Sense8 & The OA || Trans Representation in Netflix Sci-Fis

Netflix original series have been carving out much-needed spaces for transgender representation this year. While the year 2016 has been an unrelenting shitshow for women, people of colorthe LGBTQ+ community, and humanity at large, a glimmer of solace and social progress can be found in the strong casting and authentic characters of Netflix’s original science fiction series Sense8 and The OA. 

A Brief Look at Recent Trans TV History

Before Sense8 and The OA, a handful of widely streamed web series have and continue to feature trans characters—Transparent and Orange Is The New Black, most notably. These shows present extraordinary events within “normal circumstances”— in Transparent,  Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura Pfefferman, a transgender mother who undergoes gender reassignment surgery; in Orange is the New Black, viewers get an inside look at a women’s prison in America, discovering the complex lives of incarcerated LGBT women—including a transgender woman Sophia—played by Laverne Cox.

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Cox via Splash

Laverne Cox is a transgender woman, while Jeffrey Tambor is, alas, a cisgender white dude. Both actors have been accoladed for their performances in these series, respectively, with Cox being the first trans woman of color to be nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series (2014). Jeffrey Tambor received an Emmy in 2016 for Best Actor in a Comedy Series.

[It is worth noting that even in a space carved out specifically for trans folks, a straight white male took home an Emmy—Laverne, did not. Happily, Laverne Cox has landed some incredible opportunities despite this loss, including being on the cover of Time in 2014, and later producing and starring in her own show, TRANSform Me on VH1. Laverne also received the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series in 2015 and 2016.]

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Tambor, to his credit, has been quoted saying: “I just hope there are more opportunities for transgender talent. I would very much like to be the last cisgender male playing a transgender female. I think we are there now.” 

Yes, We Are There Now

A promising moment has arrived for transgender actors this year. Not only did Netflix cast openly transgender talent for their productions, but the characters portrayed are authentic, real, and not at all tokenized.

Within fantasy and science fiction frameworks specifically, transgender folks are not made Other. In television that gives us imagined creatures of other dimensions and instances of people transcending space and time, human relationships are examined in a different, more acutely observational light. LGBT relationships and trans characterizations are among the fixtures of normality that root audiences in reality; LGBT [in this instance, trans folks especially] are presented as the norm, and as such, they retain this status through the show. Their struggles are validated and normalized, against the improbable and impossible circumstances of their fantastical realms. In this way, science fiction offers us better frameworks of consideration and sharper lenses through which we can examine ourselves and our behaviors.

Both  Sense8 and The OA have been cast diversely and more obscurely than currently established trans television, thus heralding in new and emerging actors into the limelight.  Jamie Clayton of Sense8 and Ian Alexander of The OA are representing the new frontiers of trans storytellers: Jamie, like Laverne, is openly transgender, and Ian, who is also transgender, is Asian-American—the first Asian and trans representation of mainstream TV.

Sense8: A Queer Masterpiece

Sense8 was created by the transgender filmmaker duo The Wachowskis, who brought us The Matrix franchise. Dubbed a “queer masterpiece” by Slate, Sense8 does a lot of things really well. Its international cast with diverse representation tells both the story of a high-profile gay male relationship and a trans-lesbian relationship, again unprecedented in mainstream shows.

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Nomi [right] and her lover Amanita [left]

In Sense8, Nomi is a transwoman and lesbian hacktivist. Nomi learns that a sudden change in her brain chemistry will potentially kill her unless she has major brain surgery—essentially a lobotomy. This brain surgery will not only eradicate her independence from her destructive family [she would become a ward to her transphobic mother] but also her sense of selfhood and identity would be erased. The surgery plot is a razor-sharp commentary on the medical, surgical, and psychological conversion therapy that trans folks are sometimes forced to undergo in order to become cisgender.

The metaphor of Nomi’s terrifying journey is emotionally haunting for the audience as we witness her navigating a corrupt medical system with her partner, Amanita. We watch how trans folks are frequently deadnamed and their loved ones denied access to their bedside in the hospital.

Nomi’s character arc demonstrates the story of a transwoman who has had to stake it out on her own, without the support of her parents or family but has instead forged a community for herself.  Nomi brings out of viewers a heightened degree of empathy and pathos that unites audiences in their support for her and her partner’s struggle to subvert the inherently transphobic systems they encounter.

The OA: An Experiment in Indie-Auteur Filmmaking 

Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, a collaborative pair firmly rooted in their auteur filmmaking, The OA aired December 16 on Netflix. It has been met with very mixed critical reception, with common denominators being a high appraisal of the acting and direction, and the negative criticism being of the narrative’s blatantly ambiguous quality. The OA never fully commits to a genre, meandering through explorations of controversial research on Near Death Experiences and in the trauma of human captivity, ticking off boxes in science fiction, mystery, and supernatural fiction. While ambiguous and noncommittal in many aspects, The OA does succeed in is its strong characterization of misfit teens, particularly with Buck Vu.

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Discovered in a casting call for Asian-American trans teens on Tumblr, and remembered for going viral for his response to this transphobic tweet,  upcoming actor Ian Alexander depicts a Vietnamese-American teenage trans boy in high school. Buck is not tokenized in his ensemble cast on The OA. He is only an “outcast” in that his motley crew of newfound friends come from different factions of high school social groups. The OA works to reshape high school anthropology by flinging unlikely types together, and Buck is by no means the Other here. 

Despite the usual depictions of bullied trans teens in media, we witness no bullying or questions of assimilation for Buck in The OA. Buck’s screen time is spent united in the company of a burgeoning friend group, with a growing sense of a tribe being created of misfits.  There are even scenes that spur thoughts of potential future relationships for Season 2: Buck and his friend Alfonso (“French”) are seen together or are seen watching each other from across the room in ways that could be described as romantic. Buck is confident, although quiet, and seems isolated only in the brief glimpses we witness of his family life.

Coming from a modern Vietnamese family, with a single father who sometimes still calls him Michelle, we can speculate that Buck’s family is not totally supportive nor fully unsupportive of Buck’s identity; Buck’s father is adjusting to Buck with a certain degree of respect. Although, we can imagine that Buck’s father does not know that Buck is forced to buy his hormones on the street, rather than from a family doctor. In this way, we can infer that Buck is transitioning on his own; this is his isolation. Many practical details surrounding Buck’s trans identity are purposefully left out, calling attention instead to Buck’s normalization and fierce independence within his world.

Comparison to Other Netflix TV

Stranger Things, another Netflix original science fiction from 2016,  presented to us queerness in a different way: as subtext, as ambiguity, as tokenism and Otherness.*  The lead girl, Eleven / “El,” played by Millie Bobby Brown, is a mysterious young girl with psychokinetic powers. Eleven is gender nonconforming and is called out for not seeming “like a girl” throughout the series. In the company of young boys, her genderfluidity is made as much a spectacle as her supernatural powers. Stranger Things treats queerness in accordance to the timeframe it is fictionally set: with a characteristically 1980’s ignorance.

Representation is Key To Normalization of Transgender People

Representation in mainstream television is essential for the normalization of LGBT people. While Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton, and Ian Alexander have become fixtures of or are emerging as powerful, positive models of transgender representation, a handful of characters on TV is not enough. Current science fiction series must continue to create spaces for LGBT folks, by challenging what is “normal” and providing us with necessary frameworks to evaluate our own reality.

Season 2 of Sense8 premieres January 2017, with a Christmas Special airing December 23. The OA has not yet be confirmed for a second season, as it just debuted December 16 this year.

*You can read Boshemia’s discussion of Stranger Things here.

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