ABC’s Primetime Nightline aired a “Transgendered Special” on last week called My (Extra) Ordinary Family. The program has caused some online buzz since it first ran on August 31, with The Advocate billing it as “The Trans Special You Shouldn’t Miss.”
So Sebastian and I decided to watch the program together and discuss our reactions to it. The following piece is a collection of our dialogue during the broadcast, divided into the different segments of the show. We’ve posted the entire program here so you can watch as well! (Spoiler alert: it’s cissexist and offensive.) I recommend pausing after each segment to read our commentary and share your own feelings in the comments section below!
Annika: Sebastian, I have to be honest, I’ve only read the official description of this show and I already hate it. It’s full of pronoun fails and problematic terms like “biological girl/boy”…
Sebastian: Yeah, it looks like it’s going to be one of those “documentaries”…
Narrator: Born this way? Inside the worlds of little boys who dress like little girls…
Sebastian: Ugh. This is so sensationalized and outdated. Also, where are the trans guys?
Annika: Don’t you know? Nightline thinks you’re boring. Trans femininities make for much better exploitative TV! Also, did you notice how he said, “Born this way?” as a question? Which is another way of saying, “Are trans people real?”
Narrator: …to a cross dressing teen who travels south of the border to pay for surgery in cash…
Sebastian: Ok seriously? She’s a woman, not a cross dresser.
Cynthia McFadden (the host): First, a warning. Some of the themes and language in tonight’s program are graphic.
Annika: What she really means is “Warning: icky queers ahead!”
Segment One – Princess Boy
This segment introduces us to the Dyson Kilodavis and his mother, who is the author of the children’s book “My Princess Boy.” Dyson is a five-year-old boy who loves wearing dresses, and we learn about his mother’s initial reaction and eventual embrace of her son’s gender expression.
Sebastian: I really like his mother. I appreciate that she’s honest about her mistakes in trying to redirect her son’s behavior.
Annika: Yeah, she’s great. I love that she wrote a book too!
Sebastian: Omg, did you just see what they flashed on the screen? A Twitter question: “Should boys be allowed to dress like girls?”
Annika: So stupid. Gender policing much?
Sebastian: Ok, I think the first section wasn’t too terrible. Mostly because Cherly Kilo-Davis was the one who was essentially narrating. I think it is also good to start off with a boy who is just breaking gender norms. I’m not sure if he will identify as a girl in the future or not, but he has a family that is going to give him the space to figure it out for himself.
Annika: Yeah, the only thing I’m concerned about is that they might try to tie it into the main narrative of “boys who want to be girls,” with Dyson presented as a less extreme version of the others.
Sebastian: We’ll have to see how it takes off from here. I’m getting the feeling that this program does nothing to educate about trans* or gender issues. It just presents vignettes with questionable narration.
Segment Two – Jackie
In this segment we meet Jackie, a ten-year-old trans girl who recently transitioned with the support of her parents.
Cynthia: What if your son were to tell you that he is not a boy at all, but a girl? We spent months with one family as they struggled with the wrenching decision of what to do when their 10 year old son, Jack, said he wanted to become Jackie.
Annika: Again with the simplistic and wrong transformation narrative. Jackie is the same person she’s always been- she’s not a “boy who wanted to become a girl.”
Sebastian: Why is Cynthia using male pronouns? I mean, really? This is so disappointing.
Jackie’s mother: One day [she] came up to me with tears in [her] eyes, and said “I’m a girl and I can’t do this anymore.”
Sebastian: That’s so moving. I love how supportive and understanding her parents are!
Annika: Typical shots of Jackie putting on makeup. The programs focuses so much on the physical aspect of transition; why am I not surprised?
Medical Expert: We often ask parents, “Would you rather have a dead son than an alive daughter? These kids have a suicide rate that is astronomical. You don’t make a decision about your gender identity. It’s not something you decide.”
Annika: Such a powerful way of conveying it to parents. This expert definitely knows her stuff. But then they have to cut to Jackie’s Grandpa Richard, who doesn’t approve of her transition, as some sort valid counterargument?
Cynthia: So you don’t use the pronoun “he” anymore? You’ve abandoned it?
Annika: How shocking!
Sebastian: So, thoughts on this segment… the expert was great and Jackie’s parents are wonderful too. One of the best families I’ve ever seen in a documentary like this. I love how they say “we don’t think we should have to hide our family behind closed doors.”
Annika: And Jackie looks so happy! I can’t help but smile thinking of all the stuff she’ll never have to deal with. Again, the worst part of the segment was the narration.
Segment Three – Vanessa
This segment is about a 19-year-old Latina trans woman named Vanessa, who is traveling to Mexico for breast augmentation and facial feminization surgery because she cannot afford these procedures in the United States. She helps pay for her surgeries through sex work.
Cynthia: Beneath the makeup, Vanessa is biologically a 19-year-old boy.
Annika: No, she isn’t. She is a girl. Makeup or no makeup. How is this such a difficult concept to understand?
Cynthia: [Sex work] funded her drug of choice- black market estrogen to feminize her.
Cynthia: Now she saves up for her new body by selling her old one in cheap hotel rooms–
Annika: Omg, this is so fucking offensive. They think they can get away with talking about her in such a degrading manner because she’s a trans woman of color. There’s absolutely no discussion about employment discrimination for trans* people, the abysmal state of trans*-inclusive health insurance, or that fact that the illegality/stigmatization of sex work leads to inherently dangerous situations.
Sebastian: And just for the record, that is definitely not a cheap hotel room.
Annika: Why are they spending so much time showing her surgery? Do they really think that is all the transition is about? The physical aspect?
Sebastian: Hold on, did they really just pass judgment on the results of her facial surgery?
Annika: Not everyone can afford to go to Cynthia’s cosmetic surgeon, after all.
Cynthia: You could always get a job at McDonalds tomorrow [instead of sex work].
Annika: Oh no she didn’t just say that. Privileged white cis woman telling a Latina trans woman to go get a job at McDonald’s? Who does she think she is? And anyways, has she not heard about what happened to Chrissy Lee Polis earlier this year? Or in 2009, when a teenage trans girl applying for a job at McDonald’s in Florida was told “We do not hire faggots”? McDonald’s isn’t exactly a safe space for trans women.
Cynthia: But for now, it’s back to the cheap hotel rooms.
Sebastian: I thought the way they presented this segment was really offensive. It really shows the difference in how trans women of color are portrayed by the media. The way they handled the sex work was repulsive. And there was hardly anything about her social transition or family issues.
Annika: It’s disgusting they way they tried to portray her. So many wasted opportunities here to discuss the very real problem of discrimination. Her family seemed sweet though.
Narrator: And next, what this man has to say to transgender teens. He’s had two sex changes operations, going from a man to a woman, and back.
Segment Four- Charles
Charles Kane is a man who transitioned to female at age 37, and then transitioned back to male after 7 years of living as Samantha.
Annika: I can’t believe that they’re giving Charles Kane his own segment, as if he is a valid counterargument against transitioning. Have you read about him before? He says things like “people who think they are a woman trapped in a male body are completely deluded.”
Sebastian: At least they acknowledge that his “trans regret” is not typical.
Annika: I feel like I’m repeating myself but again, this so much focus on the physical changes…spending $100,000 on surgeries does not make someone a woman!
Charles Kane: I was a transsexual female. I wasn’t a genuine, natural female.
Annika: Pardon me, Charles?
Charles Kane: I don’t think that anybody is born a transsexual human. Areas of the human brain get altered by female hormones… so you’re altering a person who is otherwise a normal male.
Sebastian: Um, no.
Cynthia: As for their sex life- I asked.
Annika: Of course she asked.
Cythina: They were able to reconstruct the penis? But can you have an erection? So that’s not quite as good as the original.
Sebastian: Omg this whole segment was awful. And that comment about phalloplasty! My skin is crawling.
Annika: According to Nightline, gender is defined by our body parts.
Sebastian: And any attempts to alter our bodies, by the way, are just attempts. Never as good “as the original.”
Annika: I just hate how much of a voice they gave to Charles Kane. I’m reluctant to ever question whether someone is an “actual” trans* person, but let’s just say that he doesn’t speak for me. He’s just a confused attention whore with too much money for his own good. Which can be said about a lot of people, but in this case he’s doing the trans* community a huge disservice by claiming to understand us and our supposed delusions. And he essentially said that doctors tricked him into thinking he was a woman by giving him female hormones! There are many problems with trans* healthcare- but a lack of “preventative barriers” to transition is certainly not one of them.
Sebastion: It’s also disheartening that the show presents Charles as this wise older adult figure, trying to prevent a younger generation from making a horrible mistake by transitioning. They could have easily chosen to interview one of the many happy, well-adjusted trans* adults instead, but they didn’t. Please let the next segment be decent…
Segment Five- Kim
Kim Petras is a 19-year-old German trans girl who has a successful career as a pop singer. She has been featured in various news stories for transitioning at young age: starting estrogen at age 13 and having SRS at 16.
Cynthia: …and when you see her, you may be surprised that she was once a “he.”
Annika: Translation: prepare to be shocked- she doesn’t look like an inaccurate stereotype of a trans girl!
Cynthia: At 16, Kim made headlines by becoming the youngest person in the world to have the penis he was born with turned into a vagina.
Annika: “The penis he was born with?”
Sebastian: Kim said “I didn’t think I was any different from the other girls.” Such a good way of explaining gender development for some trans kids!
Cynthia: [Before SRS, Kim was] stuck in an undefined place between male and female. She was desperate for what is called “bottom surgery” to change her gender.
Annika: Newsflash, Cynthia: gender is not defined by anatomy or surgery!
Sebastian: I’m totally fine with someone feeling that their genitalia is totally wrong. But this narrative presents it as the rule, which it’s not. I love the way she talks about her surgery though. That she said it just made her complete but it didn’t answer all of life’s problems.
Cynthia: So, this is a very personal question. Were they able to construct a vagina from the penis?
Annika: More invasive questions about genitalia. What makes her think it’s her right to ask these sorts of things? Kim was way more polite in her response than I would have been. I would have been like, “So, Cynthia, I head that the labia begin to sag when someone reaches your age. Has that been your experience, and if so, do you plan on having surgery to address it?”
Sebastian: Ok, this show is finally over. At least they ended the segment with her song, “This is the Real Me.” That made me feel a lot better. Like I felt a lot of tension released in my body. But then the fucking narrator goes and asks people to weigh in on a heated discussion of whether or not these supportive parents are hurting their children. I just think it’s absurd that they think it’s okay for people who don’t know shit to weigh in and pass judgment on our lives. It’s so barbaric. They wouldn’t even do this about gay kids now.
Annika: The narration had its own agenda, that’s for sure. And it’s so cissexist too, they’re like, “we as normal people, do you think trans people are real? And should we be nice to these freaks? Have your say online!” And I hate how throughout the program, they make transition out to be this purely physical thing. Like the weren’t the least bit interested in understanding who these kids really are.
Sebastian: Now I’m just angry. I’m so grateful for the families who tried to present a positive and honest story of trans* and gender issues. But the way that Nightline framed it, it’s like the modern day traveling circus with the freak show. Except you know, more civil, because some people support it. You’d think that in 2011, someone on mainstream TV could get it right, but I’m so disappointed.
So there you have it. Nightline’s “Transendered Special” was inaccurate, racist, cissexist, sensationalized, and offense. The families and their children were all wonderful, and did a great job trying to articulate their experiences to a mainstream audience. Hopefully their example of acceptance and unconditional love will reach other parents who watch this program. But it was clear from the start that Nigthline had already decided how they were going to frame the discourse, regardless of what these families and trans* kids had to say. Sadly, is anyone really surprised? Please feel free to share your feelings about the show with us- there were so many problematic elements that we could only highlight a few!