Art and Entertainment

Transgender reality TV, Laverne work for diddy,
Chris Weeks/AP
Calpernia Addams

Transgender Acceptance May Start with Reality TV

September 19, 2008 07:57 AM
by Rachel Balik
Reality TV shows are featuring more transgender actors, leading to a wider exposure of an often misunderstood minority.

Reality TV Introduces Transgender Cast Members

Reality TV shows have long relied on controversial and groundbreaking content to draw viewers, and according to Joshua Alston of Newsweek, transgender people are simply a “new minority to throw into the mix.”

Transgender contestants appear on both “America’s Next Top Model” and the show “I Want to Work for Diddy.” On “I Want to Work for Diddy,” a recently eliminated contestant named Laverne Cox forced some of the other characters to get over their prejudices. On “America’s Next Top Model,” Isis Tsunami has encountered some hostility from fellow contestants who don’t consider her qualified to compete because she wasn’t born a woman.

But Alston argues that reality TV has encouraged greater acceptance for gays and lesbians, and it may be able to do the same for transgender people.

Background: Transgender people in television and media

Transgender actors are appearing in greater numbers of late. In fact, MTV’s sister channel, Logo, which is targets gay audiences, broadcasts the reality show “Transamerican Love Story,” which stars transgender actress Calpernia Addams. The show follows the model of “The Bachelorette”; Calpernia dates various men while the cameras roll.

On “Dirty Sexy Money,” which is not a reality TV show but a scripted drama, transgender actress Candis Cayne has a breakthrough role, playing a transgender character. She told “Access Hollywood” that while she had worked steadily on the drag circuit, she felt that working as an actress was impossible when she finally became transgender. But the timing felt right to accept the role on “Dirty Sexy Money,” and in doing so, she made great strides on behalf of the entire transgender community.

When Thomas Beatie, a transgender man who had kept his female reproductive organs intact, became pregnant, he openly talked about it on “Oprah.” He drew quite a bit of attention from the media, and was more than happy to discuss his sperm donor, his pregnancy and the details of sexual intercourse with his wife.

Opinion and Analysis: Good exposure or exploitation?

The media sentiment tends to side with opinions expressed in Newsweek: having transgender cast members on reality TV means greater acceptance. On the subject of “I Want to Work for Diddy,” a blogger for the usually catty Jezebel noted that she loved Laverne’s name and said, “I also love that there’s a transgendered person competing to be Diddy’s assistant at all; you don’t see many people in the transgendered community featured on reality television.”

But Carrie Davis, from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Washington, D.C., told online magazine The Root that “there is an exploitative element” to putting transgender characters on reality TV shows. While The Root agrees that in the case of “America’s Next Top Model,” Isis was probably being used as a way to boost ratings, it also reports that ratings haven’t been that good. But Isis will have the chance, like other minorities before her, to help the public become accustomed to transgender people.

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