Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bones: He In The She

I intended to post about this episode of Bones when I first saw it, but held out in hopes of finding a clip from the scene that I wanted to discuss.  I still have not found  it, but feel that I cannot wait any longer to address this issue.

Currently there is a lot of right wing bullshit being floated about how accepted the GLBTQI community has become by its appearance in prime time television.  Not only is this a blatant untruth, it ignores is the degree to which the media perpetuates the negative social construction of the community. 

Last week on Bones there was an episode about a  trans woman that had been murdered.  While I agree that there is much violence aimed at trans women, it pisses me off that they are never shown as leading happy successful lives.  Why is it necessary to always turn her into a tragic victim that we must all have pity for?  It seems unless the trans woman is under some form of attack, she cannot be recognized as legitimately existing.  Using the murders of trans women for the purposes of entertainment is disgusting and does not address the degree of  violence with which they live.  Time after time when trans women appear in prime time sitcoms it is either for the purposes of comic relief, or as some tragic victim who was sadly misunderstood.

The other thing that was truly disturbing about this episode, was its continual insistence in using pronouns that were disrespectful while claiming to have "tolerance" and "understanding" for trans women.  As I watched them refer to the character in question as" he/she" and "it," and then claim that she had a right to be validated as a person, I became more and more ill.  If you truly believe in the personal autonomy and agency of a person, how hard is it to use the correct pronoun?  There is no such person as a he/she or an it.  It is insulting and reduces trans women to the level of sub human.  If someone identifies as female then the correct pronoun to use at all times is she.  The idea that someone is confused, is simply an expression of cis privilege. 

Just the title of the episode alone, "The He In The She" makes it clear that they had no intention from the start of treating this issue with the respect that it deserves. This was not about someone who identifies as gender queer or gender butch, this is about someone who clearly identified as female.  "The He In the She" makes it clear that despite the fact that trans people assert a gender in opposition of what their physical sex represents, cis people still feel that they have the right to assert the opposite.  The woman that was murdered could have had a ten foot penis and that still would not have made her a man.  It is the sheer of audacity of cis privilege to believe that we have the right to tell another what their gender is. 

If the media is going to continue to have trans characters it has a responsibility to portray them with the same sort of humanity that it would give a cis character.  It would be nice to see a trans woman play the part of a trans woman, or at the very least have them consulted before endeavouring to portray their experiences.  As much as I am a trans ally, I would never claim to understand the totality of their experience, or dream that I could speak for them.  This is a right that the media has taken and it has lead to the continued 'othering' of trans people. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing this up. I thought Bones was better then this. "It's a gender-bender thats a never-ender." UGH, what the hell.

Lisa Harney said...

I heard good things, but I guess things were simply somewhat better than usual.

Also, now Simon Pegg and David Boreanaz. How many other actors whom I like watching do I have to tolerate spouting transphobic dialogue?

Ugly Betty recently continued trashing Alexis, the trans woman character there.


Tablesaw said...

For clips, the show is available on Hulu. You can embed the entire episode, but it's also possible to tailor clips by adjusting the start and end times. Hulu does sometimes provide clips on their own, though. This may be the clip you're looking for: He Is Always a She.

Danyell said...

Lisa- What about Simon Pegg? (He's one of my favorite actors and I was not aware of any transphobic stuff he's been involved with).

I agree that trans people are still trashed on TV all the time. While I understand why the dialog is so outmoded (since it represents how a lot of people, who have little or not contact/understanding of trans folk actually do speak in real life), I do notice and hate how they're only mentioned in tragic situations: as victims of rape, violent hate crimes, etc. (Even on a show like Law & Order: SVU, which is feel is rather progressive in its treatment of sexuality, gender issues, etc) Why can't there ever be just one trans character who is just a person? I mean, sure their gender would be an issue in their lives, but stuff like this is ridiculous. Victimizing any minority should never been seen as "normal".

Though, I think many minority groups have been marginalized in the media in the past have taken great strides in positive representation (though, obviously still with MANY problems) so I do have the belief that the treatment of trans folk will improve as time goes on. But it will take concerned people, writing & calling in and education others about fair treatment in order for anything to happen. We certainly need to keep watch-dogging this stuff.

polerin said...

I meant to watch this after having seen the trailer. After seeing the straw man that was thrown up about poly relationships, I had no hope that a trans person (victim of a brutal murder none the less) would be treated with respect. I was sorta train wreck curious about how bad it would get though.

I've started watching it on hulu (thanks tablesaw) and I'm having to take it in 5 minute chunks to keep my anxiety down.

Meh I say. Meh.

Nicole said...

Makes me more glad than ever that I swore off this show after an episode in which the main character claimed that fat people smelled because the flesh in their folds rotted. Yeah. That happens to me all the fuckin' time.

Sady said...

YARRRRGH. Seriously, I love it when people try to demonstrate how "tolerant" they are by not even remotely trying to educate themselves on the issues they're speaking about, thereby demonstrating their own privilege and ignorance. It is the best, for real.

demolitionwoman said...

I've been watching Bones for a while and when I saw the name of this episode, I immediately felt kinda sick and nervous. I was expecting it to be really horrible...and since I'd set the bar so low, once I finally saw it, they did a better job than I thought they would.

I definitely agree with the whole "tragic trans" thing - it's really fucking stupid and annoying.

But regarding the words/confusion/etc....I dunno, it's a really shady area for me. For example, I work with some really nice straight people who try really hard - and still get confused. If you have NEVER in your life had to think about gender, it's bound to be hard. So I felt like the show kind of portrayed the difficulty that people have, even when they are making the attempt to be respectful.

I thought it was really sloppy writing, though, in regards to Booth's comments. He seemed to go back and forth - I mean, he actually said something like if the person was a woman, she was a woman and that was that. But then he later made the he/she/it fumble, which was infuriating and sickening.

But perhaps it was in keeping with his character. I mean, his character is somebody who is a bit of a hero, who tries to help people, do right by them. He's also very religious and quite conservative.

So...it was disappointing, but better than I expected.

Has anyone written to the show? Does anyone have contact info?

p.s. to Nicole - Just to split hairs, I believe Bones said it was mold, not rotting flesh, which does happen rarely, so it was factually accurate. I don't mean to excuse their heinous, limited, one-sided portrayal of fat folks (again, something that pretty much happens across the board in most mainstream media.) Rarely do we see a fully dimensional portrayal of anyone who isn't skinny (I mean, hell, even a slightly chubby person doesn't get quality airtime).

I think I've learned that while I can enjoy some aspects of Bones (strong female characters, humor, science/analysis), they are sadly not groundbreaking or progressive in any way.

B said...

I actually thought that it was handled better than you're portraying it - my impression was that (as has happened on the show before) Booth was a bumbling, not-so-understanding/accepting character which gave Bones and the rest of the squints a chance to get on their soapboxes about the issue. Bones herself is so unjudgmental because she just observes - Booth is her judgmental foil who exists for her to correct.

Furthermore, they showed the transwoman's son, who had been a super conservative preacher before, accept his father's transformation and wish that God would forgive him for making his father think his son wouldn't accept him.

Overall, I thought it was more on the positive side than the negative, if only because the negative existed for the more enlightened characters to attack.

-- B

Anonymous said...

I agree with B. I think some of the ignorance was an intentional foil to more enlightened attitudes of others on the show. And I think it fairly accurately portrayed the conflict that exsists between people who are accepting of transgendered individuals and people who are not.

Also, I think other good things about the episode were: 1. Patricia had found love who accepted her as she was and stood up for her as a woman, 2. Patricia was not murdered because she was a transwoman, she was murdered in a typical love triangle drama.

Cola said...

There was an episode of CSI a couple years ago about a trans woman who was murdered by the husband of another trans woman (the second woman sent him after the first to cover up that she was performing illegal surgeries on her therapy patients and that some of them had died). The first woman was engaged although her boyfriend didn't know about her transition... I can't remember if they ever told him, but they had an excellent relationship and loved each other very much.

I'm not saying this crushes the paradigm that you've identified, but it's worth considering.

ender said...

while i agree that i'm also tired of transfolk being portrayed as comedy relief or sadly misunderstood tragedies - i thought the characters handled the situation in a way that's supposed to make the target audience - non-trans folk - think about what they do and say. booth fell all over himself word-wise - not unusual for his character. he generally has a hard time articulating his thoughts & feelings, so i'm not surprised that he stumbled over his pronouns. and brennan started to take him to task for it.

personally, the first time i met someone who was trans i was kinda lost. i finally decided to use the pronoun according to current biological sex. in other words, my friend who was born female - i'd use "she" until after surgery and then i'd use "he." today i would NEVER do that, but at the time i thought that was a logical and reasonable line.

of course, that was before i really started reading about gender & biological sex.

but my point is the dialogue has to start somewhere - and if an uptight FBI guy can flounder around on tv and get joe the plumber to *think* instead of react, then i'm pretty happy about it.

(and as for brennan's comment about fat people and the mold/smell issue? please, brennan has the social skills of a gnat. it doesn't excuse her, but she obviously came off as an idiot during that whole exchange - with booth trying to point out her idiocy.)

the show is as much, if not more, about how we screw up our interactions with each other than it is about solving crimes or we would not have had the plot about Zack that we did. every single one of the major characters is flawed and fallible - even when they rely on "logic." and *none* of them understand emotions, so i found their learning how to cope with investigating the death of a trans person heartening rather than depressing - even as i wish hollywood would quit frigging killing us off.

Anonymous said...

I watched the entire episode, and as some others posted, the characters in the show had a variety of opinions on trans issues. Booth, the one who referred to her as "he", was corrected by nearly every other character on the show. And although a religious aspect was brought into it with the trans woman's family, she found love with someone who accepted her completely.

I thought the episode actually had a positive aspect for trans people, since the ignorant (although not beliigerent) view of one character was a minority.

Trans characters, as well as other members of the GLBT community, are on these crime shows often. I watch Law & Order and the situation is handled similarly: many different viewpoints. (There don't seem to be as many portrayals of trans men in the media, I've noticed.) Although it's unfortunate that trans people and others are victimized in these shows, the truth is that bad things happen to them just like anyone else. I think there could be worse ways for trans people to be portrayed than this episode of Bones.

plastic-logic said...

Speaking of Transpeople in the media I watch a lot of anime and for all the cross dressing characters that appear there are few if any actual transgender characters. It usually turns out that there was some weird tradition or circumstance where a (usually male) child is raised as female.
One example I saw recently was an Anime Shugo Chara. One of the characters is revealed to actually have been male the whole time and while the character is treated like any other character it's unclear what hir gender identification is. In the reveal episode sie is about to leave for America and meets hir best friend as a boy, telling her he's the twin brother of the established character. From the explanation the mother gives in a monologue it seems that the character is presented and lives as a female from birth as a tradition of the family and it supposedly has something to do with becoming a top dancer.
From the note sie leaves hir best friend stating 'I'll be back in a form you may not recognise' after sie leaves for America it sounds like sie will be identifying as male in the future.
But curiously hir shugo chara (A small being repressenting their 'would be selves') seems to be female, perhaps meaning that sie does whish to identify as female. But then again it could have been that way so as not to tip the audiance off until the reveal.
At least the character in Shugo Chara isn't played as a victim and seems to have as happy a life as the other characters....

Lisa Harney said...


How to Lose Friends and Alienate People has a trans character in it, and there's several transphobic jokes at her expense.

Lisa Harney said...

Anyway, the problem with this episode is that being trans becomes a "fascinating twist" that complicates the story, and that yet again a trans woman is portrayed as a corpse.

polerin said...

The "fascinating twist" is what caused me to stop watching it. I live my life openly, came out to my wife before we got married, and don't disappear with peoples money to get SRS. I don't "trick" men into bed (nor women), and my living my life without waving a flag about being trans as I walk down the street and interact with people is not me trying to cover up some secret shame.

Grr. I hush now, but Grr.

B said...

"and that yet again a trans woman is portrayed as a corpse."

To be fair, almost everyone ends up on Bones as a corpse, since it is a show about solving murders.

Don't get me wrong, as much as I liked L&O SVU, I stopped watching it because the endless parade of victimized women was just tiring after a while.

I just think that the original blog entry ignored some of the positive things about the episode that placed the complaints in a different context. For example, the comments about the title didn't include the fact that almost EVERY Bones episode is called "The (blank) in the (blank)" (ie - The Man in the Wall, The Woman in the Garden). Did "The He in the She" seem crass? Yeah, but I think that was more of an unfortunate choice of words to plug into their title formula, not a direct assault on transpeople.

I think transpeople-as-corpses are more problematic on shows where death is not the norm, and that shows that do use trans characters should really be taken to task for portraying them in a realistic light, but Bones is about dead people. And the dead transperson on Bones was loved for who she was by her community, her boyfriend, and her son.

Lisa Harney said...

Yeah, but I think that was more of an unfortunate choice of words to plug into their title formula, not a direct assault on transpeople.

Uh, the majority of the -ism crap you see out there isn't a "direct assault" on anyone, but clumsy language, bad assumptions, and intentions gone horribly wrong. That doesn't render it beyond criticism as a racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, ageist...the list is endless, really...trope.

And yes, it is problematic to yet again portray a trans woman as a corpse because the most frequent portrayals of trans women on television are as:

* Criminals
* Victims

Why couldn't the trans woman be the living participant in the love triangle, if they needed a trans woman at all? My only answer is "To play off the confusion of dealing with a corpse that appears to be male and female at the same time" which is playing off the idea of trans women as "other" and "exotic" and "unusual."

demolitionwoman said...

@ Lisa -
okay, i'm playing a bit of devil's advocate here (and it's devil's advocate because what you say does have a lot of validity): Bones the show (and the character) is all about reading the victim's bones to find out who they are and how they died. it's my understanding that they have to use some assumptions which are mostly accurate. these kinds of forensic scientists can tell (or more pointedly, THINK they can tell) the sex of someone by looking at their bones - on the show, this happens all the time. it's often the first thing out of their mouths. so to them, anything that looks like an anomaly is interesting...

In the context of the show, it makes a certain sort of sense. And at the same time, yeah, i would like to see a trans character who was just a character on the show, not the dead person.

more than anything, i'd really like to know what the writers were thinking when they wrote it. what was their process? their intent? their biases? their knowledge? i'd find that a helpful piece of the puzzle in thinking about this.

Lisa Harney said...

I realize what they're doing, yeah, but this particular twist gets used so frequently that it's really really really not new or interesting, IMO. I guess it's a way for cissexual people to gawk at the freaks or whatever, but I'd kind of like the media to start treating trans people as human beings, rather than oddities, curiosities, and twist endings.

Mel said...

I had mixed feelings about the episode--I thought the storyline with the son was very touching, and he reminded me of a more liberal version of some punk preachers I've known. And I liked that the guy she wouldn't have an affair with was adamant that she was a "real woman" and he didn't have any hangups--plus his wife's problem seemed to be just that she thought her husband was having an affair, not that she thought he was having an affair with a transwoman.

I definitely think Booth was in character--he's not very articulate, he's pretty sheltered in some ways, conservative, and Catholic. I think he honestly is a compassionate person, but didn't know how to sort out his reaction to the situation, and consequently he said stupid things. BUT his stupid comments were played AS stupid and pointed out by other characters (particularly Angela, who's always been shown as the most compassionate and open-minded of the lot). Overall, I was surprised at how well they handled it--I was expecting much worse.

And yeah, Brennan fairly often says stupid, socially awful things--but they're portrayed as such. I like that she isn't perfect.

I don't like that almost all the trans characters on these shows end up dead or turn out to be the murderers. Even a minor walk-on character who isn't either would be a big step forward (as occasionally happens with gay characters). The preacher absconding from her family with other peoples' money was--well, not good. But I read that as a reaction to the religious background, not her being trans. The sleazy embezzlement of money is common enough among televangelists that it seemed to make sense to me.

I HATED how Bones handled polyamory. Well, bad polyamory at any rate.