Thursday, February 25, 2010

All the pretty baubles!



There are three, count 'em three shows featuring young trans women (or people being ID'd as such) either being scheduled or shopped around to cable as of Winter '10.

Actually scheduled for VH1 starting on Monday 3/15 at 10:30pm is 'TRANSform Me' starring three NYC trans women: Laverne Cox, Nina Poon and Jamie Clayton. The concept is basically a reality show where the gorgeous trans women go around the country assisting style-challenged cisgender women with makeovers. Think of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" only femme'd up. It outwardly doesn't differ too much from any of the other 10 million makeover shows. The three are fairly well known in the "reality" "Internet" world.



Laverne Cox, long a trans activist in NYC and was a contestant on Sean Combs' reality show "So you want to work for Diddy." To Combs' benefit, Cox was mostly treated with respect on that show, and little attempt was made to objectify her based on her being trans. She has also been the spokeswoman for the New York LGBT Center in most of their media.

Nina Poon was featured on ads for Kenneth Cole shoes. One ad had her and her boyfriend (a filmmaker who made a somewhat exploitive film about transwomen where Nina appeared in her birthday suit) talking about their relationship. Nina was also featured in a 5-story tall ad on Houston St. between NY University and Soho. She is a makeup artist, stylist and graphic designer.

Jamie Clayton, a makeup artist and model, was the subject of a New York Observer article called "The Second Most Beautiful Girl in New York." The article is mostly about the writer's player friend, who was in a relationship at the time with Clayton. Jamie was also on a rather exploitive episode of the Tyra Show about "Women Who Date in New York." She was basically thrown into the show as a titillation factor, at one point, of course, revealing she is transgender (to audience *gasps*). Her history had nothing to do with the show's subject and, even though she was mostly treated with respect, you could see the chill both in the attitudes of Tyra (who got what she wanted out of Ms. Clayton) and the audience after the "truth" was revealed. She spoke little afterwards since she'd lost her 'womanhood.'

VH1 has been including trans people in programming since Real World: Brooklyn, which featured Katelynn Cusanelli as the first trans participant in that show's history. The next season, Laverne Cox followed on the 'Work for Diddy Show" and now 'TRANSform Me.' It's hard to say how this concept will play out in the show. On one hand, it definitely portrays very cliched views of womanhood (you gotta be dolled up).

In the real world of programming, this series was pitched by Laverne Cox's production company (and bravo for her for being dynamic and making that happen) and the type of series it is was largely because this is the cheapest kind of programming to produce. Yet placing transwoman in this type of show has some potential underlying messages. It also seems to suggest "real women don't care about femininity anymore... it's these trans women who are the 'keepers of the traditional flame'". If that's the subtext then it sounds as if it's cis-media once again projecting a "femme is artificial--trans women are artificial" message which has been projected in a lot of media for the past 20 years. It could also be casting trans women as a sort of "super gay men" stereotype... and every girl should have one" kind of objectification. At its best, it could also provide a paradigm shift for "what is a woman" or "woman as performance". On the positive side, a large number of young ciswomen will be exposed to three intelligent, attractive trans women which may bode well for the next generation's comfort level with trans people and their identities. Here's the VH1 promo for the show.


"Boss Ladies"

A second show being shopped to cable is reality show "Boss Ladies" featuring, yes, initially three trans women of color (but eventually five) going from Atlanta to LA to open a boutique. It's produced by the Red Label Media Group. At present, no information is being given on what network this show will appear. As of now, it's just announced by Red Label and on several blogs as an upcoming show. It's also been mentioned on the Bitch Media blog and on the Gay Black Gossip blog.

The star of the show is Nadia, who received a lot of chee-zee press on TMZ for being involved with rapper lil' Bow Wow. The other two are 'Temptress' and Londyn. Temptress is also a very talented singer (with an Internet video circulating of her ripping off some great gospel at a Baptist Church). Londyn went to Morehouse College, a black, all-male (and very institutionally homophobic) institution in Atlanta and is the Creative Director of Shoecrush.com, an Internet-based shoe and accessories retailer. An intriguing trio of trans women of color who don't seem to be falling into the "hoochie it up for the camera" school of reality show participants. I am truly hoping the series does NOT sink into the stereotype of trans woman + woman of color = hooker. So far, at least in the promo materials, while making them look a bit like LA party girls, don't seem to play up that angle. We'll see. At the very least, it's good to have more trans women of color appearing in mainstream media in a, hopefully, non-hyper-sexualized context. We'll have to wait until broadcast time to make any judgments about in which direction this show is headed. To track information on the show, go to Boss Ladies' Facebook Group.


A Wild Thing showing her stuff.

Last and least is a show being shopped by the people who made the film "Transtasia" called "Wild Things." You may recall Transtasia as a documentary about the "World's First Transsexual Beauty Pageant" (which it most certainly wasn't, but...) which took place in Las Vegas and was MC'd by the late Jahna Steele (who died of a prescription drug OD not long after the filming). One problematic aspect of that film was a number of the contestants were not transsexual, and at least one was a male ID'ing female impersonator. In general, the film played up the "drag" component of the event and the implied fact these were "men not ladies."Although the film was successfully shown on Showtime, it was mostly a commerical flop. While it contained some interesting interviews with the pageant participants about their childhoods and adolescence, it also pasted a very gay man's drag view of their lives.

The director of the film has now been pitching "Wild Things" featuring three of the performers from "Transtasia": Maria Roman, Cassandra Cass and Tiara Russell. The plot involves them doing similar jobs to what Paris Hilton did in "The Simple Life" with the classic 'fish-out-of-water"... three trannies in skimpy bikinis. Evidently the opening credits of the show make very clear they were born as 'guys'. The director has stated that's what the network wanted. What supposedly legitimizes this is they're doing these jobs to earn money for Maria Roman's brother's cancer treatment, as though there's no other way to help this man.

Women, Wink-Wink
Tiara Russell, one of the three trans women in "Wild Things," is the one of the three who went on The Tyra Show and clearly identified herself as a man, and said she wished to be buried as a man because "that's the truth of who I am... I am a female impersonator." That's a perfectly okay gender ID to have, but the producer of "Wild Things" goes right ahead and identifies Russell as a transwoman. Um, not really!? But there are other potentially problematic elements in the series. At one point, Ms. Cass talks about the show and when she mentions "women", does a wink-wink and air quotes, as if to say, "you know we're not women." In fairness, Maria Roman is a well-known activist in the LA trans-latina community. Quite honestly, in the clips I've seen, she seems a bit embarrassed by the whole production.

At another point in a promo, the bikini-clad women are doing a car wash, and Ms. Cass takes the hose and puts it between her legs like a penis. The director can be heard telling her to do it again. Needless to say, lots of huge boobs hanging out of skimpy tops, lots of hotpants, lots of skimpy swimwear, lots of trans-objectification and sexism. As of the present, there is no announcement by Showtime that "Wild Things" as been picked up... it looks a little low rent for a network which has been producing top-rated shows like "Dexter," but we'll see if it ever unfortunately materializes.

Why now?
One wonders if this is backlash similar to what Susan Faludi wrote about in the book of the same name. Are these women being put out there because they're trying to make trans women more mainstream (and make a few bucks at the same time), or as a way of making them seem sexed-up and harmless? Why would there suddenly be three different productions going for a similar angle (albeit with different casts and, perhaps, very differing level of outward exploitation).

While one could say they all attempt to grant trans women some level of beauty and acceptance as women and human beings, it can be said they also make these women's transness an aspect of how artificial femininity is and how it can even be exemplified by (implied) men. And yes, this was mentioned in "Whipping Girl" by Julia Serano as one of the reasons clichéd femininity is often projected onto trans women as a way of making them seem artificial and often used against cisgender women who are deemed "too unsuccessfully femme" and identified as resembling "trannies"—supposedly the ultimate insult any cis woman can hear. To dredge up some old wounds, many 2nd wave feminists have stated this kind of "trans-femininity" is a tool of the patriarchy to oppress all women.

At the very least, I wish the women (and male 'female impersonator') in these shows well, hope it helps them pay the rent and any qualms I have about the productions and what they're communicating I'm saving for the producers, sponsors, and networks—those who really have power over how our communities are represented. I do hope trans people are way past the point where any media exposure is thought to better than no media exposure. Our beauties are too precious inside and out to waste on this fluff.

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