Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trans Representations on Reality TV

Yesterday US Magazine broke the story that one of the 14 contestants to compete in the new season of America’s Next Top Model is transgender. 22-year old Isis is from Prince George's County, Maryland and will be one of fourteen women competing to become America’s Next Top Model. When asked by US if she wants to be a role model she replied "I like to help people, but I'm here to follow my dreams." GLAAD is already all over this with the president of GLAAD, Neil Giuliano, saying "We applaud Tyra Banks and The CW for making this historic visibility of transgender people possible." The new season debuts September 3rd on the CW.

I haven’t really been following the VH1 show I Want to Work for Diddy, but I certainly have been following the talk about Laverne Cox, a transgender woman competing for a chance to become Diddy’s assistant. Diddy’s reality show also features and openly gay black man named Rob Smith. In a piece he wrote for he says:

Like they say here, visibility matters, and for both myself and my transgender competitor Laverne Cox, I know that it was very important that we represented who we were openly from the very beginning. But let’s not get too serious. We‘re all aware of how absurd reality television is, and I plan on both injecting a little humor into these recaps and taking every opportunity available to laugh with and at everyone onscreen, not least of all myself.

Smith’s quote brings up interesting points about both Queer visibility and the nature of reality television. The question I have is about the precarious nature of advancing queer visibility through a vehicle such as reality television. At this point it is fair to say that there is nothing real about reality TV. It is pretty well established that most shows are scripted so some extent and I’m sure that I Want to Work for Diddy and America’s Next Top Model are no exceptions. My question is will reality television allow queer folks to represent themselves in a complex and multidimensional way? I’m thinking about the way that the so-called “non-traditional” models in America’ Next Top Model are paraded around like diversity show ponies. The plus-sized models and models with disabilities are defined solely by the factor(s) that sets them apart from the “normal” models, the “real” models.

Increased visibility for marginalized people always presents itself as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, media visibility is incredibly important in terms of its ability to alleviate feelings of alienation and invisibility by creating characters who challenge racial, gender, and sexual norms. On the other hand, marginalized people often remain marginalized on television, never shown or allowed to be fully realized individuals. These portrayals as much as they might knock the door down can also reify the boundaries between normative and non-normative behaviors and people.

I don’t think that there is an easy solution to an obviously complex problem, nor am I trying to take away from the importance of those who are going out on a limb attempting to increase the visibility of marginalized groups. (Let’s be real, you know I’m going to be rooting for Isis and Laverne!) I do think, however, that we need to be aware of the ways in which the media industry shapes how we see our identities reflected back to us. In many ways media and popular culture mediates our understandings of ourselves and others (which is obviously why I think Pop Culture Studies is really important). What do these representations mean to trans people and queers in general? What do they mean to people of color? What do they mean to women? What do they mean to everybody else?

What do you all think? Is there a way, perhaps even a socially just way, to increase the visibility of disenfranchised and marginalized populations in the entertainment industry? Or are we stuck with a Catch-22?

In the meantime check out the Laverne’s amazing website, she is definitely one beautiful and intelligent women and the one to beat on I Want to Work for Diddy according to this clip...

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