Special report: Transforming reality

In advance of the July 26 premiere of I Am Cait (pictured) on E!, realscreen looks at how reality TV is leading the way for transgender-focused programming on television.
June 4, 2015

It’s not often that you hear reality television described as a “bright spot” by a media advocacy group.

But when it comes to portrayals of transgender lives on the small screen, the genre is considered more progressive than scripted and mainstream journalism in offering complex and realistic portrayals of a marginalized population.

“Reality TV, especially compared to scripted entertainment, has been a bright spot when it comes to transgender people being able to see themselves on television,” says Nick Adams, the director of transgender media programs for LGBT media watchdog group GLAAD. “Typically, when you look at the way transgender characters have been portrayed in scripted programming, they’ve either been psychopathic killers or tragic murder victims.”

Adams is extra busy these days. There has been an uptick in interest around transgender issues in the media thanks in part to trans actor Laverne Cox’s starmaking role on Netflix’s women’s prison show Orange is the New Black, and the success of Amazon Prime’s Transparent, which won the Golden Globe for outstanding comedy series in January.

In January, so many transgender-themed docuseries were being pitched at the Realscreen Summit that TLC’s EVP of production and development Howard Lee joked during a panel that “transgender is the new ‘redneck.’”

Fast foward to Realscreen West in Santa Monica this week and the buzz is all about Caitlyn Jenner who debuted as a woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. Two months ago, the Keeping Up with the Kardashians star and Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner put to rest years of tabloid rumors and came out as a transgender woman in an ABC News interview watched by 17 million people.

Jenner will chronicle her transition in an eight-part, one-hour docuseries for E! called I Am Cait (pictured, above), which premieres on July 26. Her series is one of four reality shows starring trans characters to emerge within the past six  months.

In April, Discovery Life aired the five-episode New Girls on the Block. ABC Family will premiere Becoming Us (pictured) in June and TLC is preparing to launch I Am Jazz, about trans teen activist and YouTube star Jazz Jennings, on July 15.

The sudden interest from both reality and scripted producers is part of a groundswell of activism and exposure around issues, such as violence and discrimination, that have led to more conscientious reporting regarding trans people.

Although cable and streaming media have embraced trans stories, reality producers for the big four broadcasters – CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox—have yet to feature trans cast members on tentpole reality franchises such as The Amazing Race, Survivor, Big Brother, The Voice and American Idol. Also, trans men typically are less visible on TV than trans women.

In scripted, as Adams says, the situation is far worse, with trans characters generally falling into three categories: psychotic killer, murder victim or sex worker.

discovery life

Discovery Life’s New Girls on the Block

Last November, GLAAD published its third annual “Trans Images on TV” report that noted improvements in the way trans people were spoken about and portrayed: 54% of representations of trans characters on episodic TV were classified as “outright defamatory,” 34% ranged from “problematic to acceptable” and 12% were outstanding, with most of the language regarding the character spoken by a show’s protagonist. (GLAAD does not have research into representations of trans people in unscripted.)

More broadly, a GLAAD/Harris Interactive poll found only 8% of Americans said they personally know a trans person although Adams believes that number is slightly higher now.

Thus, broadcast remains an important frontier because of its reach and ability to expose viewers to issues facing transgender Americans. “Media is really critical for transgender people because for those 92% of Americans who think they don’t know someone who is transgender, everything they’re learning about this community is coming through the media,” says Adams.

AMC’s Small Town Security, MTV’s The Real World, The CW’s America’s Next Top Model and ABC’s  Dancing with the Stars, which featured competitor Chaz Bono on season 13, are examples of unscripted series that portrayed trans people in progressive lights.

Before Laverne Cox became the first trans person to grace the cover of Time, she was a struggling actor who signed on to the VH1 reality show I Want To Work For Diddy.

That led VH1 to greenlight her makeover series TRANSform Me, which she also produced, and later, after OITNB became a hit, she returned to the Viacom-owned net  for the doc Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word.

A common thread among the current crop of reality shows is that gender identity is seen as the jumping-off point for the drama. The focus is not on a character’s coming out, but rather the universal issues cable execs like to see in a story arc regardless of whether the main character is transgender, a veterinarian or a Kardashian.

Producers at This Is Just A Test pitched I Am Jazz to Marjorie Kaplan, group president for TLC, Animal Planet and Velocity, who liked that it was about a multigenerational family living under one roof.

“Jazz is on the precipice of puberty, which is a trying time even if you’re not transgender,” explains TLC general manager Nancy Daniels. “But being transgender and facing puberty we felt was a moment in her life that would provide a lot of interesting stories. That is what really popped for us. It was at a moment of change for them as a family.”

I Am Jazz is the first TLC show focused on a transgender character, so education became part of the development process. Producers talked with the family to get a sense of what they wanted to share and the gender pronouns Jazz uses, as well as “Trans 101″-type facts, such as the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.

“There is certain language we’ve all educated ourselves on because we want to make sure that we’re treating her family, her world and her life in a respectful way,” says Daniels.

Indeed, when announcing the upcoming Jenner series, E! also listed three community consultants, including GLAAD.

Such consultations can involve anything from screening rough cuts and providing notes to training sessions for development, programming and PR execs.

ABC Family prides itself on pro-social scripted programming such as The Fosters, which featured a trans teen character. This year, the network is upping its original programming hours and commissioning more unscripted as a result.

ben, carly

ABC Family’s Becoming Us

Last fall, execs chased Ryan Seacrest Productions’ trans-themed series Becoming Us after the sizzle tape ignited a bidding war. The show is about a 17-year-old boy from Evanston, Illinois whose father transitions to become a woman, and whose girlfriend’s father is also transitioning.

“Their stories are so dramatic and so emotional that you don’t need to construct things,” says Marci Cooperstein, the channel’s VP of programming and development. “There is a challenge to stay relevant and tell the most compelling stories. Stories that haven’t been told are really attractive.”

Just as the networks take their cues from the trans talent and their families in framing their stories, so too do the producers and crew.

On Discovery Life’s Kansas City-set New Girls on the Block, the style is more vérité than “réalité.” The show follows six trans women who met in a support group and became friends. At times, they can seem overly camera-conscious, but in other scenes the emotions are raw and visceral.

“It wasn’t like we cast friends from around the country and put people together to tell a story,” explains Julie Meisner-Eagle, the network’s VP of production and development. “They’re all friends and they live in Kansas City. Any story we tell has to have an organic thread and real relationships with stakes and with heart.”

For the premiere episode, producers asked one of the women, Macy, and her wife, Sharon, to host a get-together for Sharon’s family so they could meet her since-transitioned husband as a woman for the first time. The tension in the scene is palpable, as Sharon was also grappling with how to proceed in the relationship while remaining supportive.

“There are a couple touch and go moments in that scene,” says Colin Whelan, executive producer for Conveyor Media, the show’s prodco. “We were surprised how challenging the whole process was for Sharon. She had to let go of her husband, but she gained a new close friend. It was fascinating and poignant.”

In episode three, another character, Aiyana, meets her estranged mother after three years in a scene that also proved emotional for cast and crew.

“We were crying when we were filming it,” recalls Whelan. “There were a couple jerky moments with the cameras because people were getting pretty emotional. I’ve never done a show like that where it’s so real and powerful, it’s hard to keep your objectivity as a producer.”

GLAAD’s Adams likes that New Girls is not focused on the coming-out narrative and lauds it as a “sophisticated” example of trans-centric TV. But although reality is a progressive area, he cautions that there is still work to do.

Adams likens overall coverage of trans issues to a time in the past when gay, lesbian and bisexual people were constantly asked for their coming-out stories.

“The focus continues to be fixated on the transition narrative and not transgender people being themselves in everyday life,” he says. “With transgender people, the media in general is still where the  gay stories were in the 1970s and the ’80s.”

  • This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.