TRANSform Me and Performing Gender.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy…for women?

That was my immediate reaction when I happened to see the ad for this while watching RuPaul’s Drag Race 2 ( I don’t care if you judge me, that show is GREAT). TRANSform Me is  a makeover show with a twist – transgendered women acting as style consultants to women. From the synopsis on VH1:

TRANSform Me is a makeover show in which a team of three transgender women, led by the inimitable Laverne Cox (I Want To Work For Diddy), rescues women from personal style purgatory. Laverne and her ultra-glam partners in crime have undergone the ultimate transformation, so they’re the perfect women for the job.

They’ll travel the country in their tricked out fashion ambulance, siren blaring, and swoop into scenes of fashion disaster. They’ll not only make women look better but feel a whole lot better about themselves. It’s about discovering one’s inner personal style.

Laverne and the girls will cruise from boutiques to beauty salons in search of just the right look. And they won’t pull any punches with their subjects–or each other!

Each episode of TRANSform Me will cover the makeover of one woman who’s written to the show asking for help. The subject expects to be made over for a reality show–but she doesn’t know it’s going to be by three transgender women.

According to Cox, being a transgendered women uniquely qualifies the cast to assist women who are struggling  with their personal image and style:

“‘Transform Me’ is a show about everyone who’s ever felt that the person they are on the inside isn’t quite reflected in who is seen on the outside.  Transgender folks are in many ways the ultimate example of this.  We’ve taken extraordinary steps to bring who we are on the inside…out, and we’re committed to helping other women do the same thing.  If we can do it, anyone can!”

I find all of this notion fascinating because it ties in with something I had noticed watching Drag Race.

I want to issue a disclaimer here: I know there is a world of difference between a drag queen and a transgendered woman and I am not trying to equate the two at all. Also I am not an expert on all things LGBTQ so I may make missteps trying to articulate myself. If I offend someone please tell me and I’ll try to fix it.

There’s a a lot of pronoun mixing on Drag Race, and most of the contestants seem happy to be referred to as either “he” or “she”. Even out of drag it’s not unusual to hear contestants refer to each other by their persona names. However, there is a marked shift to the third person when a contestant describes his female persona. “Oh she’s a diva. She’s bourgie. She’s a southern belle.” At first I just wrote it off as part of the caricature, an expected bit of narcissism given the over-the-top personalities involved. But after reading the blurb for TRANSform me I started to give it a bit more thought and realized that due to my privileged position as cis-gendered and heterosexual I’d given very little consideration to what is takes to construct a female identity. How do they – drag queens and transgendered women alike – decide what kind of woman they’re going to be? In the case of drag-queens how much of their female persona has analogues to their male persona? For those who are transgendered, how does the portion of their lives lived and being interacted with as men inform the identity of women they become? For both, how does female gender as it is performed in society impact what they think they should look, sound and act like as women?

Which isn’t to say cis-gendered women don’t do this too. At one point I was adamant that I would not be piercing my ears because I thought it would mean that I was a vain girly-girl. There was a certain type of woman I didn’t want to be. Particularly because this post related to a makeover show I’m fascinated by this idea of how we navigate and choose the signifiers of what kind of women we want to be via our clothes and style. Watching cis-gendered women be assisted in this performance by transgendered women ought to be interesting provided it doesn’t descend into gimmicky nonsense (they travel in a fashion ambulance?). Will the source of the advice make a difference? I’ll be watching on March 15th to find out.

  • Oh. Wow.

    Ummm…as a very, very green cis woman and newcomer to issues regarding trans people’s lives and rights, lemme just say that this show concept doesn’t feel…kosher. And by not kosher, I mean exploitative and ethically questionable. I can’t help but feel like, in spite of what its stated intentions are, this show will reinforce cis gender normatives and (re)center cis womanhood at the expense of already super-duper marginalized trans women.

    We don’t live in a world that sees trans people as fully HUMAN. Can we get to that before we go…I dunno, Sassy Black Sidekicking trans women? Damn.

  • pedestrian

    I can see how the idea that trans women have something to teach cis women (and aren’t just men pathetically attempting to imitate women) is comparatively radical in our current cultural context.

    HOWEVER, I agree with Fiqah that there are some big potential pitfalls. Two big ones that come to mind:

    1) Why is it all about the cis-girls?? They are the ones who benefit and develop as people, while trans women get the privilege of serving them. This is analogous to imperialist constructions that treat “Eastern” cultures as though they exist to provide white people with spiritual experiences.

    2) “Transgender” is a very complex umbrella term for many identities. Yet we have a black woman, a white woman, and an Asian woman in Fredrick’s of Hollywood drag. Some trans people may feel comfortable in that, but the identity was chosen for its appeal to cis audiences. It is meant to titillate straight men and to evoke plastic, anti-feminist ideals of female beauty.

    Of course that may just be the marketing – the show may also give attention to the stories of the trans women and may educate on the complexities of trans identities – but I won’t hold my breath.

  • What is reality television coming to? Can it sink futher into the abyss of stupidity?

  • Steve

    I would be concerned about the possible bigger narratives in this show. I already have disdain for the gay man sidekick in reality TV and fictional TV that assists a straight woman in her self-esteem boosting and providing comic relief… I dont really think this is any different..just cast in a different shade.

    I do want to say, though, that I love Laverne.

    And I love Drag Race.

    And this is all coming from a gay man who has/had pretty strong transphobia… but for some reason…watching Drag Race has given me a greater appreciation or comfort level.

    However, I still don’t like the trans/drag queens (yes yes yes I know its different) that look a complete mess..lmao..

  • Yes, I read your disclaimer and I understand your good intentions, but I’m uncomfortable with you mixing RuPaul’s Drag Race and TRANSform Me together into one big stew. One is about women and the other is about men who enact an exaggerated image of women for “entertainment purposes.” It further bothers me you’re hauling out the old “performing gender” theory as though trans women are performing gender in a way that’s just as artificial as the Drag Race contestants do. I’d be more interested in hearing your honest examination about how YOU perform “woman” and whether your performance of gender is any more authentic than the women in this series? Remember this show, as with all depictions of trans women (and cis women) the portrayals are all centered around an agenda of making money off of those images and not necessarily representing their identities and gender expression accurately.

    As a transwoman, I have both a lot of respect for Laverne Cox (the woman who pitched and produced this show) and a lot of trepidation exactly because I know a lot of blogs, and certain feminist and queer theorists will be projecting meaning from shows like this onto trans women as a group. As I wrote on Feministe:

    The ultimate subtext of this show will viewed as:

    -femininity is artificial and oppressive;
    -trans women value femininity because they are ultimately artificial;
    -Queer subtext: trans women do femininity because they believe in an oppressive binary and imposed patriarchal standards of gender-policing. Transwomen are oppressors.

    I’ve already seen commentary about the program which fits into this mold. Sad to say, there are even more exploitive programs coming down the pike which exploit trans women and our supposed desperate need to express femininity, appropriate women’s identities all in a sad search for love and sex:

    • Alisa

      I’m sorry I offended you. I said more than once I was not equating – hearing about one show made me reflect on the other, it was not my intention to present them as analogies. As for “performing gender” I also noted that was all do this, cis- and transgendered women (and men!) alike. I think it would be difficult to refute the idea that some degree of performance goes into how we construct gender, no matter who you are. I didn’t deny I perform gender. I used an anecdote about myself to illustrate it. Finally, I didn’t make any comments about authenticity nor do I think that I insinuated that transgendered women are less authenticially “feminine” than cisgendered women. If you think I did it would be helpful for it to be pointed out.

    • shani-o

      Gina, you pretty much articulated what I couldn’t in explaining the problematic subtext of this show, so thank you.

  • Alisa, I don’t think that’s what you meant and I think you’ve created a thoughtful thread. Just important to understand by juxtaposing Drag Race and this show, even if you explain why you’re doing it, it creates a statement. An analogy (and my apologies for using a race-based one) would be some news story talking about African-American men and crime in the same story. Whether the intent of the story isn’t to somehow connect the two, by including them both (where there are already dominant oppressive cultural preconceptions) it creates an unfortunate artificial bridge. “Performing gender” can be a loaded term for trans people as are assertions that gender is purely a societal creation. For cis-gendered (or maybe queer) people such concepts help to expand one’s thinking, but for trans people, too often they experience it as an excuse to dismiss trans people’s identities. It’s something a lot of queer or cis-gender people don’t get when they first get involved with connecting as allies to the trans community. :-)