Mark Harris: The transition will be televised
A sports figure comes out as transgender, and the general public is riveted by her story, which is met with everything from bigotry to curiosity to empathy. All at once, the subject seems to be everywhere from op-ed pages to dinner-table conversations. Transgender stories — this time fictional — start to gain a toehold in popular culture. The highest-rated sitcom on network TV takes some tentative steps toward exploring the fluidity of gender identity by having a gay cross-dressing performer as a recurring character. A popular medical drama wins an Emmy nomination for a two-part episode about a doctor who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery.
The year is 1976. Transgender Americans are, for the first time, having a moment. And then interest subsides. The caravan moves on. And the moment is over. How did it take 39 years for us to get all the way back to the starting line?
Four decades ago, while the quest of Renée Richards (born Richard Raskind) to be permitted to play tennis in the women’s draw of the U.S. Open galvanized the country’s attention, and shows like All in the Family and Medical Center began dabbling in what was then called transsexualism, Bruce Jenner was on his way to winning a gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and landing on the cover of a Wheaties box. Cut to April 2015, and Jenner was No. 1 again, now as the subject of a ratings-topping interview with Diane Sawyer that drew 21 million viewers in which he (the designation Jenner preferred at the time) spoke about his lifelong journey toward becoming the woman the world now knows as Caitlyn.
This time, transgender issues were handled with more knowledge and sensitivity than they were in the 1970s, when a People magazine interview remarked coldly that Richards’ “buttocks are flat, her breasts small” and smirked that she could end up the “King of the Virginia Slims circuit.” But Jenner was also less alone. In the past year, the Amazon series Transparent, about a dad who comes out as trans to her three varyingly sympathetic adult children, has won Golden Globes for best comedy series and best actor (Jeffrey Tambor). Trans actress Laverne Cox appeared on Time’s cover and returns as trans inmate Sophia Burset on the third season of Orange Is the New Black. The final season of Fox’s Glee featured a subplot in which Coach Shannon Beiste (played by Emmy nominee Dot-Marie Jones) had reassignment surgery, a story line that climaxed with the appearance of a 200-person trans choir. The producer of daytime’s The Bold and the Beautiful surprised actress Karla Mosley by telling her that her character would be revealed as trans. Netflix’s new sci-fi thriller Sense8 features a trans character (played by trans actress Jamie Clayton) as the focus of one of its eight intertwining plotlines. And, of course, reality TV is deep in the mix: Aside from I Am Cait, Jenner’s own upcoming E! docuseries about her transition, there’s ABC Family’s 10-part Becoming Us, about an Illinois high school junior whose father is trans.
We are, in other words, right on the verge of a network meeting in which the producer of a new series says, “What about a trans character?” and the executive replies, “Oh, that’s so last year.” Congratulations, trans Americans — you are now pop culture’s flavor of the month.
Before we continue, let’s agree that it’s a hideous phrase to apply to any group of human beings. As dehumanizing as it is to obliterate an often misunderstood minority by excluding it from the pop cultural landscape altogether, it’s scarcely better to commodify a whole set of diverse individuals by treating them as a cool product for consumers of mainstream culture who are window-shopping for the next “edgy” thing. Invisible yesterday, here today, old-hat tomorrow is a terrible formula. And also a familiar one.
But there’s reason to hope that TV’s sudden interest in trans people is not just the brief flare that portends a quick flameout, but a necessary step toward more enduring inclusiveness. One thing that pop culture has always done very well is to get very interested in something all at once. And no medium does that more effectively than television. The delivery system itself is about reliability, familiarity, and predictability. And when the TV hive mind decides to invest in something — as it did in gay characters 20 years ago — it will do its best to make sure you get invested too. That’s what’s happening right now for, and to, Americans who identify as trans. (Though the number is shaky, the current best guess is about 700,000, roughly the population of Seattle or Detroit.) Suddenly we’re hearing TV viewers cheer (or remark, or gripe) that trans characters are “everywhere you look.” They’re not; it would be more accurate to say that on TV, as in the real world, trans people might be anywhere you look, and at the same time to note that fewer than a dozen trans people out of the thousands of regular and recurring characters on tele-vision isn’t oversaturation but — for the first time ever — proportional representation.
“Trans” means across, beyond, on the other side of. It’s the only name for a minority group I can think of that suggests not just an affiliation but a journey. “Trans” is both an identity and, by implication, a narrative about making your way from one place to another, and that means it lends itself to a particular kind of storytelling. Right now, it’s not surprising that TV is more interested in the voyage than the destination — as we learn more about trans people, we’re naturally drawn to stories of transitioning, in much the same way that coming-out stories took center stage for a while soon after gay characters started to break through into mass entertainment. These stories are important to tell, and it’s fascinating to see comedy, drama, news, and reality all hit the same marks: The real-life teenage boy who doesn’t want to call his dad “Mom” and complains that “there are too many pronouns” on Becoming Us isn’t so far removed from the adult daughter on Transparent who asks, “Daddy, what am I supposed to call you now?”
Minority representation on TV has always come in phases. Phase 1 is absence — or worse, stereotype. In Phase 2, minorities appear briefly, usually to teach majority characters life lessons or allow them to demonstrate tolerance, and then recede again. In Phase 3 — where we are now — they finally start to get their own stories told. Phase 4 — the characters stick around just because we’re interested in them — is on the near horizon. Phase 5 — we don’t have to write stories like this anymore — is farther off.
It’s not a shock that most of the trans narratives we’re seeing in 2015 are filtered through (or at least share screen time with) the perspective of non-transgender characters. Transparent and Becoming Us are as much about the kids as the parents, and as refreshing as it is to see trans characters woven into the ensembles of Orange Is the New Black and Sense8, there’s no escaping the fact that a large part of why they’re there is specifically to promote understanding — they’re a vehicle for communicating. That’s great, and essential, but it shouldn’t be confused with the finish line—which would be a pop cultural world in which trans people are simply part of the fabric and not used as devices. If you doubt how hard that goal is to reach on TV, consider that gay people, who outnumber trans people by roughly 10 to 1 in the national population, are still struggling for that kind of representation, and that a host of ethnic minorities (particularly Asians and Latinos) continue to fight for the day when they can turn on the TV and routinely see people who look like them.
In that regard, who’s behind the camera may matter at least as much as who’s in front of it. It’s not a coincidence that the most racially diverse prime-time lineup on any network — ABC’s Thursday-night roster of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder — is overseen by a black woman, or that Will & Grace was co-created by a gay man, or that fictional Ellen’s coming-out was tied to real Ellen’s desire to tell her own truth. There’s no substitute for having someone in the room to whom the subject matters — it’s a corrective, it’s an incentive, and it’s a truth detector.
The 1976 flicker of interest in trans issues didn’t last because it was, though well-intentioned, not strong enough to combat an immense set of prevailing prejudices. This time, it might take root, not just because attitudes have changed, but because the current approach is less touristic and more firsthand. One of the creators of Sense8, Lana Wachowski, is trans. Transparent’s writer-director-creator Jill Soloway has a trans father. If Sophia seems like an exceptionally multidimensional trans character, that’s in part because Laverne Cox is on the scene. As she has noted, “It’s really important that trans folks are in positions of power in terms of creating our stories. I think that’s vital.” Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan has argued that a good writer should be able to write any character with truth and depth, and she’s right. But it’s an important breakthrough that there are now a handful of people in positions of power with a deep and personal investment in making sure TV gets this right. Four decades ago, we got off to a false start. Now, better late than never, we’re off to a good one.
To continue reading the cover story on Laverne Cox, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now.