Her Story and authentic trans media

If I haven’t encouraged you to watch Her Story yet, I apologise, and I encourage you to go watch it — it’s a short webseries, and it’s well worth your time. The show is written, directed, produced, and acted by trans women, including women of colour, and it shows in the serious, thoughtful, and authentic depiction of trans lives. That makes it stand out from supposedly ‘groundbreaking’ media like Transparentwhich is painfully transphobic and exclusionary — and it’s deeply frustrating that Her Story hasn’t picked up the steam it richly deserves and gone big on a major streaming platform. Here’s hoping that happens, and soon, because I want to see more.

The series is about living and dating while trans and queer, the complicated lives of people who live on the fringes, the discoveries that people make as they navigate a world in which they are not, in fact, the ultimate authorities and experts on things. There’s a queer character who doesn’t understand transness until she actually starts interacting with trans women, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist who takes vicious pleasure in her cruelty, a trans woman of colour who discusses the layered dangers in being outed. There’s a lot to delve into here, and for all these reasons, you should watch it.

But you should also watch it because when we talk about authentic, real, and vitally needed trans media, this is what we’re talking about. It’s produced through a trans lens and while it’s about and by the trans community, it’s for anyone to watch, and could in fact be really informative, striking viewing for cis viewers who are accustomed to seeing things presented in their own comfort zone. Her Story confronts the viewer’s social attitudes, pushes the viewer to rethink beliefs about transness and what it means to be trans, challenges people to question the other media they consume.

Marginalised groups have a tremendously difficult time getting themselves heard in Hollywood and other spaces. It’s extremely difficult to break in, with people getting crumbs more often than fair treatment — this series itself is evidence of that, with Jill Soloway getting Amazon’s backing for her series while the crew on Her Story are eking it out on a YouTube series even though they’re fantastic, talented individuals. Hollywood wants cis voices telling trans stories, cis people in trans roles, the cis lens the only lens for interpreting transness. In this sense, Her Story is radical and even frightening.

But it’s also the standard by which everyone should be judging media. Watching Her Story as a transgender person gives me a sense of pride and connection with my community, a sense of coming home. I see people that look familiar to me and feel like members of my community, though I’m not a trans woman and the focus of the show is on trans women. I see a world in which people like me get to tell our own stories instead of watching other people tell them to us, and that has a tremendous impact on me as a viewer. These are the stories I want to see told, the people I want to see telling them.

People often suggest that this is about merit — if it was, programming like this would be doing much better than it is, because this is really excellent media, with sharp scripts, great acting, and superb production values. You cannot find aesthetic fault in Her Story, which is certainly better than some things streaming media sites have eagerly picked up. The ‘we can’t just promote something because it’s by marginalised people, whether or not it’s any good’ argument is wearing thin in the face of these realities. Her Story is good, it should have been picked up from the pilot, and it wasn’t. One very strong reason for that is, clearly, the fact that it comes from the trans community itself. Profiteering off calls for ‘more trans stuff’ if you’re cis is fine, but telling your own stories if you’re trans is not.

People talk about this as the time of the trans tipping point, a time of growing social awareness. Yet we still see cis women and, more insultingly still, cis men, in trans roles — we see Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in a film that won critical acclaim even though it grossly slandered her and completely misrepresented the trans experience. This is the kind of media we’re presented with as a community: Nothing, or things that treat us like objects to be leered at and speculated over. This is the kind of media that cis people devour, feeding the exploitative market for stories of transness that look nothing like our own.

This is a year when scores of states are putting bathroom bills on the ballot and attempting to force them through the legislature. That doesn’t sound like a tipping point. That sounds, in fact, like rising bigotry, partially in response to the growing profile of the trans community. That doesn’t sound like a growing world of tolerance fostered by trans representations in pop culture. It sounds like conservatives squirming with delight at the thought that they can prevent access to basic accommodations for transgender people. Transgender people are still being beaten and killed, prevented from accessing housing and employment protections. They’re still being left out of the advocacy of lots of organisations that proudly label themselves as ‘LGBQT-focused.’ They’re still encountering hate and rage at their very existence when they dare to go out in public.

But sure, say this is the year of the trans tipping point and the trans community is wildly welcome everywhere it goes. If that were the case, Her Story would be unremarkable, just another piece of trans media in a landscape littered with diverse representations of the trans experience. It wouldn’t be something that trans people are unspeakably, almost pathetically, excited about in the face of a complete lack of media to compare it against or discuss it alongside.

Image: answer prints, SalTheColorGeek, Flickr