Some old white dude once deemed television the “opiate of the masses.” Sure, it certainly has the power to uphold the status quo, to enforce consumerism and hierarchy. But, as alternative shows are starting to prove, TV has just as much power to help us empathize with people we think are different from us. Just look at “Orange is the New Black,” the Netflix original series about Piper, a privileged white woman who has to serve a short prison sentence. Through her, we meet a crew of weird, screwed-up people in prison.
“Orange is the New Black” stands on the strength of being a well-written, funny show in its own right. But what’s exciting is whom we’re watching: women of color, women in poverty, transgender women, women of varying sexual identities. The diverse characters in return benefit the show’s storytelling, giving it more material and emotional heft.
Laverne Cox, one of the stars of “Orange,” also happens to be one of the first out transgender African American women to reach acting fame. In “Orange,” her character Sophia is in prison for credit card fraud, which she’d used to pay for her transition surgery. (Fun fact: Cox has an identical twin brother, who plays Sophia in flashback scenes from before her transition.) In real life, Cox is an actress, producer and reality TV star; she’s made waves lately for going on talk shows and calmly correcting blundering hosts like Katie Couric. “The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people,” Cox told Couric. “And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. ... If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”
Cox visits Missoula on March 6 as part of the annual Tunnel of Oppression event, which invites people to step in others’ shoes to better understand things like privilege, ableism, transgender identities and class inequity. It’s a lengthy span of topics, certainly. That’s because once you start talking about how really diverse people are, there’s a whole lot more interesting stuff to talk about.—Kate Whittle