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.
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’.