The third season of Orange is the New Black dropped on Jun. 11 on Netflix, three hours earlier than expected, to the delight of its many fans. Since its debut in 2013, the drama has been praised for its mainstream depictions of lesbianism. Its popularity seems to prove that finally, mass culture was embracing queer female identity.
Last week, the overwhelmingly positive reception of Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition suggested the same is beginning to be true for non-cisgender identities, like that of OITNB’s new breakout star, Ruby Rose, who identifies as gender fluid and is a vocal advocate for transgender rights.
Rose is undeniably the most viral thing about this season of OITNB. Her debut in episode six sparked a maelstrom of adoration on Twitter, leading fans unfamiliar with Rose’s background to discover her personal support of gender fluidity mirrors the identity of her character on the show.
Case in point, last summer Rose celebrated the trans movement in a widely-read Facebook post: “The Transgender Movement is here. #breakfree,” she wrote, promoting a short film she created and produced in which she undergoes a visual gender transformation herself.
But while it’s great that fans are being introduced to transgender and gender fluid identities through Rose, it’s important to remember that her popularity stems in large part from her sex appeal. Whether presenting as masculine or feminine, Rose remains undeniably attractive. Lest we forget, she is one of the faces of makeup brand Maybelline.
Views of Rose’s video have spiked in the past week to over 5 million, and there has also been a flood of enthusiastic—but often objectifying—tweets from men and women alike. But enthusiasm does not necessarily translate to understanding, or even acceptance.
Like Jenner, Rose’s sexual identity is receiving so much (positive) attention in large part due to her appearance and privileged status as a white celebrity, which establishes her as a traditional object of adulation. We subconsciously reduce the emotional distance between ourselves and the celebrities we worship (Stars! They’re Just Like Us!), potentially making it easier for us to empathize when one of them comes out as part of a marginalized minority.
While public acceptance and celebration of these attractive, high-profile transgender and gender fluid women is a step in the right direction, it shouldn’t be misidentified as systemic cultural change. Binge watching TV shows can certainly lead to the former, but it will take empathy developed through conscious work and social progress to achieve the latter.