I have to admit, save for Orange is the New Black and Sens8, I have not seen much of the portrayals of trans women outside the few Law and Order SVU episodes and Claudia Christian’s story arc in LA Law so many years ago. I have, however, read many critiques of the way we are portrayed in television, and it has generally not been pretty. We are at best the punchline, often victims, and too often made out as psychotics. So when NBC’s new medical drama Heartbeat threw its hat in the trans narrative ring I bit my lip and decided to power through it. I wanted to see how they would do.
It started out well enough. The fact that they took the time to cast a trans woman as a trans woman is, unfortunately, a big enough deal to merit kudos for this episode. Candice Cayne was able to bring pathos to the part in a way a cis actress cannot because she knows. So when the big reveal is ingeniously handled by bringing up the all too real issue of how harrowing simple paperwork can be oppressive for us, she was completely believable in her reactions and assertions. Just as there are problems I as a white person cannot truly experience from a black person’s perspective there are issues we trans folk contend with that a cis person just cannot get. Representation is great, accurate representation is divine.
The episode completely dodged the trans as the object of humor pitfall. Throughout the show’s regulars, led by Melissa George’s Alex, display an openness and kindness that frankly is not terribly realistic. It was nice to have an episode about trans women that dealt with our health issues without unceasing and insulting discussions about our plumbing and it was nice to see people be, well, nice. They did lay it on a bit thick. In all likelihood there would be at least one misstep in that large a group of people. The problem with portrayals full of trans antagonism is not that there are trans antagonistic people, because there are, but that they are often given a louder voice than the trans person. Generally the last couple of decades the bigot is treated with at worse a bemused condescension as though his or her hatred was on an equal level with our dignity. Not having a bigot treated like the creep he or she is feels a bit like being robbed, still, I will take a Pollyanna attitude over a barrage of “he-she’s.”
The one big misstep in the episode was Alex’s treatment of Ava (Ms. Cayne’s character) when she initially opts out of surgery. Treating her breast cancer means giving up the hormones that allow her to express as completely as she can the woman she is. Ava would rather live only a few more months as the woman she wants to be than a long life in gender limbo. Alex, outraged, compares Ava to a drag queen. It is the closest to an actual transphobic comment we get in show.
I get where the character is coming from. Being a woman is not about having breasts and soft skin and twirling around in pretty dresses, at least it is not necessarily so. Ava does not need all that to be a woman and will still be who she really is even after the surgery and giving up her important HRT regimen. Alex wants her to survive no matter what and is angry with Ava for just giving up and for, in her opinion, believing there is only one way to be a woman. I have a couple of problems with this.
First, as mentioned above, Alex calls Ava a drag queen. In doing this she is attempting to define for Ava what it means to be a woman. No one, and certainly not another woman, should define that for any woman. Ava’s identity is very tied up in a particular idea of womanhood. Perhaps it is an idea of it that is a bit outdated, and certainly has rightfully been rejected as the only idea of womanhood, but it is her identity, not Alex’s and that is a sacred thing for any of us, cis or trans.
Second this wrinkle of the episode exposes a too common attitude even among our allies. Many folks labor under the belief that trans woman only care about the more superficial aspects of womanhood: our hair, make up, our dress. Yes, Ava’s identity is her own, and she gets to define that, still, most of us would rather live if it came down to that. Trans women’s ideas about expressing their gender identity are as numerous as the people holding them. Some of us are femme and some of us are butch. Some of us would rather go to our grave than live a second not being who we feel we are. Some, like me, have to go around much of the time not passing due to combinations of medical and financial issues. It is not that Ava is not allowed to be so if that is who she is, but most folks think we are very shallow in our gender identity and Ava no doubt confirmed that for many cis viewers.
That aside this was likely the best episode dealing with trans issues on a network television show I have ever seen. Breast cancer is a real concern for us, as much as for any woman and it laid to rest the concern troll myth that hormones treatment causes cancer while acknowledging that it was a factor once a diagnosis was made, treating our health issues seriously for once. It showed a trans woman who has dealt with the familiar problems (loss of job after coming out) who has found a bit of peace and a circle of people that love her. Sophia (Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black) and Nomi (Jamie Clayton in Sens8) may still be the best representations of trans woman I have seen in television, but Ms. Ava gives them a run for their money.