You know that sound a fork makes when it scrapes across a plate? That cringe is basically the same reaction I have when the dramatic, high-pitched suspense music queues up on some self-serious, slick television show and a vaguely alarmed anchor says over a quick-edit, rotating full body shot of two trans folks something like "In their twenties, and trapped in the wrong bodies, Gail and Don take the path toward self-destruction."
To be clear, I think some trans people genuinely feel that "trapped/born in the wrong body" is an accurate description of exactly how they feel. I think many of us struggle with the serious side-effects of not feeling physically aligned with our internal sense of gender. I know I've had dark days and I don't doubt that if I hadn't transitioned when I did, that darkness would have grown worse.
But I also am suspicious of the reductionist quality of the narrative, how the rich experience of gender is sacrificed for the clean and palatable template: My body trapped me, but I liberated myself. Non-trans folks can kinda wrap their mind around that, right? I was born broken, but medicine fixed me!
Not me, I want to shout at the television (instead I talk about it). I was born in the right body and I'm a medically transitioned transgender man! Hold that complexity with your serious anchor voice and foreboding music! Seriously, though, I don't think there's anything "wrong" with me, and I definitely think you shouldn't either.
I tell myself I watch shows like last week's episode of National Geographic's Taboo (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel), "Changing Gender," so you don't have to. But that's not exactly right. I'm deeply concerned with media representations of trans folks, and that's not only because I'm a trans man who works in media.
More and more, I'm convinced that there's a cyclical quality to the stories we tell ourselves. What we see, we repeat. The people who deny or grant our medical care, veto or approve laws to protect us, discriminate against and even attack us: Those people watch television, and we're told, again and again, that our bodies are our oppressors, instead of the world that doesn't recognize them.
Our parents, partners, bosses, neighbors, they receive these messages, they try to make sense of something designed to sound alien, foreign. A dissonance between mind and body is not that confusing for anyone who's done a double-take at the mirror, but the semantics of how the trans narrative is told sounds less like an extreme version of something well within the realm of all human experience, and more like the plot to a horror or sci-fi movie.
So when a show called Taboo (which, just to be clear, means "prohibited or restricted by social custom" according to the Oxford dictionary and though accurate, is clearly an alienating way to refer to an entire group of human beings) decides to tackle transgender subjects, I pay attention. The way our stories get told says a lot about how we're perceived and (drum roll please), this was pretty disappointing.
To the show's credit, the experts they interviewed seemed like people tapped into the trans community (I appreciated the show's exploration of cultures with more than two genders, and wanted to cheer when sociology professor Laurie Essig of Middlebury says, "We have science telling us that the belief in in only two genders might have been just a social construction; we have historians telling us that the belief in a binary gender only started during the Reformation. ... Like all gender systems -- whether it's seven, or two, or one -- it's a made up story that we tell about bodies. And whenever we have these stories, certain bodies don't fit."). But their framing of the trans folks involved mostly reinforces the same-old, same-old.
Their subjects are all interesting: Ashley and Tony, a straight couple, both of whom are trans; Chris Tina, who is gender variant; and Balian, a former Olympic athlete and trans man with incredible good looks, the money for cutting edge surgery, and the resulting passing privilege that gets him. But, as you might expect, only Balian gets all-star treatment. The other trans folks (all white, it should be noted, and all financially capable of securing surgeries and medical treatment) are approached initially with that somber-voices and horror-movie music or with pitying close-ups when their stories get weepy.
We're told that Ashley and Tony "appear to be an average married couple." But wait! "There's something so extraordinary about their relationship, it's almost impossible to believe." For who? I know plenty of trans folks who are together. Why wouldn't trans folks connect romantically and sexually? But the lens is often the low road, even for relatively respectful shows. Why not raise the level of discourse, and frame their story in the same soft light of handsome Balian, who's referred to as an "Adonis" almost immediately? Watching his enthusiasm, I was very moved by his happiness, but it's obvious that his story was treated to emphasize his "relatability." There are many shots of his perfect, half-naked torso, which stand in striking contrast to the strange sequence where Ashley and Tony are dressed in same and opposite-sex clothing, and then shown in rapidly juxtaposed shots. Far out! It's hard to keep track of what's going on with those two!
And is it a coincidence that Balian, unlike Chris Tina, seems to genuinely feel pretty connected to the familiar narrative? The other trans folks -- some of whom touch on the "wrong body" story -- seem to have at least attempted to tell producers more complex narratives than what got cut together here. Ashley and Tony seem particularly baffled as to why the producers care that she is an amateur electrician while he cleans the house. "We kinda complement each other that way," Ashley shrugs. Yeah, like most couples. My partner also handles all the repairs around our house, and no one finds it shocking that she builds furniture while I take care of the finances; she cleans the house while I do the grocery shopping and the laundry.
Maybe I'm cynical, but I'm pretty sure from my own experience working with (some) editors that the producers doubted the public's ability to "get" the experience of being transgender, and pushed folks with leading questions like, "When did you first feel trapped in the wrong body?" And, as long as it's presumed that the audience will find trans folks "taboo" or aspects of our lives "impossible to believe," that's exactly how we'll be perceived by the culture-at-large.
At best, it's laziness. At
worst, one-dimensional narratives that spoon-feed audiences reductionist,
sensationalized stories affect how trans folks are viewed in bathrooms,
bars, and bedrooms, and reinforce a binary system that flattens
everybody's experience of gender, trans or not.