Did anyone else watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit last night?
The initial victim in this episode was a dude (for a change), and it featured an overtly mannish lesbian bouncer (played by Lea DeLaria), lacquered strippers with their T&A hanging out, a graduate student ethnographer working as a dancer/sex worker, and a number of transgendered people (one played by Daniela Sea of The L Word), including a young teenager (a quite moving Bridger Zadina).
Although L&O:SVU always shows quite a bit of gore, and (duh) regularly deals with sexual violence, it almost never has a disclaimer. Last night’s ep did: the producers apparently felt that something about the episode was “not suitable for all viewers.” What on earth could that be?
The plot, briefly: Hailey was born male but identifies as female. Her mother accepts her child as she is, her father–who was the victim of the sexual violence outside a strip club–does not, and their marriage is dissolving as a result. There was a lot of clanky, public service-y exposition about what transgender is, but I think the show’s heart was mostly in the right place on that front.
Which is not to say that it was overly simplistic, or an unproblematic presentation of transpeople and their allies. Hailey is a jerk, no doubt: violent, disobedient, and suicidal–in other words, TV-speak for “hot mess”–and criminal: apparently she’s involved with a trans group called “The Children of Ariel” (a reference to the Disney mermaid, apparently?) who have been stealing hormones from pharmaceutical companies (An interesting question is raised but quickly dispensed with: do transgendered people deserve “corrective” hormone treatment?). Her girlness is only questioned by her dad, however. Viewers are meant to understand, I think, that Hailey really is a girl.
Her sympathetic school counselor, a statuesque African-American women with a shaved head [SPOILERS HERE AND BELOW] is also revealed to be transgendered and is found legally culpable for attacking Hailey’s father, and sentenced to eight years in prison.
The image of transpeople is both criminal and sympathetic. I read it as “treating people as less than human really fucks them up and leads them to extreme acts,” but I don’t know that I’m the average SVU viewer. The father was less sympathetic, generally, in that his rejection of his daughter was almost complete. However, after the counselor’s horrifying testimony about her assault at the hands of three men, he redeems himself by changing his mind about his child, and even asking the prosecutor to plea-bargain the case down.
The representation was further complicated by having a maternal African-American woman sacrificing herself to save a little white child (which seems to lead to the healing of the straight white couple’s marital schism, as well), but I was pretty surprised to see any representation of transpeople on primetime network television that wasn’t a ridiculous caricature.
So, an improvement, I guess, but not unqualified. And just what was “not appropriate” here? Thoughts from viewers? Any trans Harpies out there?