Sophia Burset (portrayed by Laverne Cox) is a transgender woman who is imprisoned for identity fraud. She works in Litchfield Penitentiary’s salon and seems to make connections with many women through this position; however, Sophia makes herself known in season two when she plays an instrumental role in teaching the women about their genitalia.
We learn in season two that Sophia had strained relations with her father, who was a “hard-ass.” She has not spoken with her father since her transition. When his lung transplant fails, however, we learn that he begins asking for her by her new name, fearing he’d die without making amends with his child. Not reconnecting with her father is on Sophia’s “list of regrets.”
Through a series of flashbacks in the first several episodes, we get a glimpse of her pre-trans life as well as a more thorough look into the life Sophia led with her wife and their son. Sophia began stealing credit card information in order to pay for Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS), and now she is serving time. She does have a positive outlook on her sentence though, for now she can be “the woman that God intended [her] to be.” However, her wife and son don’t seem to agree with her.
Crystal, Sophia’s wife, is more supportive and civil than we may expect a spouse to be when seeing her former husband transitioning. Not surprisingly, their son has a much more difficult time accepting the changes. In later episodes of season one, we learn that Crystal has become less supportive now that Sophia is doing time for the crimes she committed. Although she said that she would rather their son have a father “even if he was in a dress” at his sports games than have him not be around at all, the tension between the two only increases. Between her mother’s shunning and her inability to show her face in church anymore, Crystal is struggling to carry on with her life knowing that her decisions to support Sophia have created these conditions.
In season two, we learn that Sophia’s son, Michael, is visiting her in prison after a long time of not talking to her, for he is “pissed off or ashamed or both.” Coincidentally, he’s the one who turned her in when he was just twelve. Flashbacks from season three depict Michael declaring that he “do[esn’t] need another mother,” which suggests that he is struggling with his former father’s transition. This becomes particularly evident in season three during the Mother’s Day episode; while Sophia has always been Michael’s father, they still take the opportunity to spend the entire day with each other. On this day, Sophia learns that Crystal’s new boyfriend, the pastor at their church, has taught Michael to shave (and incorrectly at that).
“Now who are you gonna listen to, someone who just shares his face or someone who shaves everywhere?”
Although Sophia has struggled since the start of the series to maintain her relationship with her son, she readily admits that there is a man around the house to guide Michael through his adolescence; however, when she is given the chance to bestow some of her own advice, she substitutes a personal experience with her own father for advice, which Michael mistakes for advice. Sophia tells Michael that her father told her to practice on a “real insecure girl.” Of course, when Crystal doesn’t take this lightly. But perhaps the most important part of this conversation may be gleaned when Michael asks her why she would ever want to be a woman in a world where men tell their sons exactly what her father told her. Despite the world, Sophia is stil thankful that she is able to be who she truly is.
Dishearted by her mundane prison job where women refuse to get fun haircuts with originality or sass, Gloria Mendoza illuminates that Sophia is one of the only ones that goes “full MAC counter every day.” While Sophia sees her prerogative to wear makeup as being a hard-earned privilege as a transgender woman, Gloria insists that “real women let themselves go.” This discussion marks a clear difference in opinion between the two women about what it means to be a woman, which also calls into question the ways in which society regards transgender individuals. While some individuals might see Sophia’s failure to wear makeup (in a parallel universe) as a confusing decision, considering the fact that Sophia has fought so hard to be a woman, others do not hold Gloria, a cisgender woman, to this standard because she is and always has been a woman. The fact that Sophia is committed to preventing her “shit [from] slid[ing]” suggests that she may feel pressured by society to some degree to keep applying makeup while also suggesting that the act of applying makeup and dressing herself up maintains her sense of self–which is so easily lost in prison.
This conversation paves the way for Gloria to ask Sophia the favor of having Crystal drive her son, Benny, up from the city on weekends so that she can keep an eye on her son. The arrangement fosters a close friendship between Michael and Benny; however, when Sophia learns that Michael was arrested for beating up another teenager, she immediately accuses Gloria’s son of being a bad influence on Michael. Taking some time to reflect on her accusation, Sophia approaches Gloria to apologize but has a swift change of heart when Gloria greets her with cold insolence.
The tension steadily begins to boil when the two cross paths in the bathrooms, and, after a few heated words, Sophia pushes Gloria into the wall, which causes a concussion. Word of this fight launches the women of Litchfield into transphobic warfare, conducted through anti-trains slurs and hateful gossip. Finally, when Sophia is cornered in her own salon by angry women coming to Gloria’s defense, the new and poorly-trained prison guards are unable to handle the situation, which results in a violent physical assault against Sophia. Despite the fact that Sophia is clearly the victim of a vicious attack, her pleads for justice (and for the firing of C.O. Sikowitz who knowingly allowed her to be so brutally attacked) fall on the deaf ears of Joe Caputo, who is suddenly distracted by the recapturing of Angie Rice. While Sophia has faced her share of administrative opposition, including being denied her hormone medication, the administration seems to habitually regard Sophia’s transgender identity as a cosmetic or mental issue that she has to deal with on her own. Caputo exasperatedly asks her,
“Jesus, Burset. Why do you have to make everything so hard?”
Sophia obviously has no control over how others respond to her; however, this reaction from Caputo clearly demonstrates how Sophia is treated as more of a liability rather than a human being. Starved emotionally and socially for interaction with another inmate who isn’t afraid to cross Gloria as well as emotionally (because Gloria is in control of the kitchen), Sophia turns to Sister Ingalls. In season one when Sophia was fighting against the administration, she had buddied up to Sister Ingalls but for the selfish purposes of finding more hormone medication; however, she finds that the former nun is perhaps the only friend she has left. Instead of asking for favors or sympathy, all Sophia requests from her friend are prayers. Sister Ingalls senses her emotional need, and advises Sophia to not “give them the satisfaction of watching you unravel.” Despite her wise words, Sophia is promptly approached by guards to be escorted to the SHU for her “own protection.”
In season 4, Sophia struggles to contact Joe Caputo regarding her unfair containment in the SHU because the prison guards refuse to grant her access. As she continues to lose all sense of time and reality while in her confinement, she does everything in her power to get his attention, from flooding her toilet (until she can “kill [herself]”) to setting fire to her cell by way of a broken light bulb and even cutting herself to the point where she had to be taken to medical.
When Caputo finally comes down to the SHU to talk to her after her first disturbance, he tries to convince her that Crystal “agrees” with him that she should remain in the SHU for her own safety, meanwhile we already know that no such conversation was had and that Crystal has been trying to locate Sophia and get some confirmation that she is okay for some time now.
After yet another extended period of isolation, Nicky Nichols isolates her while she’s cleaning up her hallway and begs her for a blanket. Resistant to help for fear of both of their well-beings, she gives Sophia a magazine instead to try to help her pass the time. However, shortly after, Nichols discovers her bloody and abandoned cell, news which she takes back to Gloria Mendoza and Sister Jane Ingalls when she returns to Litchfield.
The next contact Sophia receives is via paper kite from Sister Jane, who has purposely had herself sent there (with a phone hidden in her vagina) to take a picture of Sophia to prove that she’s still alive and well for Crystal. When caught, Caputo intervenes and gets Sister Jane her photo, which he then gives to Danny Pearson who represents Crystal and eventually forces Sophia’s move back into minimum security.
Though this should have been a breath of fresh air, Sophia appears to be even worse off than before. Horrified when she notices the sign posted in the salon reading “Burset has a dick,” she reluctantly allows Gloria to help her feel like herself again. Bruised, battered, and scarred, it becomes evident that Sophia’s journey to recovery will be a long and hard road.