Secrets are the fuel at the center of many serialized dramas, the catalyst for revelations, repercussions and remorse.
But the revelation of one particular secret on The Bold and the Beautiful this spring had me giving that show some Cookie Lyon-level side eye.
The revelation that Maya (Karla Mosley) is a transgender woman is a bold storytelling choice, and I know many folks have raved about this story, and applauded the high drama that this revelation has brought.
But its setup and execution thus far? Gives me cause for concern.
I’ll preface all of this by saying that while I am a gay man who probably has some genderqueer parts of my identity, I have NO knowledge of the lived experience of a transgender person. My privilege as a white gay man can’t even begin to remotely speak for a transgender woman of color (more on that later).
But I am an ally, and so I’m speaking from that place and from the heart of someone who has strong beliefs about the power of media representations.
And I’ll start by emphasizing the positive. Maya is an engaging character, and she’s played by Karla Mosley, someone whose work I’ve appreciated for years, going back to her performance during the final days of Guiding Light.
I’m glad to see B&B commit to a more front-burner LGBT storyline (though it is still baffling beyond measure that a soap set in the fashion industry has never had a gay male designer as a contract player) and while transgender characters have appeared on daytime, their tenures were relatively short-lived. Having an established character be transgender is a positive step.
But several points of the story raise a red flag for me, starting with the revelation itself.
Let’s be honest: that reveal was just short of a Maury you-are-not-the-father moment. We were primed for a juicy revelation, and Nicole’s statement, leveled as an accusation to Maya, may as well have been underscored by this.
The story as it’s played out since seems to suggest that the secret of Maya’s transition will, at some point, be used as information to hurt Rick. Friday’s end tag was Carter telling Ridge about Maya’s secret.
So just a few weeks in, and we have a story where the very essence of who someone is has been used on several shows already as an OMG moment – as a cliffhanger, or a Friday tag.
You can see why I might be concerned.
In a world that is overwhelmingly heteronormative and cisgender, transgender people already have to work to carve out spaces where they can be authentically and completely who they are.
The execution of Maya’s story thus far, and the secrecy element, is, to me, evoking some very old, very tired, very damaging — and very untrue — stereotypes and misconceptions about transgender people.
That they are inherently dishonest, and lie about the fact that they are “really” their birth gender, that they are really the body in which they were born.
That they work to trick others, and hide who they really are.
That they are exotic beings who live a hypersexual life, and can only connect with others on that sexual level.
And yet dishonesty is at the very core of Maya’s story, reinforced by the fact that she has not told Rick about her transition. See? Those lying liars.
I’m sure there have been people in this world that have kept the fact of their birth gender or their transition from someone they’ve fallen in love with, just as there are people who have likely kept other things from a partner: a pregnancy, their HIV status, etc.
But it feels a bit worrisome when we’ve seen so few transgender people in daytime that those old stereotypes are the building blocks for this story.
Any representation of a transgender person is so important when so many people still don’t understand the differences between the LGB (sexual orientation) and T (gender identity) in that well-known acronym – what they represent in a person’s identity.
(Who you love is not who you ARE, though those are intertwined in all of us.)
It’s all important when people are still learning – when we still have people tossing around terms like transgender, transsexual and cross-dressing interchangeably (when those are very different things).
The reveal of Maya’s transition will be played out for weeks and months to come.
It will certainly give us drama, and may even, through the reactions we see, tell us more about the characters we know so well.
But I have concerns about that revelation being such fuel for drama.
One of my favorite shows of the last year has been Transparent. It’s such a wonderful show, and a great narrative world.***
The central character, a 70 year old transgender woman who finally comes out to her family, covered similar thematic ground so beautifully.
There was a secret, but one that felt more authentic on screen, one that was depicted more skillfully, with hints that Maura was emerging from Mort, the male persona she’d presented to her family for so long.
The reaction of each of Maura’s children to her revelation was captured in an authentic, messy way. The story beat was indeed played, but it wasn’t the focus of the action. The smaller moments were the focus of the story.
In many ways, despite the seeming newness of Maura’s story, it was a classic story of how people move through change, a snapshot of a complicated family and all the dynamics that these people brought to the table.
Davina, Maura’s friend and mentor, is played by transgender actress Alexandra Billings. I’m a great fan of Billings’ work, and her writing. (Follow her blog or her Facebook page and you’ll understand why – she’s an amazing performer, writer and teacher.)
Billings has had some success in Hollywood, but for many years, Billings would only get cast on TV as something where her otherness was The Story. Her characters on Grey’s Anatomy and ER made their transgender identities the show’s Problem Of The Week.
The problem with the Problem Of The Week, of course, is that once it’s solved, it disappears.
So that’s the Catch-22 here. Sharing Maya’s journey can bring more visibility. But will that visibility consist solely of people talking about her gender identity?
Are we clapping for Maya? Her journey? Or are we cheering on her unmasking, the moment when she will be revealed as The Other and set apart from the rest of the B&B characters?
It is a soap opera, and I’m hoping that some quiet, character-based moments showing new aspects of Maya’s character emerge — though conversations, through conflict, through all of the ways that the writers usually tell us a story.
I’m hopeful that B&B will keep Maya’s drive to succeed alive, and show a powerful, compelling image of a transgender woman of color to the world.
Because in the REAL world, transgender women of color have been frequently brutalized and murdered in this country.
A wonderful, powerful, positive representation would be real and meaningful progress.
But the story behind that representation has to be more than the unmasking of a secret. More than “ta-dah!” or “dun-dun-DUN!”
More than what B&B has delivered so far.
NOTE: It’s serendipitous that the New York Times published an editorial today about transgender people in our culture, and it’s worth a read.
*** Acknowledging, too, that many transgender people have expressed concern that few onscreen stories are being shown with actual trans people performing the roles. (The central role on Transparent is played by a cisgendered man, as was a key role in Dallas Buyers’ Club.) It’s a very real erasure of transgender images; Alexandra Billings wrote a great piece on this.