If you were to come to my office, you might see a small whiteboard that collects ideas for these articles. Plastered with colored notes, the unassuming space holds an assortment of thoughts that run through my head in conjunction with sexual health education. The board constantly morphs, with new topics going up as I think of them and others coming down as I write. But, although I have been creating these entries for a while, there has been one square that has managed to remain untouched.
Leaning over, I felt a slight resistance as I pulled the note from the board. How would I even begin to talk about the presence of transsexuals (or transgender issues in general!) in popular culture? I was certainly aware of the trans community but I certainly did not have extensive knowledge of the subject.
So let’s start there.
A couple of years ago, it became apparent to me that transsexuals were the new token population in television. Shows like Dirty, Sexy, Money; America’s Next Top Model; Ugly Betty; and The Real World all began to feature transsexual characters and I honestly didn’t know how to feel about it. On the one hand, I was glad that this segment of the population was gaining exposure, but the cynical side of me suspected that these characters were being shown for shock value. Was this is how it had to be? Did minorities have to undergo this process in order to be accepted or were we just exploiting the culture?
While I’m still a little skeptical about the portrayal of transsexuals in media, I’m going to choose to try and see the good in what has happened. So gather around kids, and let’s get ready for some knowledge to be dropped.
Although there are countless variations in gender identity, one of the distinctions that I want to make is between the terms “transsexual” and “transgender”: the former refers to the belief that you were born the wrong sex while the latter applies to people who challenge the prevailing notions or definitions of gender. It makes sense, really, if you stick to the definitions of the root words and see “sex” as a physical manifestation and “gender” as a societal creation. To make things even more complicated, you can toss in sexual orientation, cross-dressing, and drag! While many people associate all of these terms together, they are actually all distinct categories, albeit with some overlap.
With all of this swirling around, it seems all too easy to label this population as “other” and just push it to the side. After all, it’s strange and defies convention, so it’s easier to refrain from thinking about it, right? But, like in real life, actually understanding what you face often makes it less scary. Confused? Just look at this Wikipedia entry for a brief primer.
While doing research, I came across this article, and all of a sudden, this global idea of transsexualism became more personal. The article told the story of Catherine Carlson, suddenly making it evident that the crafted personas on television represented real people—often with very real problems.
Reflecting on the article, it seems only natural to root for the underdog, to cheer for the one who has borne the burden of a life filled with hardship. The exuberance that I feel for this woman is both pure and selfish, for, if I’m honest with myself, it’s a life that I’m grateful not to have. I know that if things had turned out differently, I might have been in that situation, but while I’d like to think that I would rise to the challenge, I don’t know if I would have found the strength. So, Catherine, while I’m sure life is hard, know that I’m pulling for you with my heart breathing “Go, Baby, Go.”
Kim and I were relaxing on the couch after an informal birthday dinner watching a casting special for Make Me a Supermodel.
“Wait. Is that…a boy?”
Sure enough, in front of us stood a body that was obviously male but with a head that could easily be mistaken for female. The inclusion of such a person on a modeling show did not surprise me much as androgyny certainly has its place in fashion. What amazed me, however, was the idea that this individual derived joy from his ambiguous nature.
For the last two years or so, one of the things that I have noticed in television is the trend of the token transgender person. I think that we’re all familiar with the movement, so I won’t go into too much detail but media has continually tried to be representative of cosmopolitan culture by including minorities—only these “token” additions are often characterizations of what the majority imagines the marginalized to be. From African Americans, to Native Americans, to Asians, to immigrants, Jews, Indians, and gays, American society has purported to be accepting of others—as long as they fit into a neat box.
Shows like Ugly Betty; Dirty, Sexy, Money; and America’s Next Top Model have all prominently featured transgender individuals (both pre-operation and post-operation) in recent seasons and while there’s certainly something to be said for acceptance resulting from exposure, the cynical side of me can’t help but think that those who are different are used as a type of stunt casting. We, the audience, are supposed to be shocked or marvel at how progressive a show is because it includes some kind of heretofore-underrepresented type of person. Perhaps it’s not such a big deal if both sides are using each other for their own ends and each is getting something out of the bargain?
I’m inclined to applaud the integration of transgender identity into mainstream media. I think that part of the reason that I was initially uncomfortable with the concept stemmed from the fact that I had never acknowledged any trans people while growing up—I didn’t even know anybody who dressed in drag so transgender individuals were definitely unfamiliar to me. I didn’t understand what was going on and so my natural reaction was to label instances of cross-dressing and transgenderism as “Other” and fear them accordingly. Had I been exposed to the practice at an earlier age, I think it would have been much easier for me to see these people for what they were—human beings.
Yet, with every step forward, it seems like we take a step back. How are we as a society supposed to accept those who identify as transgender when we refuse to let go of our distinctive notions of “male” and “female”? For me, things like Madea, Norbit, White Chicks, and Mrs. Doubtfire serve to reinforce the notion that men who dress up as, or become, women (and especially large women) exist to be laughed at in our culture. These characters are not respected, and their existence encourages the audience to chuckle at the implicit awkwardness of a man trying to take on a female role. After all, why are any of the Madea movies funny? Would anybody see those films if they were just about a real Black woman acting sassy instead of Tyler Perry dressing up in a suit?
In the end, as uncomfortable as it might be, I think we owe it to ourselves to become familiar with those who are different from us. I don’t think that we have to necessarily end up liking, or agreeing with, everybody but we have two options when confronting the dissimilar: learn from others or shut ourselves out.
I believe that education is always the answer.