Femininity is the New Fatherhood in “Orange is the New Black”

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? COX!!!!!!!!!!! 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. Laverne Cox


4 thoughts on “Femininity is the New Fatherhood in “Orange is the New Black”

  1. I haven’t watched “Orange is the New Black,” yet but I am completely intrigued by this discussion surrounding the show. I think you raised some interesting points in your questioning of fatherhood and masculinity in the transgender character of Cox. It seems like a lot of your questions reminded me of our first reading for the semester of Judith Butler’s text. How do we go about discussing the complications and complexities of gender when our language itself is already so embedded in social constructs? Some great questions from your post that I think could really benefit from a classroom discussion.

  2. I like your use of the phrase “she has finally become who she was meant to be”. It saddens me that she has found enough strength and self understanding to make this change and yet has come to the realization that our identities are impossible to take out of context. She is a father, and she has a son who understands her identity in a certain way. She cannot separate herself from how he sees her. It makes me think about how interdependent identity is because you cannot remove identity from context and manipulate it how you please. The way people see you can shape who you really are.

  3. Pingback: Lesbian Request Denied | LGBT Images in Film and Literature

  4. Have you watched Season 2 yet? If you have, it would be interesting to read a follow-up post on the relationship between Sophia and her son… (actually, even just the development of Sophia in the season.) I came back to read this post after watching OITNB Season 2 because I have been thinking about not just the separation of masculinity and fatherhood but also those moments when what we know as femininity crosses into fatherhood (like if a girl’s father was super stylish and was a better shopper than the mother, or if he is more gentle, etc).

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