Strut, the new Oxygen series produced by Whoopi Goldberg, is embarking on something revolutionary: representing the diversity of the transgender community.
Though representation is at an all-time high (yo Transparent; sup, Laverne?), the bar was set so low to begin with that much work is yet to be done — namely in showing that the trans experience is as vast, dynamic and nuanced as, well, any human experience.
At its core, Strut is groundbreaking for myriad reasons, most obviously being a reality show featuring an entire cast overwhelmingly composed of trans women and men of color.
Like TLC's I Am Jazz or MTV's True Life: I Have a Trans Parent, we are given another instance of trans-centered cultural production. But in many senses increased representation remains the only real form of power or progress that trans individuals are being allowed. The reality for many transgender individuals is far less glossily edited. Just this past weekend, for instance, the 21st known transgender person was killed in the United States.
"This is a really vulnerable moment for the trans community," actress and model Hari Nef told Warner Channel Brasil on Sunday night's Emmy Awards red carpet. "Regardless of all of the strides that we've made with representation, it's dangerous, and we need to keep pushing forward."
At its core, Strut is a show about people who have long been told they can't seeking to prove otherwise — and who can't relate to that? The show presents the transgender experience as a human one, mixing trans-specific experiences...
... while layering in more universal, often mundane ones, like waking up late for work or having a job interview not go your way. The result is an unexpectedly refreshing take on the "peek behind the curtain" reality show trope.
"Everyone's saying just be in the moment and enjoy the ride because you're never going to get it again," Laith De La Cruz, the sole transgender male featured on the show, said in an interview. "In the beginning, I was very focused on my image and afraid of how I would come off to the public, thinking I have to watch what I say, I can't curse; I censored myself. Eventually, as time went on, I realized that that wasn't me, and I opened up more."
"I was different," castmate Arisce Wanzer said an interview. "I know how I could possibly be portrayed. I know what I look like to people. A lot of people say they don't care what people think. I genuinely don't care what people think. 'Is that a man?' Maybe; maybe. Who cares! You don't pay my rent and I don't know you so it doesn't matter. I go into everything with no expectations because then I can't be disappointed. I went into this thinking, 'I hope this is my big break, and if it's not, whatever, none of those other things were either.'"
Mic: To start, what has the feedback been like thus far from the trans community?
Laith De La Cruz: She tells me not to read the comments...
Arisce Wanzer: I don't read the comments because I'm Madonna.
LD: ... but it looks like it's mostly positive. People can't wait to see the show. Any increase in visibility for our community is a positive.
How do you feel about the term 'transgender' being used as a qualifier to model?
AW: I kind of like it because it puts me at the Claudia Schiffer level because I'm a transgender supermodel. Because I'm 1 of 10 that anyone knows about so that puts me at a Naomi Campbell level. If you're going to get specific, I don't care. A lot of people have this misconception that trans people are trying to fool people. Like, I'm putting on clothes, why are you so upset? Fabric does not have a gender. Everyone chill out.
LD: For right now I find it necessary. Until trans is understood fully, you need the label because otherwise we become invisible again and back to the outskirts of society. Hopefully as people open their minds and hearts and try to understand who we are, things will change. A lot of people believe they've never met a trans person, but we've been here all along.
What about the focus on trans bodies? How do you reconcile those in the trans community calling you out for what some might call passing privilege?
LD: I have gotten feedback from the trans community that the reason why I have gotten this attention is because I have cis privilege, like I have the privilege of not being clocked, if we're going to use those terms. My goal has always been to help the community as much as I can. That's going to take time, obviously, and people need to get to know me. Right now I'm just an image of something and hopefully that can change once the series premieres.
AW: I made my body the way I did on purpose. Mine was completely calculated. I saw the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show when I was 14 and thought, "That's what I want to do." So I took the dietary, exercise precautions, did my homework, did what I had to do to get the body I wanted. I do this to wear clothes — that's why I do this. Everyone should have the body that they want for what they want to do and not feel pressured to look like anyone else.
LD: To piggyback off of that, this is the body that I've always wanted. With regard to the attention, I think that's more something that's done with men because I've seen, I call them the body boys, guys that do the underwear shoots, and I look through what people say and it's the same thing, this thirst for that body type, the adonis form is what i've read it be called. People are fascinated by that and I think there's added sensationalism because I happen to be trans.
Do you feel a lot of pressure in representing the trans experience despite being two of a population of millions?
AW: The pressure is lifted by having an ensemble cast of trans people. We are all so incredibly different, not just in how we look, but in our goals, experiences, backgrounds, social classes, etc. When people box us all into being transgender sex workers that work the Meatpacking District, maybe that's someone's reality, but that's not everyone's reality. When you stereotype us into that box, you end up looking really stupid. Not just to us, but period.
LD: For me there was a lot of pressure being the only guy on the show. There are very few representation of trans-masculine men in the media. There's Chaz Bono and that's really it. Like I said, I did get some criticism from the trans community saying that I passed for a cis male and that it's not fair.
AW: Life's not fair.
LD: It's a problem but at the same time I think me getting this opportunity opens the door for that conversation. It starts with maybe this door opening and then other guys as well can have the opportunity to speak about people that aren't, what is the word that's not the other one? I said it yesterday ...
LD: Not non-binary. There's non-binary people, there's gender non-conforming people and people on the spectrum ...
AW: Some people don't mind how you perceive them. Like I'm borderline non-binary. I'm a transgender woman. If someone's like "Is that a man?" I say, "Well, you're not wrong, but you're not right."
LD: But that's just your experience. I'm not visibly trans and my gender expression is a bit more binary so I think I've had a different experience.
What do you want the general public to know and understand about being trans that they don't already?
LD: It's as broad as being human. Everyone's experience is completely different, the common theme here: we should all be viewed as individuals.
AW: I don't want people to think like me, I just want them to think. Like, I want you to look at all of our backgrounds, all of our stories, everything we have to say and offer, all of our clothes — because mine are amazing, the entire season — and I want you to really think, "Why am I judging this person so much?" We're just people like everyone else, we have problems, flaws, struggles, some of us are entitled.
LD: Who? Me?
AW: No, I was flipping my hair. Look, a lot of people think that trans people are just marginalized, that we go home and cry in our makeup mirror every day, like, "Oh, I wish I could be my real self." No, I go home and I am just a mean bitch just like I am when I leave the house. We've got our Regina George's and we've got our Matilda's. We're all just people though. Stop putting everyone in a box to make yourself feel safe.
Where is the cultural conversation around trans currently and where do you want to see it go?
AW: The conversation is on pause. Yeah, we're visible, yeah people see it, but it's mostly headlines.
LD: It's sensationalized. It's one person, a star, and they put them in a headline to get people talking, but it's usually to get people who don't understand talking and make them angry.
AW: It's always borderline negative, never educational, it's never informed or well-researched. I'm always irritated. I can never get through the whole article. I'm going back to bed.
LD: She don't like stupid.
AW: I need people to catch up. You can inform yourself now. I remember being 18 and saying, "I think I might be trans, lemme look this up." And I remember looking it up an thinking, "Ah crap, this is going to suck. I've got to come out again! I've got to fill out paperwork! And maybe do surgery? Sounds like it sucks. I wouldn't wish this upon my worst enemy." But at least I'll be happy. Because you can either be miserable for everyone else or be happy for yourself. I want society to catch up. Again, we're people, chill, it's not that serious, and if you haven't seen of us before, you should probably move.
Where does fashion fit into this conversation? Is the fashion industry at the apex of diversity?
AW: Meh. It can't be tokenized. You can't hire us for one campaign and say, "Oh look, we've got this he/she thing going on." You need to hire a bunch of us: an asian girl, a black girl, a girl from Nigeria, a girl from South Africa that is white. Diversity, that's the real world, so show the real world, beause the real world actually buys the clothes.
LD: I'm going to be in the middle here. It's definitely a step forward but a lot of people need to realize when they say things like, "This trans talk is is being thrown in my face." That's because it went from 0 to a little bit of something and it's still just a little bit of something.
Tell me the best thing about being trans.
AW: I can say whatever I want and it has less of a hit. Because I'm a marginalized person being black and trans. I'll tell people, "Fuck you. I can say what I want because we're being killed in the streets and no one's being punished for it." I'm freed up to just go off at the mouth.
LD: Not being able to live on auto-pilot, which can be both good and bad. We always have to be conscious of what's going on around us, sometimes it's for safety, who's looking, what's going on, especially depending on what neighborhood you're walking around in. This is moreso for trans women and even moreso for trans women of color. Being that self-aware is actually a positive, despite being exhausting.
AW: All my male privilege is gone. [Laughs]
LD: I would never go back. I'm so happy now. I like that I can see both sides of things.
What message do you have for LGBTQ youth, who might tune into a show like this and for the first time see themselves represented on screen.
AW: I'd like them to see that they can be strong they can be powerful, they can be headstrong and pushy and driven, all these things, and still have dreams that they can go after and achieve. I wish I would have had me on tv as a kid because we had nothing, we had Boys Don't Cry and I was like, uh, this is depressing and then we had To Wong Fu, also depressing ... very good though. I'm excited for the next generation to be jerks like everyone else.
LA: I never anticipated this would have the impact that it is having. When I first started doing this, it was more for me. It was "let's see what I can do with this career I've always wanted." And then I started getting these emails from mothers and young people who were questioning their gender or their sexuality saying myself and the other girls on the show were so inspirational and that they were so happy that they could finally see themselves in someone on television. I almost started crying. It gives me hope that people can change. For a long time, I thought we would just live in a world where we would always be marginalized and viewed as these freak shows and now these young kids are coming up and it makes me realize, "Holy shit," there's hope.
Strut premieres Tuesday, September 20th at 9pm Eastern on Oxygen.