Almost any character in a mainstream movie or television show who isn’t a straight white man falls into one of two categories. First, there are what I’ve come to think of as the Just Happen To Bes: women, characters of color, or gay or gender-nonconforming characters who are female, African American, or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), but not in any way that matters to the story’s arc or this fictional person’s development.
Just Happen To Bes are lucky enough to live in worlds where their identities don’t particularly matter, where discrimination is a non-issue. They also often happen to occupy stories where the creators are leaving a lot of rich material on the table. Characters like these flatten the differences not simply between, say, women with different experiences, but between the lived experiences of women and men. A world where it’s truly no different, for example, for a black woman to be a cop than for a white man to occupy that position is a world that has made substantially more social progress than the one we actually occupy.
The other category consists of characters whose identities are integral to the stories they occupy. And it’s at the intersection of their multiple group memberships that particularly interesting things happen.
Take “Orange Is the New Black,” a show that particularly excels at plumbing these points of conflict. On Jenji Kohan’s Netflix drama about the inmates of a women’s prison, characters are often sorted into cliques by race or religion, but the characters’ other identities often complicate these blunt allegiances. Prison hairdresser Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) was denied the hormones she needed to maintain her gender transition in the first season. In the most recent series of the show, she was attacked by another group of black inmates, and prison administrators responded by putting her in solitary confinement — ostensibly, for her safety, but more likely in retaliation for a discrimination lawsuit Sophia had threatened to file.
Sophia’s triple identity as an African American, a woman, and specifically a transgender woman who is incarcerated created a highly specific set of needs and threats the “Orange Is the New Black” writers could work with. The stories the show tells about Sophia don’t substitute or subsume the experiences of other inmates, like white, middle-class Piper (Taylor Schilling) or gay, African American Army brat Poussey (Samira Wiley). Getting Sophia her hormones or keeping her safe won’t solve Poussey’s mental health issues or smooth Piper’s introduction to jail.
Instead, highly specific characters like Sophia are powerful reminders that there are many ways to be black, or to be a woman — and that those many different ways of being demand harder, more detailed work that has to be done before we can really say that women, or people of color, or LGBT people are equal.
Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about intersectionality. Need a primer? Catch up here. Then explore these other perspectives: