Matt Kailey is the author of Just Add Hormones: An Insider's Guide to the Transsexual Experience. Kailey is the managing editor of Out Front Colorado and the Denver Transgender & Transsexual Issues Examiner at Examiner.com. He blogs at Tranifesto, where this post originally appeared.
When I heard about a new makeover reality show where the subjects are unhappy and insecure, the makeover artists are trans women, and the whole premise is that the trans aspect of the makeover team is a big surprise, all I could think was, "Houston, we have multiple problems."
In VH1's new reality show, TRANSform Me, unhappy women send in a videotape explaining why they need a makeover. Those who are chosen are told that the makeover artists will arrive at their home on a certain day and time to transform them. What they don't know is that the three members of the emergency makeover team are all transgender women (I would call them transsexual women myself, but over the last few years, the two terms have become synonymous, so I use the language that the women themselves use).
The show was conceived by Laverne Cox, a trans woman who has been on several television shows and has won a GLAAD award her appearance on I Want to Work for Diddy. The other trans team members are makeup artist Jamie Clayton and model Nina Poon. Needless to say, these three women are gorgeous and incredibly sexy, and they play it to the max.
Even though I have never been opposed to makeovers, unlike many other feminists I know (yes, I consider myself a feminist), the two major problems that I foresaw were: 1. that the "surprise" of the show was that the makeover artists were trans women, setting up the possibility that the makeover subjects would be freaked out or repulsed, much to the delight of non-trans viewers, and 2. that the whole show revolved around the premise that unattractive, unhappy women could be transformed into happy, confident women simply because they suddenly looked "beautiful."
I basically saw an army of offended trans people protesting that the show exploited trans women by making them a possibly unwelcome "surprise," and an army of offended activists, both trans and non-trans, upset that the show objectified all women by making physical beauty the gold standard for happiness. And there may be an offended army out there, but I'm not one of the soldiers. I love this show.
First, I interviewed Laverne Cox for an article that will be appearing in Out Front Colorado on April 7, and posed those very questions to her--about the exploitation of trans women and the reinforcement of beauty stereotypes for women.
Cox is an intelligent, funny woman who really believes in this show, and she assured that she would never participate in a project that exploited trans people or promoted a particular standard of physical beauty as a necessary factor in a woman's happiness. Instead, she told me that the show was based on transformation both inside and out, and that the subjects were not just physically transformed, but they gained self-confidence and self-esteem--an inner transformation. She also said that the show was a vehicle for educating the public about transgender people.
Next, I watched the show. I was absolutely hooked. So far, none of the subjects has reacted negatively to the makeover team (but we're only two shows into the season as I write this). But more than that, the makeovers mean so much to these women. At the end of the shows I've seen so far, I have to remind myself that boys don't cry, because I'm all teary eyed and emotional when I see how these women emerge from their self-imposed cocoons.
To me, this is a feel-good show, and I think that it in many ways mirrors the trans experience of finally becoming who you know you really are (which makes it appropriate that trans women are the makeover experts). But those who are strongly opposed to Western feminine gender stereotypes, including plunging necklines, high heels, and the idea that makeup, hairstyles, and clothing are what's needed for personal fulfillment, might find the show objectionable.
But as I've said before, freedom of gender expression means freedom for everyone, not just those who reject traditional gender stereotypes. Those who embrace traditional gender stereotypes should have the freedom to act on them, just as those who do not should have the freedom to reject them.
I'm not sure how much this show actually educates viewers about everyday transgender people--Cox, Clayton, and Poon are stunningly beautiful, financially well-off, ultra-thin, designer-dressed, and full of drag-queen sass (and they aren't drag queens, but does the uneducated public know the difference?)--but it does provide a website where viewers can go to learn more about "what it means to be transgender," with links to the GLAAD media reference guide, transition information, and other info (you have to scroll down).
And you can't help but love Cox, Clayton, and Poon--they are just a lot of fun, Cox is great to talk to, and their own confidence really benefits these makeover subjects. And the fact that they were able to transform themselves--well, as Laverne Cox says, "If we can do it, anybody can."
The show airs Monday nights on VH1. I can't wait to see the latest episode (since I don't have TV, I have to watch online). Check it out if you haven't already, and let me know what you think.