Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world were more like a TV show? Things would be so much prettier and more interesting, with lots of emotional exchanges and plot lines full of what you crave, the kind of stories that take you for a ride while affirming what you already believe, that there are people in the world less smart than you.
Television, though, is about art, not commerce. The goal of commercial television is to simply keep you pumped up enough to stay tuned in to see what happens after the next commercial break. In an information economy, attention is the ultimate currency, so grabbing your attention, holding it and bringing you back for more is the holy grail of any TV producer.
The secret to that goal is simple: emotional manipulation. Just as Roger Ailes knew networks that claimed a conservative viewpoint had failed in the past, so he called his network “fair and balanced” producers know that people don’t want to think they are being manipulated, so they call their product “reality television.”
People will pay more to be entertained than educated.
— Johnny Carson
If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you.
If you really make them think, they’ll hate you.
— Donald Robert Perry
Today, transgender has collided with the world of “reality television” in a very potent way. The subtle, challenging nuanced world I have explored for the last thirty years has been harnessed for sensational entertainment, full of glitz, glam, pretension and huge bags of emotional titillation.
At the junction of art and commerce lies the audience. Without them, you don’t have the resources to put on a show. With them, the shows you put on have to satisfy, get word of mouth, bring people back. Most theatre companies live hand to mouth, so there is no wonder they take advantage of the season to do a fun and heart-warming holiday show, popular enough to pay for some risks on the rest of the year’s schedule.
Lifetime has a new show out called UnREAL, a scripted series about what happens backstage at a show very much like The Bachelor. The goal for the crew is simple: to make compelling, must watch television. They may want to make good or transformative television, but they know that if it doesn’t excite an audience, they will be soon out of a job, will not be able to move up in status.
Once you have a trend on television, one that is proven to draw viewers, everybody piles on. People who make cheap talk television follow the bigger players, but they don’t have the time or staff to do original content. Instead, they draw in commentators to talk about all the exciting things that could happen, weaving tales about what the visible players are “really thinking and feeling.”
I have seen examples of how the talking heads, the self appointed experts, are trying to squeeze transpeople for great sound bytes they can sell to TV producers, trying hard to get to the top of the guest lists, to make a name and a career.
Television producers message to those they want to get on television is simple: we will help you tell your story to the world.
This is a very appealing pitch to newly out people who believe that their story is simple enough and compelling enough to get them attention, sympathy and maybe even fame.
It is only after you have seen your story flattened and twisted to fit into a TV producer’s story line that you begin to understand the trade off you make for that kind of visibility. This is why most of the people on the tube talking about trans are just coming out, simple and malleable in a way that mature transpeople with rich and complex understanding of their own lives are not. They understand the price of having to play the simplification game.
TV audiences love what they love, the old tropes, the visual stimulation of blatant cross dressing, the affirmation of their deeply held beliefs and understandings. It is the job of TV producers to cater to those audiences, to grab the eyeballs and deliver them for sponsor’s messages. Anything beyond that is just gravy.
If you have read this blog, you know that I don’t chase down the hypothetical, don’t comment on what someone else might be feeling or should be doing.
When Daniel Harris began his famous troll on QStudy-L in 1998, first asking what a theoretical transsexual lesbian of colour might think, I immediately shut down his game by saying that you would have to ask them. All queer studies need to be based in actual narrative, not in projecting and assigning motives to someone’s choices, usually motives you can trash for your own purposes.
Transgender emergence in the world is hard enough. We have to negotiate so many forces, outside of us and internalized by us, that we struggle to find our own truth. We can never express that truth whole and complete anyway, for shimmering reality always eludes the kind of snapshots of moments that television can do.
Life is may be made up of moments, but when those moments are captured and edited to tell a story designed to excite an audience, the truth becomes fractured and irrelevant. As transpeople we may imagine being able to control our own story, but once we farm it out to someone whose goals and priorites are very different than our own, we surrender it. (1998).
Selling your story to the media, letting them produce it into compelling television may seem like a wonderful dream, like being named Queen For A Day. The price paid for living in the interest and approval of an audience, though, is high. We may have become a nation where fame is commoditized and valued, where being stars just for selling our images and stories to the media can make us famous (or at least notorious), but that is far, far from “reality.”
TV producers are good at telling a story. The story they tell about what they do is one of service, connecting good people like you to audiences who can help. No one wants to think of themselves as a bad person, so we all have good intentions, at least to ourselves. The old internet rule applies, though: if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
You can be sure that anyone who is an old hand at the fame game is playing along to get theirs. They sell their the rights to their lives, sell their dignity, to production companies to get what they want in the world, from cash to fashion to fame.
Seeing transgender be the new trend upsets me, but as Jennifer Wiener reminds us in the NY Times, women have long been living under this kind of production pressure. This too shall pass, and by the very blare, the understanding of transpeople will continue to expand. That doesn’t mean the coverage doesn’t still make me queasy, though.
Life is not a TV show. As an old TV producer, I understand the difference. I just wish that more TV viewers did.