix for Season 3 of OITNB, and come back next week to see which rebellious female character takes the spotlight!

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