Before Lost, Pretty Little Liars, Veronica Mars, True Detective, or any of the other weird and wonderful show that has come to dominate the new Golden Age of obsessive TV fandom, Twin Peaks was everything. While it only lasted two seasons, David Lynch's early-90s masterpiece was a game changer, an instant classic that even had then-President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, begging for spoilers.Read More
As the lights dimmed in New York City’s historic Ed Sullivan Theater, the faces of three young men—two white, one black—faded into view on the monitors. Fifty years ago this June, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were working in Neshoba County, Miss., as part of the Freedom Summer campaign to register African American voters. On the night of June 21, a lynch mob followed the three civil rights activists out of town, and members of the Ku Klux Klan shot them at close range.Read More
First published on The Daily Beast, June 6, 2014. Read the original here.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Laverne Cox, the unexpected breakout star of the Netflix smash hit Orange Is the New Black. In case you’ve lived under a rock for the last 11 months, the show follows an ensemble of strong female characters living in a fictional prison in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transwoman in jail for credit card fraud. In the first season, we watched as Sophia used her people (and hair) skills to find a place for herself among the inmates, while simultaneously trying to save her relationship with her wife and young son on the outside.
With the second season premiering on Netflix Friday, Cox’s career shows no sign of slowing any time soon. In fact, she’s already won too many awards and accolades to list, though when asked to name a favorite, she responds instantly.
“Well, being on the cover of Time is pretty great,” she says, laughing. It’s only been 24 hours since the issue of Time with her face beaming next to the words “The Transgender Tipping Point” hit the newsstands, and in two hours she’s headed to her own birthday/magazine release party. Yet on the phone she is calm and confident, mentioning how she enjoyed our last interview (which was nearly a year ago) and complimenting me on another piece I’d written recently.
The social justice activist in Cox is excited to have Time as a platform from which to talk about the pressing issues facing transgender people, especially transwomen of color. But she’s also an actress who is serious about her craft, so the other award close to her heart, she says, is her recent nomination for a Critic’s Choice Award from the Broadcast Television Journalists Association.
Although she knew right away that Orange Is the New Black would be a fantastic show, Cox says that there was no one moment when she realized the huge success the show—or she herself—would become. “This is something I’ve been hoping for since I was a kid, so I’m not going to lie and say it was entirely unexpected,” she admits. “But you never really think it’ll happen. I’m still not prepared.”
Cox is quick to point out that many other transwomen are helping to break down the doors she’s walking through, and our conversation is peppered with their names: Janet Mock, Isis King, Carmen Carrera. “Transwomen taking care of each other is revolutionary,” she tells me. “We have to support each other.”
Despite her sudden celebrity, Cox is still firmly rooted in her community, and she maintains a sense of humility about her own success. “I know this is not just me,” she says, “it’s something manifesting through me.”
That may be so, and Time may be right that we’re at a tipping point, a moment of inevitable change that will only speed up from here. Indeed, Cox tells me that just in the last week she’s heard from two other trans actors who have landed significant parts playing transgender characters, something that was virtually unheard of when I interviewed her last year. Yet even then, Cox predicted it was coming, telling me “I believe in the creatives. When the creatives begin to do it, the casting directors will come along.”
“This is something I’ve been hoping for since I was a kid, so I’m not going to lie and say it was entirely unexpected,” she admits. “But you never really think it’ll happen. I’m still not prepared.”
But it would be shortsighted to pin Cox’s success solely on societal change. It is her dedication, honesty, and skill that have made her one of the most prominent voices of today’s transgender movement. No matter how successful she becomes, Cox is determined to give back to the community that supports and nurtures her, and especially to help those for whom “the tipping point” still feels a lot like the status quo. She hopes to use her visibility to help young women like Jane Doe, the 16-year-old transgender girl who has been held in an adult prison in Connecticut without charges since April.
When she’s not filming Orange Is the New Black or prepping for one of her many speaking engagements, Cox is working on two exciting upcoming projects. The first, Free CeCe, is a feature-length documentary about CeCe McDonald, a transgender African-American woman from Minnesota who was sent to a men’s prison after suffering a racist, transphobic street attack. McDonald is now free, and the project is working to raise approximately $500,000 to support production. Cox hopes it will be released in early 2016.
Cox is also an executive producer on Trans Teen, a one-hour documentary co-created for Logo and MTV. The doc, which follows the lives of four transgender teenagers, will air simultaneously on both networks in the fall.
As for Orange Is the New Black, Cox promises we’re in for some excitement this season. “Power dynamics really shift and get shook up by Vee,” she says, a new character joining the cast, who has been sent to Litchfield for recruiting children to traffic drugs. But to find out what happens with Sophia, Cox says, we’ll just have to watch.
Tim Miller lived only a few blocks from the The Public Theater in New York City when it debuted “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s monumental play about the AIDS crisis, in 1985. He vividly remembers seeing it.
“I don’t think there’s any performance I’ve seen of any play, opera, dance, whatever, as intense as those performances at The Public Theater,” says Miller, a gay performance artist. “People were afraid to go to ‘The Normal Heart’ at the Public because they might get AIDS at the theater.”
The play, set between 1981 and 1984, was nearly contemporaneous to the place the New York gay community found itself in when it premiered: only beginning to understand the AIDS epidemic. It follows a reluctant gay activist named Ned Weeks, who served as a stand-in for the work and proselytizing Kramer was doing, which included founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group. The audience witnesses Weeks confront skeptics, not only in the political and medical communities but in the gay community as well, about what's necessary to curb a disease killing gay men in New York by the hundreds.
“Literally, the feeling of people being fearful of being in the audience and sharing air is testament to why the piece was so important,” Miller says.
His experience likely will be very different from that of a new audience soon to be introduced to “The Normal Heart” – perhaps from their couches during a long weekend – when HBO premieres its adaptation Sunday evening. The film is directed by Ryan Murphy of “Glee” and “American Horror Story” fame, who had Kramer's participation in writing the screenplay. Early reviews have praised the film for emulating the emotional power – much of it brute anger – of the stage original. But that hasn’t stopped some from asking, "Why now?"
It's taken 30 years for “The Normal Heart” to make it to the screen in part due to the legal wrangling over the play’s rights and the funding of the project, which included a notorious falling out between Barbra Streisand and Kramer. Murphy eventually bought the rights which, in his words, cost "a pretty penny."
“There's no part of this film that doesn't feel absolutely relevant to now,” says Plan B Entertainment president Dede Gardner, one of the film's executive producers. “Whether it has to do with the particularities of this disease, which I think remains relevant today as it was then, to discussion of complacency on our watch and what we do about that, to its examination of what protests really look like.”
When it opened onstage in 1985, “The Normal Heart” electrified New York audiences and became The Public Theater's longest-running production.
“It was an opportunity not only to educate the people at risk about what was going on – and we knew very, very little – but also it became an opportunity to educate audiences who were themselves afraid of the people most impacted by this terrible epidemic: gay men,” says Therese Jones, director of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program at the University of Colorado's Center for Bioethics and Humanities. She also teaches a course on AIDS and American culture. “It really in many ways accelerated what we saw was a cultural trend towards humanizing these early individuals and groups most affected by this terrible disease.”
Within 10 years, Tom Hanks had earned an Academy Award for playing a gay lawyer with HIV in the 1993 film “Philadelphia.”
But while “The Normal Heart” and “As Is” – the AIDS play that shortly preceded it – opened the door for a discussion of the epidemic in theater and the arts world at large, that discussion was not without its backlash, much of it coming from places as high as the federal government. For instance, a group of artists known as the NEA Four – of which Miller was a member – saw their National Endowment for the Arts grants pulled because the George H.W. Bush administration and other lawmakers objected to the way it dealt with AIDS and gay themes. A Supreme Court case eventually sided with the artists.
“Tom Hanks won an Oscar 20 years ago. It didn’t mean we weren’t in the absolute peak of arts censorship in this country coming from the Bush White House,” Miller says. “The culture war is really a war on AIDS culture."
Likewise, the play itself was not always warmly received in other areas of the country. A 1989 production of “The Normal Heart” by Southwest Missouri State University drew the condemnation of state legislators, and the home of the president of the student group advocating for its production was burned down during a candlelight vigil for AIDS victims held on the play’s opening night.
Despite the anti-gay backlash, examinations of the lives of HIV/AIDS sufferers became more prevalent in mainstream pop culture – but even those weren't without their flaws.
“Hollywood did what Hollywood does, and that is overly romanticize [the crisis], or to display people with AIDS as tragic victims in the most insulting way,” says Mark S. King, an activist who blogs about having HIV, which he was diagnosed with in 1985, at My Fabulous Disease. “Why that may have been well-intentioned – I am thinking of ‘Philadelphia’ – it didn’t necessarily reflect the actual lives of those of us living with HIV. It either made us pathetic victims or spiritual martyrs of some sort."
According to Jones, the periods of AIDS art are often divided by the first generation – which was marked by terror, loss and a need to educate (and to which "The Normal Heart" belongs) – and the second generation, which was more political, in your face, and unapologetic about one’s sexuality. After the mid-1990s, treatment for HIV/AIDS improved significantly, and there was a notable decrease in major works produced about the epidemic.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the darkest days of the early crisis. “Dallas Buyers Club” – about a Texas man’s efforts to bring to fellow HIV sufferers drugs that were illegal in the U.S. – won Oscars this year for its lead and supporting actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. In 2013, the Academy nominated the film “How to Survive a Plague,” about AIDS advocacy groups in the early years of the crisis, for best documentary feature.
“It’s almost like we’re stripping away the AIDS narrative of its romanticism and replacing it with a more clear-eyed vision of what it was like for us,” King says.
The filmmakers behind HBO’s “The Normal Heart” believe the adaptation will introduce that narrative to a whole new generation unaware of the terror surrounding AIDS at the time. Gardner says she showed a cut of the film to some of her younger friends, who came away "genuinely stunned.”
Likewise, Jones says her young medical students are “flabbergasted” when they study the play and other works from the early years.
“They’re extremely curious about this period," says Miller, who has taken young people to recent stage productions of "The Normal Heart." "It’s mysterious to them.”
One thing about the storyline that's not so mysterious now as it was 30 years ago is Ned’s insistence that members of the gay community embrace monogamous, stable relationships like their heterosexual counterparts.
“The thing that really jumps out to me now is what a marriage play it is,” Miller says. The film version also plays up this aspect of the original work.
Kramer’s views that the gay community should curb its promiscuity drew criticism, even as within the play he included characters that disagreed with Ned's views on the matter. Some chastised "The Normal Heart" for promoting a message they said ran counter to the gay liberation movement.
Nevertheless, much of the activism surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s has since shifted its heat toward same-sex marriage, and Kramer eventually got to legally marry his partner in 2013. (In a life-imitating-art moment, it was a hospital bedside wedding, just like the one between Ned and his lover, Felix, in the play.) Just this week, Oregon and Pennsylvania became the latest states where gay marriage has been legalized, bringing the current total to 19 in addition to the District of Columbia.
Even outside the context of the gay community’s struggle, supporters of the film believe “The Normal Heart” has relevance, particularly as other recent attempts to study the period have been criticized for whitewashing the hurdles advocates like Kramer faced during those years.
“The great thing about ‘The Normal Heart’ is that it shows that at the time, even the people who cared about these issues were conflicted," says Hugh Ryan, founding director of the New York-based Pop-Up Museum of Queer History and a freelance writer.
While the decision to bring “The Normal Heart” to HBO and how well it was adapted have been widely praised, there is one troubling thing about what it represents in terms of the current interest in that period of the epidemic. Those who are currently most affected by the disease – particularly African-Americans, who per the CDC saw nearly double the AIDS diagnoses of their white counterparts in 2011 – are not having their stories told.
“For those of us most involved in that particular struggle of the time, we were talking white gay men and relatively speaking, yes, we were gay, but we were also relatively privileged,” King says, adding that activists eventually got many of the things they were asking for, like the Ryan White CARE Act and other forms of government response.
But the groups now being hit hardest by HIV have not been so lucky.
“One of my real worries is that by focusing on AIDS of the past versus AIDS of today, you sidestep a lot of issues of race and class,” Ryan says. "We don’t talk enough about AIDS in this country in communities that aren’t white gay men. And we don’t get enough stories from those perspectives. When we do talk about it, it’s statistics about black women. It’s not their lives.”
There are some arts projects – like the web documentary series “Dirty 30,” which focuses on how HIV/AIDS is now affecting black women – that attempt to correct that deficiency.
“As always in our beautiful, screwed up country, it’s these giant steps forward we make at the same time we are being dragged backwards,” Miller says. “And that's the tension that’s there in the play.”
The statistics are upsetting and well known. Despite an encouraging recent drop in transmission rates, black women still represent two-thirds of all new HIV infections among women. In fact, they are 20 times more likely to seroconvert than white women—a greater level of disparity than ever before. The cavalcade of AIDS anniversaries over the last few years has spawned a corresponding interest in producing museum exhibits, documentaries, and feature films about the early years of the crisis. But with a few notable exceptions (Frontline’s “Endgame: AIDS In Black America;” Precious; Tyler Perry’s despicable Temptation), there has been no similar rush to tell the stories of the (black, female) face of the modern epidemic.
Hannelore Williams, filmmaker, actor, and creator of the new docu-series “Dirty 30,” is hoping to change that.
“My target demographic are the people who watch ‘Basketball Wives’,” Williams says with a laugh, which I’ve learned means she’s about to say something darkly honest. “Or let’s just be real—people who don’t want to talk about HIV.”
Like the hundred or so people around the globe that Williams has interviewed, I find it easy to talk to her about HIV/AIDS. She’s relaxed, cool, confident, and quick to laugh about difficult things. Indeed, she ends every interview for “Dirty 30” by asking her subjects to “tell their favorite AIDS joke.”
As with many working on the epidemic, Williams has a personal connection to the crisis: her sister’s father passed away due to AIDS-related complications. But it wasn’t until years later, when she was preparing to volunteer at Nkosi’s Haven, a center for destitute HIV-positive mothers, children and AIDS orphans in Johannesburg, South Africa, that that connection hit home. “How am I flying across the globe,” she found herself wondering, “and I didn’t even go across the country to be with my sister” when her father died?
Williams was in South Africa to do arts education with children, but the women of Nkosi’s Haven were so similar to women she had known her whole life that she was drawn to work with them as well. She taught them to use her camera and let them turn the lens on their own lives. In so doing, she became hyperaware of all the ways in which black women—in the U.S. and around the world—were lacking opportunities to talk about AIDS. Quickly it became an obsession.
“It was a hurricane coming at me from the far west,” Williams says with a distant look in her eyes, discussing that feeling. “Once you start to look at this pandemic there's no way you would ever turn your back.”
There was just one problem: At the time, Williams didn’t know much about HIV. She realized, however, that the journey to knowledge was the story she had to tell. So she put her life on hold, borrowed two cameras, and spent six months traveling the world gathering footage. “I'm learning about this from the standpoint that most Americans are,” she says, “which is not knowing, or sort of knowing, but easily sweeping it under the rug.”
Far from being limiting, this acknowledgement allowed her to make a series that speaks directly to the epidemic as it is today. In “Dirty 30,” there are no ponderous attempts to chart the entire history of the crisis in order to set the scene. Instead, AIDS is treated simply as a fact of life—something we all know about, even if we don’t talk about it. And from New York to Baton Rouge, from Cape Town to Paris, Williams’ goal is to get people talking.
“It's not Hanne telling you jack shit about anything!” she laughs, when I ask if she’s worried about the responsibility that comes with approaching such a fraught issue from a place of relative ignorance. “I’m creating a platform for somebody else to talk.”
And that platform is, in a word, slick. Stylistically, “Dirty 30” feels more akin to a music video than a typical AIDS documentary, with beautiful shots of foreign cities, quick-cut motion graphics, and “featured artists” whose R&B tracks provide the backbeat to the show. Currently, Williams is meeting with commercial brands that might want to underwrite the series, and networks and other media platforms that might give it a home. She’s planned 16 episodes, with topics like “Monogamy & Sexual Healing,” and “Drugs & Escapism.”
“There are sexy issues tied to this pandemic,” she says unapologetically. By exploring them, she hopes to attract a young audience that doesn’t often tune in for stodgy healthcare PSAs—and therefore might need them most.
Williams acknowledges that aspects of the series might seem triggering at first, like using the word dirty in the title. But she says her choices have been informed by her subjects, and that she’s backed away from topics—like AIDS conspiracy theories—that her interviews led her to believe wouldn’t further a real conversation about the crisis. Still, she’s not afraid to talk about difficult issues. “If you try to talk about stigma and don’t actually put it out there,” she says, “what are we talking about? Bullshit. Lies.”
Although the show looks at the crisis through the lens of black womanhood, Williams is adamant about including diverse subjects and experiences in her frame. To her, it’s simple: “You can't talk about black women in the context of AIDS without talking about everybody else at the same time.” AIDS, which was once considered a niche disease, is now as much a part of the fabric of our lives as cotton.
At the moment, “Dirty 30” is in production, but even now Williams can’t stop. While I’m interviewing her, she’s setting up an additional shoot in Toronto. She doesn’t know yet where the show will end up, but she’s certain it will find a home, and she’s already begun planning more episodes.
“Not even one season of a show,” she says, shaking her head with a mixture of sadness and reflection, “could address all of the issues tied to this pandemic.”
Aaryn Gries is a racist.
If you’ve watched CBS this summer, this isn’t new information about the twenty-two-year old Big Brother contestant. From saying that Korean-American houseguest Helen Kim should “go make some rice,” to flipping over the bed of African-American houseguest Candice Stewart, Gries has offended half the house—and country—with her sweet-faced, mean girl racism. Her actions have prompted CBS, for the first time ever, to publically address offensive statements made on the show (though they declined to comment for this article).
As a result, Gries has been dropped by her modeling agency and protested at her college. But far from exposing racism on Big Brother, the maelstrom surrounding Gries (and to a lesser extent, fellow houseguest GinaMarie Zimmerman), has had the ironic effect of hiding other, more systemic forms of racism that exist on Big Brother—and in reality television as a whole.
“On the televised show, absolutely, Aaryn was the martyr,” says blogger Jun Song, who is the only person of color to win BB in fourteen seasons. But, she continues, “there is such a disparity between what is actually going on in the house and what is televised.”
To know what’s really going on you have to watch the live feeds, BB’s saving grace. The feeds give (mostly) unfettered access to the houseguests around the clock, allowing obsessive fans to chronicle their every butt scratch and rape joke. It also allows for fascinating insight into the disparity between reality-TV-as-it-is-experienced-by-the-contestants and reality-TV-as-it-is-edited-for-the-viewer.
Gems caught on camera this season include:
• Saying Puerto Ricans smell funny and don’t shower;
• Suggesting that Nazi medical experiments were ultimately beneficial;
• Warning a biracial contestant that her “black side” was coming out; and
• Calling welfare “n***er insurance.”
But these statements, respectively, were made by contestants Amanda, Spencer, Kaitlyn & GinaMarie—not Aaryn. (The men have also made so many disgusting misogynistic statements that there’s no room to get into them here.)
In many ways, Gries is an easy target for anti-racist anger. She’s pretty, blond, and Southern. Her first name is an anagram for Aryan. But she’s far from the sole racist in the house.
“CBS, if you’re going to show one racist, you need to show all the racists,” says Sistah K, one of the hosts of a popular series of TV podcasts collectively called “Sistah Speak.” Sistah Speak began in 2007, when Sistah K and Sistah J were moved by their love of television—and their frustration with the overwhelmingly white male punditocracy that discussed TV in the media—to address “the need for a Black woman’s perception and honest analysis about certain shows and movies.”
“This goes on on other shows too,” says Sistah J, “but they don’t show it overtly like Big Brother because there are no live feeds.” In other words, they don’t show it because no one can call them out when they don’t.
The idea that by dealing with Gries we will “deal” with racism on reality television is ridiculous.
“Racism exists on reality television,” explains Song, “because it’s a reality in life. And therefore, it has to be a reality in every sliver of our lives.”
But how that racism is portrayed on TV is the decision of producers. It’s less uncomfortable for a majority white audience to believe that there’s simply one bad apple, one racist spoiling the bunch, than to see racism as part of our everyday existence. This not only excuses the other houseguests, it hides the racism inherent in the genre itself, which is particularly obvious in one area: casting.
“Reality television programs are produced to maximize audiences at a comparatively inexpensive price,” says Dr. Bryan Denham, Professor of Communications Studies at Clemson University and co-author of a 2008 academic paper about reality TV called Survival of the Stereotypical. “They do so,” he explains, “by reproducing social stereotypes.”
In essence, reality shows don’t cast (or televise) people, they cast broad stereotypes to get us watching. “They choose very extreme personalities to make for a big summer,” agrees Song, who believes this tendency has gotten worse over the years. This pursuit of extremes is particularly troubling in combination with another reality TV truth: the paucity of contestants of color.
“It’s the same scenario every single season,” says Sistah J. “You’ve got one or two people of color and they get voted out first.” The Bachelor, she points out, has never had a person of color in the title role—a fact they were sued over in 2012.
This point was backed up by Dr. Denham’s research, with an interesting caveat. On shows that involve being “the best” (Big Brother, Survivor) or succeeding in a business (The Apprentice, Top Chef) few contestants of color ever make it to TV. But if the show is about being an entertainer (American Idol, America’s Next Top Model), you see more people of color. Why?
“Having black people succeed as entertainers does not threaten white people in the business world,” Dr. Denham states unequivocally.
When shows like Big Brother cast extreme personalities to fulfill stereotypical roles, and only one or two are people of color, what’s the effect? Those characters are cast to fulfill pre-existing racial stereotypes. Whereas white people might be typecast as a “brain,” a “Southerner,” or a “jock,” people of color are always cast as the “angry black girl,” or the “Asian tiger mom.” The stereotype is always racialized, which isolates contestants of color and makes them even less likely to win. Not only are there always fewer contestants of color, they’re handicapped from the start.
Dr. Denham doesn’t believe this happens on purpose, rather, he points out that the show runners, judges, and network executives are most likely white people with the same pre-existing assumptions. These ideas about races are so ingrained they might not even notice what they are doing. But some viewers have pointed out that it’s quite a coincidence that contestants with extreme racial viewpoints just happen to be on one of the few seasons of BB to feature three contestants of color. Certainly, the controversy has created more buzz around this season of BB than any in recent memory, giving a big boost to ratings—though Song and the Sistahs have stopped watching in disappointment, and it’s not hard to imagine other people of color have done similarly. But has the controversy actually done anything about racism? Not really.
Aaryn Gries deserves the fallout for what she’s said and done. But the idea that by dealing with Gries we will “deal” with racism on reality television is ridiculous. She becomes a sacrifice whose very punishment is the thing that allows us, the mainstream audience, to continue watching, snug and smug inside our own non-racist self-conceptions. Turning racism into a story with a villain—instead of an underlying force of our existence—guarantees that any resulting conversation will go nowhere, mean nothing, and quickly be forgotten. Indeed, despite the anger at Gries inside and outside the house, all of the contestants of color have been sent home, while she remains. Given the chance to put someone up for elimination, America has repeatedly chosen other houseguests.
The problem with crucifying someone is that they rise again. All Gries had to do was keep her head down and play well, let other “scandals” happen inside the house, and leave the rest to the producers. Already, conversations about race and racism have receded into the background. In a Very Special Episode on August 18th, we watched GinaMarie (BB’s “other racist”) befriend houseguest Helen Kim, giving us a nice hint of a Hollywood movie ending, where getting to know a person of color instantly erases centuries of racism. But even if GinaMarie’s mind changed at all in that conversation (which I doubt), that’s just a personal growth moment for a white person, and all the contestants of color are still gone.
Aaryn Gries is racist. But calling her out on her racism while ignoring our own? That’s racist too.
Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s original series that debuted on July 11, is no women’s prison TV show by way of Victoria’s Secret. Created by Jenji Kohan (the mind behind Weeds), the dramedy portrays with nuance its diverse cast of characters, from prisoners to lesbians of color, poor people, and even WASPs. And, most shockingly, a transgender woman of color—played by a transgender woman of color.
For the first time in TV history, a transgender character is at the forefront of a show and being portrayed by a black transgender woman. (Transgender is an umbrella term that also includes transsexuals.) Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset, a former firefighter sent to prison for using credit cards stolen from the wreckage of fires she helped put out. In prison, she acts as a hairdresser, friend, and political conscience for the other prisoners, while also trying to ensure access to the female hormones she needs, and repairing her relationship with her wife and son. There has only ever been one other recurring, substantive transgender TV role held by a transgender actor: Dirty Sexy Money’s Carmelita, played by Candis Cayne, who is a staple in small transgender roles, including turns on Nip/Tuck, Drop Dead Diva, Necessary Roughness, and CSI: NY.
“Sophia’s the role I’ve dreamed about, prepared for, trained for,” says Cox, who has been acting for over a decade in shows like Law & Order and Bored to Death, and independent films like The Exhibitionists. Born in Alabama , Cox made her way to Marymount Manhattan College in New York City in the late ‘90s (Cox demurs on her age), where she would come out as transgender and begin her transition. Almost immediately, she began being cast in shows in the theater department, even though she was a dance major. But despite her talent and interest, acting never seemed a viable career path. “I just didn’t think I could have a career as an actor because I’m trans,” Cox says.
Indeed, on television, audiences generally encounter transpeople not as actors, but via some form of reality programming—all too often through exploitative daytime talk shows, for instance The Jerry Springer Show’s 1997 episode “My Boyfriend Is a Girl” (the show aired numerous iterations of the same topic over the years). But modern reality competitions have begun to show transpeople in a more nuanced light. The most obvious example is RuPaul’s Drag Race, but trans contestants have also appeared on America’s Next Top Model (Isis King) and Dancing with the Stars (Chaz Bono). Cox herself had her breakout moment as a contestant on the first season of VH1’s I Want to Work for Diddy in 2008. She parlayed that experience into her own VH1 show, 2010’s TRANSform Me, a touching reality series in which Cox and two other transgender women gave physical and emotional makeovers to cysgendered women.
Still, scripted roles for transgender actors are few and far between. More often than not they are limited to bit parts where they deliver a single sassy line, solicit someone for sex in a sordid alley, or die brutally during the opening credits of a police procedural. Cox is all to familiar with these roles, having played them before, as deeply and richly as their problematic scripts would allow.
“As an actor, it’s not my job to judge characters,” she says, “but to infuse them with as much multidimensionality as I can. I’ve known transwomen who’ve been in the sex industry, and their stories deserve to be told in a human way. I would rather see a transperson playing that character than a cysgendered male actor in a wig.”
Knowing what Cox would face as an actress, her first acting teacher, Actor’s Studio life member Susan Batson told her “it would be my job to bring truth and rawness” to these stereotypical, two-dimensional roles, Cox recalls. In other words, to act—something that network executives and casting directors all too often believe transpeople are incapable of doing.
“The wisdom has been that trans actors can’t or won’t go deep,” says Cox, “because, and a lot of this is because of how we’ve been represented, people think that our identities are not real. We are fake women.” At the GLAAD awards one year, a well-known director told Cox that “all she could do was glamour.”.
This same logic keeps transgender actors from being put forward for non-trans-specific roles. In her talks with casting executives and agents, Cox has been told routinely that this idea is a non-starter. (Cox has gotten roles that weren’t specifically written for transpeople, such as her turn as Blithe Stargazer in 2012’s The Exhibitionist, but only when the director has specifically requested her.) Yet the reverse is commonplace. When substantive transgender characters are written (which happens more in film than in television), cysgendered actors are typically cast—even when it’s a queer film made by a queer director. From Hillary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, by Kimberly Peirce, to Felicity Huffman as the transwoman lead in 2005’s Transamerica, written and directed by Duncan Tucker, well-meaning LGB people often write trans narratives without employing actual transpeople. In the current TV landscape, there’s one recurring trans character on network television (Glee’s Unique) and one on cable (Degrassi: The Next Generation’s Adam Torres), according to a GLAAD report; both are played by actors who identify as cysgendered.
Moreover, complex trans characters are almost always written as white. “Black families like the Bursets, going through a transition, with a wife, with a child? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that on TV,” says Cox. “Ever.”
It helps, of course, that Orange Is the New Black is a Netflix original, and thus able to circumvent the scrutiny of advertisers on network and cable television. And Kohan has often shown herself to be more than willing to buck received wisdom and make complex choices.
There are signs that the industry is evolving. Transgender actress Harmony Santana was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 2011 festival-circuit movie Gun Hill Road, making her the first transgender actor to be acknowledged by a major acting award in the United States. Last November, the Sundance Channel greenlit the TV series “T,” which the network described as a “deeply personal look at Terrence, a transgender male who has recently undergone gender reassignment surgery and is beginning to live life as a man.” Casting for Terrence has yet to be announced, but here’s to hoping a transperson will get the role.
But casting choices won’t matter until there’s good material to be cast in and great actors to cast. And that takes vision and time, says Cox, who is ultimately optimistic.
“I believe in the creatives. When the creatives begin to do it, the casting directors will come along.”