Her story

Her Story: A Feminist Review

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Jeffry Iovannone, PhD

Jeffry J. Iovannone is a queer feminist scholar-activist, who has a PhD in American Studies.

Her Story is a 6-episode new-media series that premiered online in 2016. Set in Los Angeles, the show explores the dating lives of trans and queer women. Produced and written by activists Jen Richards and Laura Zak, the show centers on the ways in which desire and identity intersect, namely the difficulties often faced by trans women when they attempt to engage in romantic relationships and navigate their position within larger queer-women spaces.

While other shows such as I Am Cait, Orange is the New Black, Sense8, Transparent, and Laverne Cox’s documentary The T Word have brought increased representation of transgender characters to popular culture, these productions have not significantly delved into the romantic lives of trans people, namely, trans women. As a new-media series, Her Story is accessible to anyone with internet access, unlike the shows mentioned above, which require a cable, Netflix, or Amazon Prime subscription.

Each episode of Her Story is approximately 7-10 minutes in length, and the entire first season can be viewed in under an hour. Despite the short length of each episode, Her Story is compactly written in a way that allows for a deep exploration of trans and queer women’s issues. In this sense, the show functions as a wonderful teaching tool that highlights current issues faced by trans women through an engaging and sexy narrative. At its core, Her Story centers on the blossoming relationship between Violet, also known as Vi (played by Jen Richards), a trans woman, and Allie (played by Laura Zak), a queer cis journalist who is just beginning to understand the struggles of the trans community. Vi and Allie’s burgeoning romance intersects with the stories of Vi’s friend Paige (played by Angelica Ross), a black trans woman who is an attorney for Lambda Legal, and the queer cis women who comprise Allie’s circle of friends, namely Lisa (played by Caroline Whitney Smith), a lesbian activist who does not see trans women as “real” women.

her story
Vi (left), played by Jen Richards and Allie (right), played by Laura Zak

Let’s take a further look at Her Story by unpacking the major issues pertaining to trans and queer women the show addresses:

Casting

Unlike shows such as Transparent and films such as The Danish Girl, Her Story casts transgender actresses to play the roles of lead trans characters (Richards and Ross). While I do think it is possible for a cis actor to play a trans character with accuracy and sensitivity, in our current culture, given the intense scrutiny and suspicion faced by trans women, it is politically efficacious for trans actresses to play trans characters. When a cisgender man is cast to play a transgender woman, as is often the case, viewers may dismiss this character as simply a “man in a dress,” or as inauthentic. Because our culture at present finds it difficult to see trans women as women, it makes sense for trans women to have the ability to tell their own stories and to play trans characters in television and film.

Un-freaking/Humanizing Trans Women

In an article I wrote about the first season of I Am Cait, I outlined the two most common narratives used to represent transgender women in popular culture: the freak narrative and the transition narrative. The freak narrative positions trans women as spectacles for the entertainment of cisgender viewers (think of talk shows like Jerry Springer or Maury). The transition narrative represents the experiences of trans women solely through the lens of medical transition. Both dehumanize trans women by positioning them as neither fully human nor as “real” women. Rather, trans women occupy a liminal space (not man/not woman) that calls their gender authenticity, and thus their humanity, into question. Her Story un-freaks, or humanizes, trans women by avoiding common stereotypes and caricatures of trans women as deviant, fetishized, or hypersexualized, and instead represents trans women as fully human characters with complex lives, experiences, desires, and motivations. In the first episode, Vi directly jokes about the fact that many people, queer people included, only know about trans women through Jerry Springer. Vi’s and Paige’s experiences of coming out and transition are not a central focus of the storyline and are discussed and referenced only when doing so makes sense for their character development. For example, Vi explains to Allie how transition can impact dating and one’s sense of their sexuality, and Paige discusses her conservative upbringing with James (played by Christian Ochoa), the man she is dating.

Dating and Cisgender Privilege

Perhaps above all else, Her Story highlights the privileges cis people have when it comes to dating. Unlike trans people, and in particular, trans women, cis people do not have to worry about when, if, or in what way to disclose their cis status and whether or not they will be subjected to violence on the basis of their gender identity. On dating websites and apps, cis people can be assured that, for the most part, being cis will not work against them when trying to find a potential sexual or romantic partner. Cis people are also not expected to explain what it means to be cis or the history of their gender identity to their partner. Cisgender dating privilege is highlighted in the show by Vi’s explanation of her gender identity, sexuality, and coming out process to Allie and by Paige’s struggles over when or if she will disclose she is trans to James.

Disjunctions Between Queer and Trans Communities

Her Story powerfully illustrates common disjunctions between feminist queer cisgender women and trans women of all orientations. These conflicts are depicted through Lisa, the show’s primary antagonist and poster-girl for TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). TERFs, like Lisa, draw their arguments about trans women from radical second wave feminists such as Janice Raymond, who believed in the primacy of biological sex differences. In her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, Raymond infamously argued that “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” In Raymond’s estimation, transgender women can never be “real” women; they can only imitate womanhood because they were male-identified at birth. Lisa, a lesbian activist who works at a women’s shelter, has a similarly difficult time accepting transgender women as women. Lisa has fought hard to gain the respect she believes she deserves as a queer cisgender woman, and is skeptical of forming alliances with trans women, going so far as to state that it makes one “less lesbian to date a trans woman.”

Lisa’s opinions are in direct contrast to those of Paige, who believes that trans women are women and that when we do not regard trans women as such, we put their lives at risk. Tensions come to a head when Lisa outs Paige to the media and, by extension, to James. Paige is representing a trans woman who sought access to a women’s shelter and was denied on the basis of her trans identity. Lisa, who argues that biological sex equals gender and therefore trans women are really men, believes Paige is bias in her representation of her client, and exposes her in a misguided attempt to enact justice. I won’t attempt to describe Paige’s brilliant and incisive response to Lisa; you’ll have to watch it for yourself.

Conversely, the developing relationship between Vi and Allie can be read as a model for queer and trans collaboration. Allie readily admits that, as a queer cisgender woman who writes about social justice for a living, she does not know as much as she should about transgender issues. While Allie’s attempts to solicit an interview from Vi for her next story initially veer into the territory of the freak narrative, her willingness to learn and empathize quickly transforms Vi from journalistic curiosity, to friend and integral member of her community, to potential romantic partner. In turn, Vi’s openness to explain aspects of her experience as a trans woman helps to forge a relationship based on commonality and connection across differences between herself and Allie.

Sex Work and Police Brutality

Viewers will immediately notice there is something amiss about the relationship between Vi and her boyfriend Mark (played by Josh Wingate), whose behavior shifts from subtly to outright abusive over the course of the season. Vi eventually discloses to Allie that, like many other trans women struggling to find employment and finance their transitions, she worked as an escort. Vi learned about the escort service from members of her trans support group in New York, and Mark was one of her clients. The two then formed a relationship not based on mutual support and respect, but on Mark’s need for superiority and control, and Vi’s need to access economic resources. The abuse Vi faces is also representative of the complicated relationship trans people often have with law enforcement. When Allie suggests Vi report Mark to the police, Vi explains that she is afraid because in the past when she sought help the police laughed at her, dismissing her claims of abuse because of the male gender marker on her ID.

Allie’s openness to Vi’s history presents the reality of sex work and abuse for many trans women in a non-judgmental manner. Rather, sex work is presented as a legitimate means of economic survival many trans women must turn to as a result of the specific ways in which they are oppressed, as opposed to the product of trans women’s supposed “deviance.”

Language and Naming

There are several instances when characters use the term “tranny,” which, to many trans feminine people, is regarded as a slur. Others, however, argue that “tranny” is a reclaimed identity. Her Story includes the term, in my opinion, not to be intentionally provocative, but to engage viewers in real debates about language in marginalized and activist communities.

These debates represent what Julia Serano refers to as “the activist language merry-go-round.” Serano uses this phrase to represent instances within marginalized or activist communities when arguments for word annihilation (when we want someone to stop using a particular word because we regard it as outdated, problematic, or hurtful) and word substitution (when we want to use one word, which we see as more accurate or useful, in place of another) are made. Serano further argues that we see this “merry-go-round” of language when the communities whom certain terms represent are socially stigmatized. The root issue, therefore, is not language itself, but the stigma attached to those represented by certain labels or words. In using the term “tranny,” Her Story asks viewers to critically engage in debates surrounding language, the way language can be used to affirm or demean certain identities, and larger issues of stigma and marginalization that lurk beneath the surface of words themselves.

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The importance of Her Story lies in the show’s ability to dismantle the tendency to fetishize and objectify trans women by conveying the message that trans women are women through the growing relationship between Vi and Allie. As the show’s director, Sydney Freeland, says: “At its heart, Her Story is about two people getting to know each other… [and] who doesn’t love a good love story?” In a metafictional moment (an instance where a cultural text is aware of itself as a cultural production) Allie, in reference to her article on trans issues, tells Vi there is nothing like “the power of a true story well told.” Though Allie is referring to her work, her statement also pertains to Her Story as a whole. When we have the space and the means to narrate our own stories in our own way, there is no telling what change we might inspire.

One comment

  1. Thanks for bring Her Story to our attention. It is a wonderful series, sensitive, well done, respectful, honest, qualities not often found in shows dealing with trans issues. Would love to see this made into a regular episode TV series, perhaps it would open some hearts and minds.

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