Outrage over something clearly problematic is easy. My last post didn’t take a lot of effort to get my point across since casting yet another cis person as a member of the still poorly represented transgender community is such a cut and dry case of fuck no. Though even then some people will fail to grasp exactly why you’re angry, the bulk of the readership tends to at least figure it out after you make your case (and I did have a few people say they hadn’t understood why it was a problem until they read the post).
Pointing out the problems in something less blatant is a much greater challenge. Hell, it can even come across as being too picky or trying to find faults just for the sake of doing it. It becomes more touchy when the subject matter appears to be actually progressive and done with the very intention of making right the sins of poor representation. And while I’ll agree that being outright angry over such things is definitely not the right way to go, holding back criticism as a thank you just for trying sends the message that the entity in question got it 100% right, therefore no one needs to try any harder than that to appease said community.
What the hell am I going on about? Well, it’s been revealed that the Oxygen network has picked up a new show called Strut. Seemingly framed like America’s Next Top Model but without being a competition, the show is produced by Whoopi Goldberg and features a modeling agency that only works with transgender models.
If you’re thinking, ‘Faith, how can you think a show like that looks bad?’, let me go ahead and say that I don’t. I actually think this looks like a good show and I plan to at least give it a shot. It shows real transgender people who are allowed to talk about their own struggles. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some issues with it and I believe those issues have merit. Like I said last time, I refuse to just take what I’m given simply because I’m given so little to begin with. I will always be picky about how I’m represented in the media, even when the media in question is trying to get it right.
To break down the issues I have with this show, we need to tackle them from two different angles. First, there’s the issue of Strut as a progressive entity (as in will work to actively progress transgender acceptance). We live in a world where people have access to a near infinite amount of entertainment options. Between hundreds of channels, on demand sites like Hulu and Netflix, Youtube channels, podcasts, ebooks, and everything else the digital age has to offer, there’s virtually no chance you’re ever going to have to watch, listen to, read, etc. something you don’t want to. Strut is a progressive show produced by a progressive person and presented on a progressive network. It’s preaching to the choir. And while that can be good for the choir, it’s not going to achieve anything meaningful in the long run. The people who actually need to be exposed to these people and their stories will still be able to easily sequester themselves away from it. If the show were on NBC, CBS, or even a bigger cable presence like FX or TNT, it would have a greater probability of at least having someone stay on it till their show came on afterward. On Oxygen, it might was well be in a box wrapped in caution tape reading: WARNING: THIS SHOW WILL BREAK YOUR IGNORANCE.
Of course I’m not touting any of this as a fault of the show itself (that’s coming next), but more as an overall observation. Anyone who thinks this is going to be a means of turning public opinion is sorely mistaken. This is any other reality show; period. Nothing more, nothing less. And the thing that makes me the maddest is that very few content creators seem to be fighting for the simpler solutions that actually would work to make things better. I don’t need a show just for trans people, I need trans people on the shows people already watch. Instead of this, couldn’t we get a trans contestant on Dancing With the Stars? How about on Survivor, or Big Brother? These shows are already watched by millions of people, both the progressive and the ignorant. That’s where we need visibility! America’s Next Top Model actually got this right by having transgender contestants in with everyone else. That’s proper representation!
You want to really shake things up? Give us a transgender contestant on The Bachelor.
I said a while back in my post about neutral bathrooms that attempts to be inclusive can often just be a different kind of exclusive. In the bathroom example, the point is that neutral bathrooms are a great thing to have, but to build them specifically so transgender people have somewhere to go is just singling them out in a different way. “You’re not allowed to exist,” becomes “you can exist, but only over there.” Strut has the same feeling to me. There are a ton of shows just like it all over the place, each with a cast of men and women representing a variety of colors, ages, and sexual orientations. Why can’t we just throw transgender into that mix? Why do we need our own special version of what’s already out there?
Secluding the transgender experience from the rest of media further pushes the notion that varying gender identities are abnormal; they must have their own special place because they don’t fit in with normal life. For a long time you couldn’t get a gay character in a story unless the story was about them being gay. That’s gotten better over time, but transgender representation hasn’t caught up. Strut might be telling some great stories about the transgender experience, but it’s not letting those stories exist alongside what our collective culture already knows. What’s more, it’s doing it in the safest space imaginable outside of an online only medium.
As for the show itself (and this is purely impressions off the commercials as I’ve not seen any episodes yet), it’s another show about runway models. The transgender aspect is simply a gimmick, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I still think it looks like an entertaining show, but there’s nothing remarkable about it. I will say, however, that if we have to have a show with an all transgender cast…can it please not be models? Not to put down models or modeling in any way; it’s a valid profession that takes a great deal of work and talent, but so much of the stigma about transgender people is already centered around appearance.
It would be so easy for the plot of this show to be about how well the models appear cis when the pictures are submitted to magazines, billboards etc. If that turns out to be the goal these men and women have, then the narrative will actually become something harmful. So much of the transgender experience has been poisoned by the notion that passing equals validity. I know I’ve fallen into that trap more than once in my life. The idea that one’s gender identity isn’t worthy of respect unless they can pass for a cis member of said gender is an incredibly difficult battle that most of our community has to fight. Telling the stories of transgender people through the framework of a modeling show is only going to exacerbate that notion.
I’d like to stress again that everything I’ve presented here is speculation based on how the show has advertised itself. Once it’s out and I’ve had a chance to watch it, I might return to this topic and offer more insights. Until then, it’s hard to get excited for something like this. It’s hard to see this as a step forward when the greater advancement could have been made in a simpler way. It’s hard to be optimistic when so many of the same old problems with transgender representation are already showing up in the marketing for this show. It looks like a fun show, but if it’s aiming to be anything more than that, anything meaningful for the lives of the people it portrays, I find it sorely wanting.
UPDATE: It’s come to my attention that Big Brother actually has had a transgender contestant before. Just goes to show you how much reality TV I watch.