Sunday, March 09, 2008

Alexis Meade Is More Important Than You Think

Back in 1967 an African-American actress contemplated leaving the network television show she was on and going back to Broadway. She was the only African-American in the integrated cast of this show and was upset that she wasn't getting to do anything besides be in her words 'a glorified telephone operator.'

At an NAACP event that week she was approached by a man who said that a fan of the show wanted to talk to her. She agreed to meet him, and was stunned when the fan turned out to be the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

According to the actress, Dr. King told her that the show was one of the few programs that he and Mrs. King allowed his children to watch. He told her that her character was important because the show portrayed men and women truly as equals. When she mentioned to Dr. King that she was going to quit the show, he said, "You can't do that. Your character is the first non-stereotypical role on television and is in a position of authority. People who don't look like us see us as we should be seen, as equals." He went on to tell the actress, "Don't you see, Star Trek has changed the face of television."

The actress then told Gene Roddenberry that she was returning to the show.

You Trekkies probably guessed that I was talking about Nichelle Nichols and her role as Lt. Uhura. There's a reason why I'm bringing this story up, and it dovetails with my complaints about the negative images of African-American transwomen on television.

What Dr. King knew and I know is that image is everything. Dr. King spoke and wrote volumes about equality and brotherhood, but a TV show demonstrated it. Star Trek inspired an African-American girl from Chicago named Mae Jemison to reach for the stars and become an astronaut. A little girl in New York named Caryn Johnson was inspired by seeing Nichelle Nichols on television to become an actress. As Whoopi Goldberg, she landed a recurring role as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mae Jemison even had a cameo role on Star Trek: The Next Generation herself.

Rebecca Romijn's Alexis Meade character is that important, peeps. While Ms. Romijn isn't transgender, her character, like Uhura 40 years before is a representative of a group marginalized in American society. Alexis is not only intelligent and beautiful, but is shown in a position of power and influence. The reactions of her family members ranging from her mother Claire's total acceptance of her daughter to her father Bradford's outright rrejection and her brother Daniel struggling with the changes in their relationship mirror what goes on in our lives.

She also gives non-transgender people a glimpse of the prejudice we face, the alienation that we experience from friends and family alike, our complicated love lives, and the gut wrenching emotions we go through before and after transition. I could write posts every day for the next ten years about these issues, but a top rated TV show such as Ugly Betty in the one hour it's on the air reaches more people than Bilerico and my TransGriot one combined.

Like the unknown positive effects of Nichelle Nichols' Uhura that became apparent decades later, how many transkids who are being teased, tormented and bullied flip on Ugly Betty and are reassured by Rebecca's character they aren't alone, they aren't freaks and they can one day BE Alexis Meade? How many of those transkids will be inspired to do great things because of this character?

How many people who didn't have a clue about some of the crap we transgender people go through, see her character, emphatize with Alexis and now support us in our fight to get included in ENDA and hate crimes legislation?

How many people in 'flyover country' who believe that all transwomen look like NFL linebackers have their minds opened to the fact that transwomen not only exist, but are smart, attractive and talented people that can do more than turn tricks?

Even Rebecca Romijn realizes how important this character is. She's stated in some interviews she's in constant communication with her transgender friends to ensure she gets it right.

So yes people, Rebecca Romijn's Alexis Meade character has the potential to one day be as important to the eventual acceptance of transgender people as human beings in the United States as Nichelle Nichols' role of Lt. Uhura was for African-Americans.

And it's why I'll continue to push for realistic portrayals of African-American transpeople until it happens.

TransGriot note: This post is also on The Bilerico Project


Curious said...

I enjoyed your post. It was put together and argued well. But I do have one question however.

Now I have never seen Ugly Betty before so I dont't really know what the show is about or how it is written, but don't you think that in order to show "realistic portrayals" of transgendered characters they should use transgendered people. Otherwise you end up with just another version of the Amos and Andy show, or the Charlie Chan Movies where no one related to the central characters?

Genaro Urso said...

I hope you don’t mind if I reply to this story from a different slant. On the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line Jim Brown of the NFL Hall of Fame gave a interview with ESPN. He explained that that accomplishment was one of the most groundbreaking events of the 20th century. He claimed the event of the historic signing with Branch Rickey was crucial in breaking down barriers. I think so much credit goes to Nichelle Nichols' and Gene Roddenberry for their role in history in the same way. They were under pressure to cancel the show if they kept her on. In one episode where she kissed Capt. Kirk the sensor’s tried to keep the episode from airing. Gene and Nichelle maintained and as we say they went where no man or woman had gone before.

Monica Roberts said...

In an ideal world, it would be great to use transgender people for these roles. But as Candis Cayne will tell you, even she has to battle the ignorance sometimes.

In Dirty Sexy Money they electronicaly lowered her voice even though she and many transwomen DO NOT always have deep voices. Hell, I have a biowoman freind back home who has a deeper voice than I do and she's girly girl.

In Kerry Washington's upcoming movie playig a transwoman, she had my friend Valerie Spencer on set as an advisor.

So if you get actress like Ms Washington and Ms. Romijn who are serious about their work and sensitive to those audiences, you avoid 'Charlie Chan Syndrome'