Beyond Acceptance: What OITNB Teaches Us About Tolerance and Empathy



Orange is the New Black, or Orange is the "Now Back", or Orange is the New (Reason to) Binge, – or whatever you wish to ascribe to the five letter acronym – the third season of the smash hit series has finally been released. And after gliding swiftly through the thirteen episodes, I maintain the same phrase from the show's initial debut: Orange is the New Bold.

But Season 3 came equipped with a subtle, almost silent, bold. Deeper pains. Darker wounds. A few lesser notes of rage; a few shades lighter of its familiar violence. But staying true to its raw and unabashed veneer of prison portraiture, it was just as intense and perhaps even more memorable. 

I will say, I would be absolutely okay if I didn't see any more of Piper in future seasons. And Black Cindy/Tova is without a doubt my new favorite jew. But I'm not here to talk about either of them. As insufferable and hilarious as they may be, I'm here to talk about Sophia Burset.  

Sophia's story is both favorite and familiar. One of the bigger dialogue drivers of the show, Sophia Burset (played by the fabulous Laverne Cox) is a trans woman and sassy in-house hairdresser who, up until the new season, has steered clear of inane inmate drama, a loosely weaving thread of the show. 

For the most part, Sophia's one central conflict had been navigating the volatile waters of her relationship with her son, Michael; a conflict that has since been subject to bigger waves. Michael had quickly approached that erratic stage in his life when girls, ego and general contempt appear at the forefront of typical teen quandary. Michael had begun to snap and bark and rotate obscenities; new attitudes Sophia wasn't sure how to manage, as she had still been been in the process of feeling out the delicate remnants of a once father-son relationship.

Pair that with the helplessness of not even being present to try to discipline your child, let alone discipline him right, and you have yourself a mess many of us are ill-equipped to shed light on.

And with all that meticulously churned in Sophia's already marred medley of dilemmas, Sophia wound up being jumped in her own salon, shunned by the collective body of Litchfield inmates, and thrown into the SHU (solitary) for, you know, "her own protection." And as horrible as it seems Sophia's fate is from here on out, it's actually remarkably well-timed and critical for viewers to take in.

Here's what you need to remember: In seasons 1 and 2, Sophia had been the designated "cool girl" of Litchfield. Not the "mysterious tattoos and perfumed rebellion" kind of cool girl (that's a cliché I'm pretty sure died with Alex), but the more reasonable "I'm real and didn't come to prison to deal with petty bullshit" type cool girl, with the right combination of sass and composure. The one who's cool with virtually every clique, every inmate, and every CO. 

This, of course, changed in the most recent season, when Sophia found herself to be the target of harassment, sexism and unadulterated hatred. This all because of one singular event: her physical (and private) confrontation with Gloria.

The two women had both been navigating through the aforementioned hardships of wanting to be there for their teenage sons, and the ultimate frustration of consistently falling short. Of course, in the absence of said children, that frustration only naturally derailed and was instead misplaced onto the nearest, most convenient inmate. And so Sophia and Gloria did the dance: Two angry mothers. One common affliction. A fair fight – but wait. It's one man's strength against a woman. And it only took one impassioned blow to the head – down goes Gloria. And that's when everybody turned on Sophia.

Because only then did everybody suddenly remember that she's still a transgender woman.

This is where I get to the fruit of my findings. Sophia, designated cool girl ("DCG"), appeared to have always been accepted. The inmates knew what she was and they treated her no different than any other woman in the building. They accepted her.

Until they didn't.

How does that happen? How does a person accept someone for what they are, and then before the break of day, shift his or her view? 

Whatever the term for surface-level acceptance is, that's what those women did. Call it "shallow acceptance." Call it "neutral acceptance." Or call it what it is: a barely-there tolerance. You acknowledge DCG. You process what DCG is. And you move along. But you failed to process the one important thing, the only thing that actually matters: who DCG is.

They each sat in Sophia's chair and played nice and treated her like a woman and that's fantastic. But they acknowledged the transgender woman in the room and neglected to accept who she actually was, and how she got there. They didn't look past the label. They didn't invest the time to think it all through. And why think too much about it? "Worry about yourself" is the mantra so many of us are taught, and so many of those women reiterated time and time again.

So when those women failed to invest the time to understand her, what happened as a result? A momentary passing of friction – and boom. Suddenly the bare minimum they did to be human proved to be miles away from any redeeming form of acceptance.

Look, it's federal prison, I know. We don't expect these characters to cozy up behind one another and coordinate a chain of hair-braiding bonding sessions. The writers aren't in grade school and that's not how the real world works.

But it makes you think. Exercising empathy in meeting one another would likely have minimized the shifting of gears from "chatting up Designated Cool Girl" to "fearing the 'man' in female federal." And if that is too much to imagine or expect from felons, fine. Point taken. But I hope it's a lesson for everybody else. (Because this piece isn't written for Crazy Eyes, after all.)

Acceptance is nothing until it's tested. And a tested acceptance does not exist without empathy. Human compassion. Insight. An understanding. So often we're told to mind our own business but, in all fairness, if you don't consider someone else's "business," then how can you stand up and say you support them?

Take, for example, the coming forth of Caitlyn Jenner. Yes: YOU GO, GIRL! You are so brave! You are so beautiful! I ACCEPT that you're a happy transgender woman. 

But do you? Why do you accept her? I mean, most of us don't know her personally. Most of us never will. So, if tomorrow someone you respected and loved came forward and said something hateful about Jenner's transformation, what would you say? Would you stand up for her after claiming your acceptance? Because, after all, you do you. And you mind your own business. So what business do you have defending her? Your "barely-there tolerance" doesn't give you much ground to cover.

That is, not until you start thinking about the prospect of your father taking the same journey. Or your mother. Or your son, your daughter, your sisters and brothers. And it is only then that you start to really examine the situation and its intricacies. The lives it affects. The emotions it uncovers. You unravel the bits and pieces of this process you know so little about, but you realize that it's probably incredibly intense and gut-wrenching and soul-sucking and unequivocally the greatest liberation someone must feel. That's when you exercise empathy. That's when you get it.

That is when you accept them.

We don't do that as often as we should. We like to believe that we do, but when is the last time you processed someone else's affairs with such a thorough review, with no intention other than to better understand their situation? Our acceptance isn't always tested, and so it never really comes to light. And there is nothing to be done with it. We say we accept, we hear ourselves say it, and we move along. And that's it. No effort. No authenticity.  

And all at the same time, we're living in an era where acceptance is so prevalent. Where different people are breaking free from the confines of outdated norms and labels, and coming forward as the people they were always meant to be, seeking that acceptance. It's an extraordinary time to be alive. And so we owe it to ourselves, and to everyone brave enough to share themselves with the world, to do "acceptance" right. To accept with purpose. With effort. With authenticity, and empathy. 

I also find that many of us have been programmed to exercise empathy when our sympathy is required or requested. A death, a break up, a loss or a hardship: "I'm so sorry," we say, and "I can only try to imagine how you feel." – So try. This is very necessary in the good things as much as the bad.

Try to imagine how someone else must feel. In the bad. In the good. And in everything in between. Because you are not accepting them for who they are until you do. And if you're going to accept someone, accept them and accept them on purpose.

Do that, and you'll find you won't be automatically inclined to dismiss them the second you're tested by the inevitable road bumps and conflicts in your life. Accept, and learn to intentionally understand. It's the human thing to do.

You don't want to avoid the prison salon for too long, anyway.