In 1968–almost 100 years ago—I watched the first television series to positively portray an African-American woman. The show, Julia, starred Diahann Carroll; the storyline was about a widowed black woman trying to raise her son while working as a medical office nurse. This was a really big deal; beamed into homes across the nation were images of an articulate black woman who was likeable and smart.
For much of the country, those images challenged prevailing stereotypes about black women and their families.
I remember a lot of commentary about how Julia was historic and a sign of America’s racial progress. Finally, we were seeing black people for who they really were: humans simply trying to lead happy lives.
Just like us white people.
Two months ago, I saw what I thought was another television show making history. An episode of CBS’s Two and A Half Men featured “Paula” (played by Paula Marshall), a supposed post-operative transgender woman whom Alan (played by Jon Cryer) was dating. I didn’t know Paula Marshall the actor and readily assumed she was truly a male to female trans person.
My subsequent survey of on-line reviews revealed much praise for the episode because of its “respectful” treatment of transgender people. Apparently, this was deemed a bit historic for a comedy—that trans folk were finally being portrayed as just any other human and not some aberration to make fun of.
In the “Paula” episode I saw, Paula and Alan sat viewing a football game on television. To drive home that Paula had previously been a male sports fanatic, she used some exaggerated masculine mannerisms—a fist punch to celebrate a great play and an adjustment to her crotch, as if old habits are hard to break—all of which tipped me off that something just wasn’t right. Actor or not, Paula didn’t look as if she’d ever been a dude in a former real life.
Until then, with Paula’s beautiful face and body and magnificent feminine voice, I had thought, Wow, this Paula chick is really passable.
So passable that I was quite frickin jealous.
Halfway through the Two and A Half Men episode, I Googled “Paula Marshall” and found that “she” had never, ever been a “he” in real life. Paula Marshall was a genetic female playing a transwoman.
In other words, Paula the television character was an imposter.
Oh, that sucks!
I know; the response wasn’t very feminine. I’m sure it was due to the scant trace of male left in my psyche—something Paula Marshall couldn’t hope to pull off.
At least in Julia, Diahann Carroll was actually black. I wondered, had the producers of Two and A Half Men been around in 1968, would they have settled for a white Julia in blackface?
Nothing personal to Paula Marshall, but CBS made her a blackface transwoman.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen an imposter transwoman. Felicity Huffman (of Desperate Housewives fame) played a transwoman in Transamerica. But that was in 2005 which, given how things are positively changing for trans people, seems like six decades ago.
It’s not as if there aren’t any transwomen actors out there, either. Candis Cayne had recurring roles in Nip/Tuck. Laverne Cox is a regular on Orange is the New Black. There are other transwomen trying to break into television and film.
Why not give those authentic transwomen a chance? Why not let mainstream America see a straight man talk with a real live transwoman in bed together?
Maybe the answer is that trans people still scare some non-trans people. Perhaps it’s more difficult to joke with a real transwoman about formerly having a penis (one of the laugh lines in Two and A Half Men). It could be that some straight people— like television producers, writers, and directors–still aren’t taking the time to get to know us. Or to take us seriously.
Whatever CBS’s reason for casting a genetic female as a transwoman, I’m appalled by its imposter-is-real mentality. I’ve spent all my life getting to the point of accepting myself and living authentically. Almost every other out trans person I know has done similar hard work.
In other words, we’re real humans.
The least that CBS and Two and A Half Men could do is acknowledge that. Doing so would be real respect.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org