Monday, April 11, 2011

‘TRANSform Me’: My Own TV-Show Dilemma

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

I love to respond to Renee’s Friday question with a post, so this is my answer to her question “What show are you watching that you simply have to say fuck it I like it?” 

My “fuck it, I like it” show was “TRANSform Me,” VH1’s 2010 show in which three trans women arrived at the home of an “unsuspecting” female subject who had applied to receive a head-to-toe makeover. The surprise was, of course, that the makeover artists were all trans, and part of the delight of the show (at least for non-trans viewers) was in seeing the reaction of the makeover subjects to the fact that their experts were trans women. 

The show had plenty of reasons to cause offense – the “inside joke” that trans women were the makeover artists; the fact that the three trans women in question (real-life makeover experts and media darlings Laverne Cox, Nina Poon, and Jamie Clayton) were always dressed in skin-tight, low-cut outfits with high heels and plenty of makeup; and the idea that women needed a “beauty makeover” in the first place. 

But I was addicted to the show. I interviewed Laverne Cox prior to the show’s premiere for the newspaper I worked for, and she was lovely, funny, and very respectful of the show’s concept (she invented it) and the women being made over. She saw it as a complete makeover, inside and out, and not just a “beauty” thing.  

And the show’s makeover subjects were utterly respectful of Cox, Poon, and Clayton. Of course, these are not the typical trans women that you run into in the grocery store every day, but there was no “ick factor” (a phrase the anti-trans contingent likes to use) with regard to the subjects’ reactions when opening the door to the three trans women. 

While it’s unfortunate to think that a makeover can be empowering and confidence inducing, the fact is that it sometimes can be, and I have nothing against makeovers for women (or men) who want them. In fact, I would be open to one myself. I keep waiting for the men’s version of “TRANSform Me” so I can apply to be a subject.  

The only media makeover that I was ever really bothered by was that of South African athlete Caster Semenya by “You” magazine at the time when her eligibility to compete in women’s athletics was being questioned. I was fine with the makeover as long as Semenya wanted it, but I was concerned that she was being forced to somehow “prove” she was female by putting on makeup and a dress and having her hair fixed. It was as if her strong, healthy, athletic body and face were not “woman” enough – and that I found problematic.

Another type of “makeover” that’s concerning is the type that author and artist Dylan Scholinski experienced growing up as Daphne and being forced to wear makeup and dresses while he was confined to a psychiatric hospital in an attempt to make him more “feminine.” Scholinski wrote a book about it, “The Last Time I Wore a Dress,” while he was still living as Daphne prior to his transition from female to male.

And of course, I’m always upset by “Photoshop makeovers” for magazine covers – lightened skin, disappearing hips, and vanishing lines and wrinkles. 

So even as I cheered on Cox, Poon, Clayton, and the women they were making over, and even as I got teary eyed sometimes when the makeover subjects proudly showed off their new, improved selves to their friends and family, I still knew in the back of my mind that there were problems needing to be solved that transcended “TRANSform Me.”  

But as far as the show – fuck it, I liked it.