Tranny TV Train Wreck

Transgender characters did not fare well on television this year

"I performed fellatio on my wife," says the husband of a transwoman to investigator Gil Grissom on CSI. It's a sentence I never thought I'd hear on network television, and one, taken on its own, that has the potential to radically disrupt mainstream representations of gender and sexuality. Likewise, the appearance of many transgender characters on television in 2004 could have ushered in a new era of media visibility and inclusion for transpeople. Unfortunately, few embraced the opportunity with enough intelligence or accuracy to warrant celebration.

The recent CSI episode that spawned such a T-shirt-worthy quote featured a transsexual therapist who performed illegal sex changes in a storage facility (one procedure ended in a patient's gruesome death) and her husband, who murdered another trans-woman to cover it up. The investigation of these deaths caused gender confusion among the otherwise smart CSI staff (how could Catherine not know what genital reassignment surgery is?) which unintentionally paralleled how the show's usually sharp writers fumbled this subject. It was clear that producers were trying to be sensitive—witness brief cameos by well-known transwomen and some thoughtful dialogue—but this episode, the most watched in the show's history, ultimately portrayed transfolk and their partners as misguided, deceptive, and/or murderous.

On NCIS, a navy lieutenant commander faked his own death, murdered two people, and began living as a woman to avoid being discovered (preposterous reason No. 1 for transitioning). Before investigators found out the truth, one of them (a man) made out with the woman he thought was linked to the crimes. When he learned that she was the presumed-dead officer, he held her at gunpoint, then his boss shot her point-blank.

Another problematic portrayal came, unfortunately, from a show that's usually smart about gender: Nip/Tuck. In the season finale, life coach Ava Moore, the manipulative sociopath who slept with two teenage boys (her son and her client's son), was revealed to be a transsexual woman. To make matters worse, we found out that she became female to be with the man she loved, who was straight (preposterous reason No. 2 for transitioning).

In all cases, transwomen are used as clever plot devices, their identities metaphors for dysfunction and deception. These dramas deal with medicine and science, so bodies take center stage; but non-trans characters use anatomy to determine gender, even when some of these people have been living as women for several years. It reflects our obsession with drawing a straight line between genitals and gender, and not allowing for more than two choices in either category.

On television as in society, gender breeds tension and confusion around two of our culture's obsessions: body image and sex. One of the MTF victims on CSI worried about "how her husband would receive her on their wedding night." During a support group scene on Nip/Tuck, a transman says about peeing at a urinal, "What if the guy next to me sees it's a brand-new penis and he wants to beat me down?" The majority of FTMs never elect to get a penis, since the surgery is risky and more often than not unsuccessful. Doctors can make a pretty pussy that works, but have not perfected a cock that's functional or looks good.

If television wants to medicalize trans bodies, they should at least get the medical stuff right and likewise the psychology and pronouns. The discovery of Ava's transsexuality came during sex, when plastic surgeon Christian Troy stuck his dick inside her and immediately knew that she had a surgically constructed vagina ("There was nothing natural about it"). Later, Ava's surgeon husband remarked "Sleeping with juvenile males makes sense, they're not experienced enough to spot a fraud." As if more seasoned lovers can identify an impostor cunt the minute they see or feel it. Ava herself admitted that she needed one more surgery to extend her vaginal cavity: "Finish me. Correct the one flaw that gave me away so I'm never found out again." It makes sense that Troy, who seeks all truth about himself and others through fucking, found out something pivotal with his cock. However, in all three examples, we've stumbled into dangerous territory where there are natural vaginas and fraudulent ones, real women and fake ones, and even (yikes!) women with penises—where being discovered having a vagina courtesy of surgery, a non-gender-conforming body, or a gender other than the one assigned you at birth is not acceptable.

Nip/Tuck's season finale was the episode of a basic-cable original series that was most watched by adults ages 18 to 49 in 2004. Lest you think people don't learn from TV, a fan reviewed the episode on tvtome.com and stated: "Ava Moore is a man. A MAN," which happens to also be a direct quote from Dr. Troy. Note to fan: She's actually a woman who's been living her life as a woman for more than 15 years.

Regardless of the shallowness of a character's twat, this fascination with genitals, gender, and sex runs deep. I can only hope that we're in that icky, but perhaps necessary, place we were before Ellen and Will & Grace, when there were only a few queer TV characters and most of them were one-dimensional. Slowly but surely, change has come. There were fewer positive examples but they do exist, including: Boston Legal's cross-dressing Santa, a transwoman on Cold Case, and my nominee for best representation of gender: runway diva J. Alexander of America's Next Top Model. A flamboyant African American man everyone refers to as Miss J., he's integrated into the cast, his gender and sexuality are never questioned or labeled, and everyone admires and respects him, whether he's sashaying down the catwalk in five-inch heels or not. No one representation is ever going to be definitive or perfect, but I challenge writers and producers to stop recycling old, titillating stereotypes and instead inject these story lines with solid research, complexity, compassion, and the authentic experiences of transgender people.


You can still enter Tristan's Treasure Chest Contest for a chance to win many of the items mentioned in my "Sexy Gift Guide"! See villagevoice.com/trista/contest.

 
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