By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
When it comes to transgender issues, the media does not fail to disappoint.
On the daytime soap opera, “All My Children,” a “flamboyant rock star” character by the name of Zarf will be undergoing gender transition, becoming a woman named Zoe. The introduction of this storyline has met with much hype from the network’s PR machine, citing Zoe as being “the first transgender character to make a transition from one gender to another during a U.S. television drama.” It doesn’t seem like that big a deal when you have to point out that such things have been seen outside of dramas, outside of U.S. television and involving characters who may have already transitioned.
I want to tell you this is a great story line, and that everything about it will benefit transgender people as a whole – but like I said above, the media never fails to disappoint me. It may well do a fair job, but in the end this is not about telling an honest tale: it is about ratings.
“All My Children” is not exactly a ratings powerhouse, and this is a desperate attempt to at least get someone to watch the show: even if it is just those of us who are transgender, and who are hungry to hear our stories be told.
Writers for “All My Children” have made no commitment to the character, as far as the long-term goes. There is no decision if they’ll follow Zoe all that way to the operating table – assuming, of course, that Zoe opts for genital reassignment – and little to keep them behind the character if any of the so-called “pro family” groups decide to make an example of this.
More than this, the soap opera’s own press release tips the hand on how they really feel about their character. Zoe is referred to as “Zarf” and “he,” with any idea that this character is already – on one level or another – a woman left far, far away from things.
To me, there’s a couple ways this will likely go, and we can look at plenty of examples in the media past to see where Zoe might be in the next year or so. Let’s begin with the days of Jodie Dallas on “Soap.” While “Soap” was a humorous jab at soap operas, one could likely look at the Jodie character as a good template for Zoe: some strong, honest story lines about transgender issues, followed eventually by the straightening out of the character. Jodie started as a gay male who was intending to become a woman, yet by the shows end was happily male, and happily married.
Or Zoe could go the way of Erica Bettis, the transsexual character on the ill-fated “The Education of Max Bickford.” She was a strong starter, a postoperative transsexual who served as foil for the curmudgeon in the title role. She did not last long, becoming window dressing before vanishing completely from the show before it finally shuttered. As I alluded to above, it’s probably most likely that Zoe will fade away if they interest isn’t there, or if the show feels she is more a liability than asset.
There is a third possibility, and that is that Zoe becomes a character to rival Hayley Cropper on the long-standing British soap-opera, Coronation Street. Like Erica Bettis, Hayley is a post-operative transsexual, but unlike Erica, Hayley has been the center of many deep plot lines in which the character ended up a hit. This would be preferred – but highly unlikely.
In the end, Zoe will be what the writers and the people who are writing the paychecks of those writers wish. For now, while striving for a few extra rating points, it is easy to try and create a story line that might capitalize on a perceived success of transgender story lines in Hollywood. Call it “transploitation,” if you will, because it is little more than that: an attempt to use the trans story to sell a few more ad spaces and get the stagelights lit. By now, we’re used to that, because the media never fails to disappoint.