Faith Reviews “Strut”…Sort Of…

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There are reasons I usually don’t review stuff, or at least don’t write lengthy reviews like professional critics do. Firstly is that I just don’t have time to consume a lot of media. Between my full-time job, writing, podcasting, con tours, and my family, I don’t get a lot of time to go to the movies or watch much TV. Secondly, I never know how to say much about a particular piece of media without getting into broader subjects that surround it but don’t actually have weight on whether or not the entity in question is good.

I originally set out for this to be just a review of the first episode of Strut, the new reality fashion drama on Oxygen that has an all transgender cast and that I’ve already given my early thoughts on here. It was going to be matter-of-fact; talking about the good stuff, the bad stuff, and closing with my overall opinion. You know…a review. But my mind just doesn’t work that way. The objectionable stuff I could come up with would barely fill a couple of paragraphs and other, deeper thoughts stayed glued to my brain the more I thought about the show. I’m simply not good at thinking of a piece of media on its own (and yes, I know no review is actually 100% objective because that would be boring, but the best critics at least tie the non-objective stuff into judging the merit of the work)

With that in mind, this post is going to be split into two sections. First I’ll look at what I can objectively say about Strut and then I’ll let that lead into a discussion of something that hangs over Strut but doesn’t have any weight as to whether it’s good or bad. And now that I’ve wasted over 300 words rambling, let’s move on.

Strut is good. I genuinely enjoyed the first episode. The show follows the modeling agency Slay at the time of their one year anniversary. What makes Slay unique is that it’s the only modeling agency to only work with transgender models. The show follows a wide array of models, from business veterans to fresh faces, between New York and Los Angeles. I was really nervous at the beginning when one of the models said the word “penis” before the opening credits even started, but for as much as Strut is about transgender models, it doesn’t spend the whole time dwelling on the fact that their trans. I mean, yea, it comes up often, but the show’s direction does a pretty good job of letting the issue fade to the background enough to let the much more interesting aspects of each model shine. There actually wasn’t a single mention of genitalia after that, which was honestly surprising.

The models themselves are quite diverse, representing a wide array of ages and ethnicities. I do wish there was more than on male model in the cast, but that’s a nitpick more than an outright issue.

 And…that’s about it. Like I said, I’m really not much of a critic. It’s a good show and I enjoyed watching it, but it brought to mind a broader issue that took up my mental energy way more than the merits of the show itself. I don’t know whether or not Goldberg and her team intended for transgender people to be the target audience of the show, but undoubtedly we will take up a large chunk of the viewership. I couldn’t help but watch this show from the perspective of a transgender woman, thus my own feelings emotions flavored my experience. And while I did enjoy myself, I couldn’t help but feel…well…inadiquate.

This was one of my worries going in and part of my last post. So much of the transgender experience is unfairly centered around physical appearance, and having a all-trans show set in a world also focused on looks is worrisome. It’s not like this was an all-transgender law firm, or an all-transgender bakery. The fashion industry already has a lot of problems when it comes to affecting the self-esteem and confidence of women since it’s rare to see any model booked who isn’t super skinny. And while there have been some improvements in that regard as of late, transgender models are pretty new to the scene and have to meet one obvious requirement before anyone will even think about booking them.

Passing.

No media outlet is going to book a transgender model, even if the fact they’re trans is disclosed, unless most of their audience is going to have a “that person is trans?!” reaction. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen a non-passing trans person get featured in anything. As I’ve said many times before, if only passing trans people are given the spotlight then the public will continue to judge the validity of someone’s gender identity only on their looks. Again, this isn’t something the show is doing wrong, but it’s an overall problem that Strut is marinading in.

I’m lucky enough that I pass pretty well, but I know a lot of transgender people where that’s not the case. It’s a well-known fact that the media, especially fashion media, puts a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way. Women have to run a proverbial gauntlet of stigmas and expectations to be considered valuable in society, but transgender women have another gauntlet they have to run just to get to the starting line of that one. A woman who is overweight or in any other way conventionally not pretty is going to face a lot of undeserved obstacles, but no one is going to assume (in most cases) they are anything other than female. A trans woman who doesn’t pass can’t even get it that good, and often spends a not insignificant amount of time and money changing her body just to make it to the level of just another un-pretty or unworthy woman. And this isn’t even going into the looming threats of harassment and violence they face when not passing.

Women watching fashion shows often feel a sense of shame or inadequacy about their own bodies, but I was honestly shocked how strong those feelings were for me when I watched Strut. It wasn’t just the feeling of “I’m not that pretty” or “I’m not that skinny”; it was “I don’t pass that well”. I looked for the things I’m self-conscious about on them and felt inadequate when I didn’t see those same flaws. I worry about the aspects that “give me away” as trans like the faint amount of shadow still on my upper lip or how wide my jaw is. When I don’t see those same things on the models on Strut, it doesn’t do good things for my confidence.

And I’m really curious to learn how other transgender women feel when they watch this show. Again, the show is not bad because of this, but it’s for the same reason other fashion shows aren’t bad even if they contribute to low self-esteem issues in women. It all serves to highlight an unfortunate truth: society largely doesn’t care about transgender people and those that do only give you a pass if you…well…pass! And not just pass, but look conventionally beautiful as well. It’s a problem that goes well beyond toxic notions like, ‘you’re not thin so you’re not pretty’ or ‘you’re don’t look good enough to be loved’. No, this reaches the point of, ‘you don’t look good enough to even be accepted for who you are’. And when you live in that kind of stigma, watching models enjoying things you might not even be able to achieve is heartbreaking.

I’m happy to have a show starring transgender people. I’m happy it allows real transgender people to tell their stories. But nothing is going to get better until we show the broader reality of being transgender to the world. We don’t start our journey of transition at the end. We don’t always pass and some of us never will. And we certainly aren’t all going to look like supermodels! The world needs to see the transgender community in a more realistic manner, because there’s a lot more on the line for us than just ‘being pretty’.

-Faith

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The Stumbles of “Strut”

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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.

Click here to watch the trailer.

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.

-Faith

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.