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“Everything has kind of changed.” So said “Orange Is the New Black” star Laverne Cox about her career after appearing on the hit Netflix series during a visit to Harvard’s Farkas Hall on Feb 24. In an event sponsored by a slew of Harvard’s BGLTQ and arts groups, Cox addressed a diverse audience about her career in television, her advocacy work, and her role as a visible icon in the transgender community.
It’s hard to separate Cox’s acting career from her race and gender because, according to Cox, “in America, race always plays a role.” For her, the acting work she does is very much tied up in her personal struggles as a transgender woman of color, and when she discusses issues like the rampant poverty in the transgender community or the rates of violence committed against transgendered women especially, it’s easy to understand where her passion and activism come from. Cox explains the expectations she feels by way of citing “Scandal,” saying that “There’s this whole thing about being black in America where you have to be twice as good, and I certainly got the message that you have to be twice as good, and then being trans you have to be four, five times [as good].” Cox is extremely aware of her race and gender and how they impact her ability to get a job due to general misconceptions about what it means to be a black trans woman.
This was the kind of mentality that Cox brought with her when she joined the cast of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Though Cox’s role as transgender inmate Sophia Burset is one of the most visible, positive examples of transgendered representation in television now, Cox is not new to playing transgendered women on television. Before her role as Burset, Cox made a name for herself as the first trans woman of color on a reality show, appearing on VH1’s “I Want to Work for Diddy” in 2008. She then went on to produce and star in a trans-oriented makeover show, “TRANSform Me,” in 2010. When she heard about the audition for “Orange is the New Black,” Cox was hard at work researching women’s prisons in anticipation for “Free CeCe,” a documentary she is producing about CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was imprisoned after defending herself in a racially charged assault.
However, Cox does not necessarily present herself as a pioneer of trans representation. “If we look at the reality of it, transgendered women have actually been in mainstream media for the past 60 years. If we look at ‘The Jerry Springer Show,’ or the Maury Povich show, we have had representation, but the question is, ‘What kind of representation?’ and ‘To what end?’” This question of representation is definitely a personal issue for Cox, as her filmography is filled with roles as transexual prostitutes.
This is why Cox’s role in “Orange is the New Black” is so important. Her visibility has had notable ripple effects in the mainstream and has given Cox a platform from which she has been able to advocate for transgender women to tell their own stories. “What we’re seeing now is trans folks taking more control over how our stories are told and challenging…the ways in which trans stories have been told,” Cox said. Though this kind of pushback has sparked a certain amount of controversy, especially over Katie Couric and Piers Morgan’s recent handling of discussions about transgender issues, Cox has emphasized the need for these discussions. Sometimes, Cox said, people come from a place of ignorance, and sometimes they come from a place of hate.
Near the end of her talk, Cox was asked whether she thought Hollywood would ever be able to cast transgendered actors in non-transgendered roles. She answered that she did. Cox hopes that in the process of continuing her work in Hollywood, she will be able to promote a much larger discussion of gender oppression and how it affects not just trans people, but also cisgender people as well. Cox made a call to action in her talk, saying that while “Orange Is the New Black” has brought a discussion of gender and race and their intersection into people’s homes, it’s also up to viewers of the show to further this discussion and to push back on the norms that have been held for so long.
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