The stepping-stones of available contraception, higher graduation rates, and alternatives to lifelong marriages for women mark significant shifts in American gender attitudes. In 2009, for the first time in American history, the ratio of the workforce tipped toward women, and by 2011 women held 51 percent of managerial and professional jobs (Rosin; 2012). While the march of mothers into the workforce is one of America’s most praised social narratives, gendered attitudes still dictate our cultural understandings of men, women, and the individuals who negotiate between the two.
Gendered attitudes are part of the larger cultural expectation of gender framing, where gendered practices and attitudes often negotiate femininity through motherhood and masculinity through fatherhood. Jenji Kohan‘s Orange Is the New Black illustrates gender attitudes through Laverne Cox’s character Sophia Burset, and her challenge against hegemonic gender attitudes as a woman and a father. The new hit series not only features a strikingly diverse and nearly all-female cast, but includes, for the first time on mainstream television, a transgender woman of color actually playing a transgender woman of color. Sophia’s popular character in the women-in-prison drama probes important questions for gender equality and media representation. Can femininity and motherhood be separated? What role could the cultural acceptance of separating gender and sexuality play in achieving equality? Can the portrayal of characters like Sophia inspire a new cultural understanding of quality of mind and body? The episode “Lesbian Request Denied” directed by Jodie Foster, reveals the rich backstory of Sophia’s transition from a masculine firefighter, played by her twin brother Lamar Cox. The episode also illustrates her son’s struggle to accept his father through a display of public humiliation when an old friend recognizes Sophia. The stark display of eight-year-old Michael’s understanding of fatherhood and masculinity demonstrates how early we are framed by gender, and how difficult it is to create new understandings of it. Michael’s acceptance is the final step of Sophia’s transformation, which comments on the interdependence of masculinity and fatherhood in contemporary America. This powerful episode probes how little agency individuals have with their own bodies, and the undeniable need for a shift in gender attitudes so mothers and fathers alike can embody their true gender. Considering popular media is a relentless battlefield for gender equality, the untold voices and unseen characters of Orange is the New Black are vital to challenging issues of representation. Sophia’s character rejects the dominant belief that gender equality takes the form of women becoming equal to men in a man’s world, and celebrates new cultural understandings of feminine and masculine identities as stepping stones toward gender equality.