Discovery Life’s Trans Docuseries “New Girls On The Block” is Flawed, But Not Beyond Redemption

feature image via Discovery Life


When I first received the press package for the new Discovery Life documentary series New Girls On The Block, I was both excited and optimistic. Even as trans people reach new heights of visibility in documentaries and narrative shows alike, those portrayals have often suffered from the same flaw — the tendency to depict trans people in isolation, as the only trans person in their social circle. So when I saw that someone had produced a documentary about a diverse group of trans women friends supporting each other through their complex lives, I came in with high hopes. I went in with my fingers crossed and my expectations high, wanting to like it. While the show has some definite strong points, and the women featured are compelling, it unfortunately suffers from many of the tired tropes used time and again in documentaries about trans women.

New Girls On The Block follows six transgender women from Kansas City who formed a tightly-knit social circle during transition. They range in age from 25 to 50, and come from a variety of social backgrounds. The first episode breaks the women’s stories into four smaller vignettes, each focusing on a subset of the cast. Robyn is trans woman dating her best friend of 10 years, Andrew. AiYanna and Jaime are a lovely queer trans couple trying to make things work despite challenging economic difficulties. Macy is a woman who transitioned after getting married, and is currently negotiating the evolving relationship with her straight cisgender wife, Sharon. Kassidy and Chloe are best friends who are learning to navigate post-transition dating together. The vignettes are woven back together through the interactions of the six women at their weekly Girls Night Out.

I loved the cast from the opening scene, where they all share a meal together. It’s from their banter that they’re actually bonded in a supportive circle. They’re interesting and dynamic women, and I was excited to learn more about their stories. While I’m generally not super-interested in hetero relationships, the dynamic between Robyn and Andrew is endearing, with exposition that actually manages to avoid much of the gross “isn’t-this-weird” narrative that often plagues depictions of a cis-trans couple. Unfortunately, the show then takes it’s first ugly slide into cliche, and we’re also very quickly (and, IMO unnecessarily) presented with pre-transition pictures of Robyn juxtaposed with interview. Given that the premise of the show appears to be highlighting the post-transition lives of trans women, this ends up feeling like a cave to the voyeuristic fascination with transition and transformation that’s been so depressingly dominant in transgender documentary, especially those produced by cis people.

Marcy and Sharon (image via Discovery Life)

Marcy and Sharon (image via Discovery Life)

We next move to Macy and her wife Sharon, who are out shopping for a dress for Macy’s “Stepping Out Party” that’s being organized by the rest of the women on the show. Macy isn’t even given the benefit of an endearing exposition before we’re confronted with not only her pre-transition photos, but also her dead name and repeated wrong pronoun usage from her wife. While it’s clear that Macy’s storyline will be focused on her evolving relationship with her wife (who didn’t know Macy was trans when they married), it’s still pretty jarring to suddenly see pre-transition wedding photos interspersed with the footage of a very happy, radiant trans woman of color. Macy pretty quickly became my favorite character on the show because she’s just so darn positive and it flows from her smile to her body language, and she’s just a delight to see on screen. Sadly, what we see throughout the first episode is mostly a focus on how her transition is affecting those around her, and we don’t find out nearly as much about Macy as we do the other five cast members (who are all white). With Macy being the only trans woman of color, and the only one over 40 on the show, she feels a little tokenized, which is kind of heartbreaking, because you can’t help but adore her.

Jaime and AiYanna’s relationship and storyline were definitely the highlight of the show for me, but I could be a little biased towards the super-cute queer trans girl couple. Jaime is a somewhat serious ex-military triathlete and nursing student. AiYanna is total goofball from a Mormon family who delivers pizzas. Watching them interact, even through Jaime’s occasional annoyance with AiYanna’s silliness, is painfully cute. (Seriously, the glee on AiYanna’s face when she says “Can we get some pudding?” is priceless.) Plus, Jaime paid for AiYanna’s bottom surgery out of love, which just makes my heart burst with happy feels. The two of them live together with Jaime’s mom, who is one of the most awesomely supportive parents of a trans person I’ve seen on TV. She’s not only completely accepting of Jaime’s transition, but she’s also totally willing to go for bat for her. It’s revealed that she helped push for Jaime to be discharged from the military, and watching her console her very emotional daughter when she gets pushback on her desire to complete in the women’s division of a triathlon is cry-worthy. Unfortunately, just as with Macy and Robyn, we’re presented with pre-transition photos of Jaime that do absolutely nothing to advance her story, though we’re at least spared hearing her dead-named or misgendered.

Jamie and AiYanna (image via Discovery Life)

Jamie and AiYanna (image via Discovery Life)

There are also just some other misses in the show that really drag down the enjoyability. While I understand that finding a naturally diverse organic group of trans women willing to be the subjects of a documentary isn’t exactly easy, the cast skews disappointingly white, thin, cis-normative-appearing, and attractive — like they were selected for their ability to be acceptable for a cisgender audience, not to really represent the trans community. Adding even a little more diversity, whether perhaps through a fat person, or another trans woman of color, would have gone a long way. Secondly, the writing of the show also uses a lot of the “used to be a man” and worse “born a man” language that so many trans women find objectionable. This is much less of a problem if these women actually identify that way, but those statements come off as a bit scripted, which makes me skeptical.

In the end, the missteps of NGOTB aren’t enough to make it completely unwatchable, but they are disappointing. With the two amazing documentary projects that were helmed by trans people this year — True Trans and The T Word — setting the bar so high, New Girls On The Block does feel like a bit of slide backwards . However, the likable and dynamic cast members save the show, and it’s their personalities that will have me watching all five episodes that Discovery Life has produced. Given that we have two cast members (Kassidy and Chloe) who have not yet received much exposition, it seems likely that we’ll see some more of the pre-transition photos and perhaps hear a little more dead-naming in episode two. But, I’m hoping (perhaps a little foolishly) that, once the show moves past the cis-indulgent fascination with transition before-and-afters, NGOTB will actually break a little ground by portraying trans people in a state we seem to rarely see: together in community.


New Girls On the Block premieres on Saturday, April 11th at 10 pm ET on Discovery Life.

Mari is a queer lady scientist and educator from Detroit, who skillfully avoids working on her genetics dissertation by writing about queer and trans life, nerd culture, feminism, and science. You can frequently find her running around at science-fiction conventions giving panels on consent culture and LGBT topics or DJing at fantastically strange parties. She is a contributing writer for TransAdvocate, maintains a personal blog at TransNerdFeminist, and can frequently be found stirring up trouble (and posting selfies) on Twitter.

Mari has written 36 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. Mari, I agree with your statements about showing the pre-transition photos, both from the issue of making being transfemale a physical process of appearance, as well as the voyueristic aspect of viewing the body that they felt was the wrong gender for them.
    We all know how difficult for cis people to realize that we do in fact exist and are being honest about being transgender. But we do, and focusing on how well (before and after photos) of how one transitions physically, or if they transition at all, is totally missing the meaning of ” being transgender”. Being transgender is in our heart and mind.
    To me, that should be the focus of the series. Not what we look like.

  2. I’ll be ‘polly anna’ on this one- I am happy the cast works. Once the show progresses and the stories take over then I will judge. My expectations for the show’s quality is low because of the network. I am pleased that middle America can finally see how normal we are.

  3. I do wish there was a wider variety of stories being told instead of the usual window dressing. I don’t know how to feel about this show. They are trying, but maybe they need a trans consultant who can tell them how to make the show less of a voyeur endeavor and more of going on a journey with these women?

    *

    Have you heard about this film Boy Meets Girl? The trailer is up on Hulu. I was wondering if you could possibly review it. Its an indie romantic comedy about a trans teen and it doesn’t seem to be a downer. The trailer looks good.

  4. So yeah, there’s some cringeworthyness in there, but also a lot of good. I really feel like a substantial number of people are assholes to trans people not out of any deep assholistic conviction, but because trans people and transness more broadly is unfamiliar to them, and makes them uncomfortable, and they handle their discomfort in shitty, dysfunctional ways. Getting to know trans folk, even if it’s no more than a handful of people on a reality tv show might give them a little more familiarity and make them a little less sensationalist about trans people they come across in real life.

    The representation isn’t ideal, but they’re real people and if it helps nudge people into a broader social norm of “hey, trans people exist, and being a dick to them makes you an asshole. Put your big kid pants on and learn to talk to Sheryl in accounting the same way you talk to Linda in marketing.”

  5. The pic of Jamie and AiYanna is just so adorable. SO ADORABLE.

    I dunno about this show. Sigh. The title even is kind of…eesh. But I am liking that the women on the show are being shown as lovable and loved. Also that the hook is about their friendship and sisterhood with each other. That’s a nice shift. I hope they move away from the transition focus and start exploring each woman as a whole, round person. That would be groundbreaking for a network show.

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