Gender-bending characters are TV's new titillation
If sex sells, then gender bending is flying off the shelves. TransGeneration, Nip/Tuck and America's Next Top Model are all enjoying some success, and A&E recently greenlighted a series detailing Alexis Arquette's process toward gender-reassignment surgery.
"We're absolutely seeing more transgender people on television," says Allison McCracken, an associate professor for American studies at DePaul University, who specializes in media and gender studies. "It's on talk shows, informational programs, drama series, but it's still primarily about showing someone who's deviant, someone who's shocking, provocative, pitiable." Transgender characters are often victims on crime and hospital shows, she says.
"In the way that coming out as gay used to be the big shock, now someone reveals that they're trans," McCracken says. "Programs depend on a titillation factor." Last season on Nip/Tuck, the jolting surprise was that vile temptress Ava was born a man. This season, her ex-boyfriend Matt is trying to deal, pretty unsuccessfully, with the fallout: He's worried he's gay, then he's worried he'll only like post-op transsexuals, then he beats the shit out of a preop transexual, then she and her band of other scrappy preop transsexuals beat the shit out of him. It's quite the transdrama.
But shock isn't the only thing motivating increased transgender visibility on television. According to McCracken, the general "liberalization" of culture in the 1990s, which opened the door for gay and lesbian characters, fostered a younger generation of television executives who "didn't grow up with the same kinds of prejudices." To that end, some portrayals of transgender people are richly complex and legitimate. "We'll see the same trajectory that we saw for gay characters," McCracken says.
TransGeneration, a documentary series on the Sundance Channel, is noteworthy for its even, insightful portraits of four transgender college students struggling with different phases of gender identity and gender reassignment. TransGeneration fleshes out each of its leads as a fully actualized person with concerns beyond gender and genitalia.
As trans characters and people become more mainstream on television, so too might other ideas of gender and gender identity. Kim on America's Next Top Model is among the more interesting of the gender-queer crop. She identifies herself as a lesbian, but says during one judging panel, "I'm constantly trying to figure out what my gender is." In response, Tyra Banks and the other judges all encourage her to embrace a masculine identity. "It's a great show for talking about gender as performance," McCracken says. Your gender is a role you can play, says McCracken, not necessarily a strictly biological—and binary—condition.
"We're seeing a wider range of non-normative sexual practices," McCracken says, including S&M, props and toys, liberal bisexuality and threesomes. And we're seeing a rise in characters who flout gender stereotypes, from the ultraindependent and heroic Veronica Mars to the eager-to-settle-down, sensitive and domestic Ted on How I Met Your Mother. Television has a long way to go—especially in terms of racial diversity—but it's slowly making room for a broader variety of gender and sexual identities.