Monday, March 15, 2010

TRANSform Me : Transactivism VH1 style?

Jamie, Laverne and Nina

Premiering tonight on VH1 is their new program TRANSform Me (remember, the trans in the title is capitalized) previously discussed on this blog in my post, All the Pretty Baubles. To quickly recap, it's a rather generic makeover show with one twist—the three makeover-ticians are beautiful trans women: Laverne Cox, Nina Poon and Jaime Clayton. In this first episode (available for view on the VH1 website) Laverne, Nina and Jaime head out in the Glambulance to Mobile, AL to help Nicole, a woman who's just lost 50 lbs but still doesn't have a lot of self-esteem. Most of what happens in this episode is a rehash from every other cable makeover program or Tyra episode: Laverne plays Oprah and deals with the inner beauty/inner pain (and even gets Nicole to cry!!!), while Nina and Jaime prance around Nicole's closet throwing out the "fat pants" and glittery purple eyeshadow. Nicole learns to rhumba, goes shopping with her mentors and gets to reveal her goddess at a "ladies night out" with her friends. As usual, it's all about showing off "the girls" and curves, "looking like a woman," and lengthening the line of the leg while showing off your natural beauty (of course, the words artificial or drag are verboten on all makeover shows).

Like most makeover shows, little to no mention is made of past relationships, career, self-abusive behavior and, especially, depression. In fairness, TRANSform Me episodes are a quickie 22 minutes long (including numerous shots of the Glambulance tearing down the street) so, between the standard "you're a mess scene," shopping scenes, one of two generic crying jags where the mench isn't sure she can make it, and the big reveal at the end... there isn't a lot of time left for self-realization and examination.

"I've never met people like 'you guys' before"

One of the show's hitches is they don't tell the person being transformed that three trans women are coming over, much less going through her stuff and hugging her. As Laverne said about Nicole when they came into her house, "she seemed to be visably gagging that three transgender women were at her door." It would be curious to see where the series goes with this concept and to what degree they might pre-screen contestants for transphobia or not. Obviously, part of the series concept is "at first they were uncomfortably with the trans women, but now they're like her sisters." We'll see. The series might be more interesting (and believable) if some women literally didn't want to deal with the three trans fashionistas (much less be touched by them). While it's warm and fuzzy to think "oh, they're all younger women who watch VH1, they'll be cool with it" but the reality is, looking at many of the snarky comments for shows like last season's "The Real World" when it featured trans woman Katelyn, there is plenty of transphobia and anti-trans nastiness still floating around younger generations. After it's over, they do ask Nicole what she thought about the process, but it was more about finding her inner "femme goddess" and not how she felt about her three teachers.

The TRANSform Me Boys?

Guys like you!
The show does play up the trans aspect whenever it can. At the opening of each show it displays three photos of Laverne, Nina and Jaime as little boys (fortunately, NOT as pre-transition adults). While the photos are supposed to provide inspirational fodder which proudly states "even we can transform ourselves into beautiful women" there is also a reminder how these three "women"are really a more souped-up femme version of the "Queer Eye" crew. Fortunately, Laverne Cox, for all her endless mentions of connecting her transition to Nicole's need for transformation, is relatively low-key about it. The only one who really trannys it up is Nina Poon, who seems to provide most of the quasi-drag persona and Lucky Cheng's rehash (Lucky Cheng's is an Asian trans/drag-themed restaurant in Lower Manhattan). Okay, we get it Nina, you're from New York, you're trans... enough with the drag act already.

Is it transformative?
It's hard to not wonder how weakly transformative TRANSform Me is? It certainly presents women's identities as closely intertwined with how they look. While Laverne tells simpering Nicole "you have to love yourself" no mention is made how many women who look mainstream gorgeous do not love themselves and how many women who look like what media would call "a schlub" have positive self-esteem. What it leaves is the impression of trans women being stuck in very old-fashioned ideas of womanhood and beauty (again, this IS on VH1, so...). At one point Nina looks at one of Nicole's shirts and whines, "doesn't she have something more feminine?" Yes, I gagged when I heard that. It continues assumptions some second wave feminists and queer theorists have that femme trans women are basically foot soldiers for the patriarchy or for the binary expression of gender. It tags trans women as basically shallow and, in the pursuit of an artificial beauty and approval, ultimately fake.

Moreover, I continued to wonder how Nicole felt about trans people after her experience? Would she now wholeheartedly support ENDA or, ultimately, having a trans person teaching her child in school? How would she feel about someone in her family transitioning or identifying as gender variant? These are all left as unanswered questions by TRANSform Me which likes to keep the good times rolling but I hope, at the very least, between the discussions of purple eyeshadow and size 18 track suits, some glimpses of real world attitudes will be slipped in. No comment is made about how Nicole, made over and transformed and letting her inner goddess show through, doesn't have to deal with issues of government identification, being murdered for being trans, familial/community rejection, legal inequities, intense job discrimination the way her mentors do. Nor do I doubt VH1 could care less.

Susan Stanton not long after she came out

TRANSform Me vs. Susan Stanton
This series is premiering at virtually the same time as CNN is showing their documentary about Susan Stanton's transition. It's an interesting counterpart. Laverne, Nina and Jaime were all younger (although not teenage) transitioners as opposed to Susan who was in her late 40s. If nothing else, it's good to see a trans-related show which, unlike the CNN documentary, is NOT about a trans person transitioning, putting on makeup and panty hose (or binding and shaving for FTMs), letting go of "The Man" and looking embarrassed and humiliated about making their first tentative steps out into the world. It doesn't present the three fashionistas as freaks. The TRANSform Me 3 are, at the very least, living out in the world as women, being experienced as such and are shown with no small degree of confidence about themselves.

Whatever sexist, gender regressive messages TRANSform Me might put out, at least it shows them as women who aren't sex workers, drag queens, porn stars and who aren't ashamed of who they are and their womenhood. Does it subconsciously equate passing with real womanhood? I would say yes. It also objectifies them in subtle ways as "accessory buddies/uber gay men on hormones." Great, now every cissexual party-girl will want a trans buddy until something more hip comes along—we're dressed up eunuchs. But, on a very positive note, it also exposes the young audience who watches VH1 reality shows to a non-threatening slice of trans womenhood which has to bode well for our developing acceptance in this still very phobic society. Oh yes, and the show is partly produced by Laverne Cox's production company, Complete World Domination! Indeed, one glammy, clichéd step at a time.

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