On ‘Orange Is The New Black’s’ Sophia Burset And What Makes A Woman

A woman, no matter her background, should never be asked to prove she is a woman.

It was with nearly flawless timing that, just as the national conversation around Caitlyn Jenner, transgender identities, and the definition of womanhood was building to a screaming crescendo, Netflix released the third season of Orange is the New Black. More than any other work of fiction I’ve ever seen, this is a show that argues for a diverse and many-faceted definition of the female experience. The women on Orange are straight, gay, and bisexual; old and young; black, white, Latina, and Asian; speak a variety of languages; come from a variety of class and educational backgrounds. They’re mothers, daughters, sisters, partners, or none of the above. They show that womanhood contains multitudes.

When we talk about transgender issues in feminism, the conversation tends to circle back around to one particular question: What does it mean to be a woman? Another way to phrase this question might be: How does a woman prove that she is a woman? And underneath that, an even more crucial question: Should she have to?

Elinor Burkett’s essay about Caitlyn Jenner in the New York Times, entitled “What Makes a Woman,” argues that Jenner has no claim to the female experience because “[transgender women] haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails.” She goes on to list a series of supposedly definitive events of which I, as a cis woman, have experienced only a few, and which some trans women have absolutely undergone, such as being scrutinized as a sex object, paid less than a male colleague, or fearing being raped. Lest Burkett forget, the incidence of sexual assault is even higher among trans women than among the female population as a whole; about 1 in 2 versus 1 in 5, according to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

If womanhood is based on shared histories, I have no doubt I could find trans women with whom I share many overlapping memories, and cis women with whom I share relatively few. A fat, queer, white, trans woman would probably have more in common with the particular ways I’ve experienced sexism than would a thin, straight, black cis woman. Defining womanhood in terms of a checklist of oppressions would arbitrarily rule out a lot more of us than Caitlyn Jenner.

To Anne Lamott, on the other hand—a writer I’ve long admired—the definition of womanhood is strictly genital. Last week, following a tweet in which Lamott referred to Caitlyn Jenner as “he” and said that Jenner had “gone from man to mannequin, instead of man to woman,” she went on to add, “Will call him a she when the pee-pee is gone.” Leaving aside the fact that reducing a woman to her genitals and nothing more is profoundly misogynistic, whatever the genitals in question might be, it’s also important to note that Lamott’s statement normalizes the invasion of trans people’s privacy in pursuit of that ever-elusive definition of womanhood. Why should Caitlyn Jenner be compelled to update the general public on any medical procedures she may or may not undergo, just to convince people to treat her with basic respect?

Orange is the New Black offers a compelling refutation to each of these transphobic points in the form of perennial fan favorite Sophia Burset, a transgender character played by transgender actress Laverne Cox. Sophia is a complicated character who gets too little screen time but still has some of the best storylines in the series. She’s still coming to terms with the end of her marriage when her wife, Crystal, begins dating someone else. She’s navigating the difficult terrain of trying to be a watchful and responsible mother from inside a federal prison. She has a hard time making friends in Litchfield. While her gender history comes into play with some of these problems (for instance, Sophia and Crystal might still be married if Sophia had not come out as a woman), they’re ultimately things most of us can relate to. Who hasn’t had an ex move on sooner than we wanted? What mother hasn’t been afraid her child would be exposed to bad influences, or that she was falling short as a parent? Who hasn’t wished it were easier to connect with people? If womanhood is based on shared experiences, no one has earned it more than Sophia.

And if having a vagina is what it means to be a woman? As we’re informed multiple times throughout the series, Sophia has that covered as well—though undergoing surgery doesn’t save her from getting jumped by a group of fellow inmates determined to see what’s in her pants. This plot line (which ends, heartbreakingly, with Sophia in solitary confinement “for her own protection”) illustrates that the ground between Lamott’s transphobic tweet and cis people feeling entitled to violently assault trans people is slippery indeed. No one owes another person specific anatomical and medical information—it’s certainly not a prerequisite for being treated like a human being whose identity is worthy of respect.

It’s also worth noting that the ability to get gender confirmation surgery is a function of class privilege that many trans people don’t possess. On Orange is the New Black, Sophia is in prison because she committed credit card fraud so that her body could represent her true self—and as far as I can tell from her flashbacks, the Bursets were comfortably middle-class. For trans people living in poverty, the situation is even more dire, which is why insisting on surgery as the validation of a trans woman’s identity isn’t just rude, it’s classist and dangerous. A shelter for battered women in my city does not accept trans women unless they have had genital surgery; thus, any woman who can’t afford a costly operation (not to mention the time off work and travel fees associated with it) is also barred from accessing resources that could protect her during a crisis.

Insisting on arbitrary and objectifying definitions of womanhood doesn’t just disrespect the lived experience and identities of wealthy, famous trans women like Caitlyn Jenner; it puts many anonymously struggling trans women at physical and emotional risk. And ultimately, it’s pointless. There is no way to bar the gates—and there’s no reason to.

I love Orange is the New Black for never questioning whether any of its characters deserve the label they claim for themselves, whether it’s Sophia or any of the many other inmates whose experiences of womanhood differ in every imaginable particular. If there was a moral to Sophia’s storyline this season (besides “don’t fuck with mothers”), it’s that a woman, no matter her background, should never be asked to prove she is a woman. If her word isn’t proof enough, then nothing is.

Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.

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