Books

'Struggling for Ordinary' in the Everydayness of Transgender Life

In light of disempowering messages, how do people find ways to empower themselves?

Struggling for Ordinary: Media and Transgender Belonging in Everyday Life
Andre Cavalcante

NYU Press

Mar 2018

Other

Andre Cavalcante chose a deliberately evocative title for his book, Struggling for Ordinary: Media and Transgender Belonging in Everyday Life, which looks at media representation of transgender people and how media has offered both hopeful and degrading ideas of being a transgender person in the world. Cavalcante explains his choice of "ordinary" as a means of conveying the wish for a life that is largely uncomplicated by the difficulties routinely faced by the transgender community. He writes, "As commonality, taken-for-grantedness, uniformity, and order, everydayness is fundamentally at stake for the participants in my study because they occupy a stigmatized, marginalized, and precarious subject position."

The book is the summation of Cavalcante's fieldwork with a transgender discussion and support group in the Midwest. His time spent with the group and some of its members in individual interviews from 2008-2012, just before Katy Steinmet published her Time magazine published an article, "Traansgender Tipping Point" (29 May 2014). Yet many of Cavalcante's participants began exploring their gender identities long before the media presence of transgender people became more common. They didn't have mediated examples to help them to better understand and articulate their gender identity.

Media theorist Douglas Kellner is among those who argue that media teaches audiences who and how they should be, how they should be treated, and how others should be treated as well. When audience members don't see or hear people like themselves in media, those lessons are unattainable. Without Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Chaz Bono, among others, it's difficult to imagine that there are other people in the world who don't feel comfortable with the gender assigned to them.

For some of Cavalcante's participants, the first transgender public figure they encountered was Christine Jorgensen, an American who traveled to Denmark in the '50s for sex reassignment surgery and hormone treatment. Her appearance on the cover of the New York Daily News was both a shocking scandal and the beginning of a reflexive questioning of gender in the American medical and psychotherapeutic communities. The rich ethnographic data included in the book shows how Jorgensen, Marsha Johnson, and later Renee Richards had direct impact on individuals by serving as examples of transgender reality.

From Jorgensen, Cavalcante catalogs transgender visibility in the late 20th century and into the 21st century, indicating what images and ideas may have been available to his study participants in their encounters with media. Of particular note is the coexistence of boundary-breaking representation from cultural figures like John Waters and Andy Warhol, alongside characters like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), whose cross-dressing was maniacal and murderous. Regarding Psycho and William Castle's 1961 film Homicidal, Cavalcante notes, both films "captured the American popular imagination and offered up images that associated gender transgression with madness, violence, and emotional instability."

In addition to film, Cavalcante includes fiction and nonfiction books, television sitcoms and drama, and everything from Milton Berle to MTV in his long view of media representation. Coming through what he calls the "Gay 90s", Cavalcante notes that gay characters appeared on popular television shows like Melrose Place and Will & Grace, in part as way to attract younger, socially liberal, affluent audiences.

While the growth in transgender visibility is generally seen as positive, Cavalcante points to some concerns that are later reflected in discussions with his participants. He notes that mainstream transition narratives are "overwhelmingly focused on transsexuals who medically and surgically transition and pass with ease." Not only is this not the only narrative, it is also an undesirable narrative for those who don't seek surgery or hormones. Others take issue with the tendency for stories that focus on particular demographic norms. One of Cavalcante's participants responds to this exclusion: "It would be nice to show someone who is not a middle-class white trans person. Show diversity of transness, like a trans person with disability or a different ethnicity, or like older and younger." Struggling for Ordinary not only shows this diversity but also continually addresses its absence in mediated representation.

As Cavalcante discusses transgender portrayal with his participants, the conversations show the difficulties of consistently seeing characters who are represented as freaks, monsters, villains, or victims, which takes its toll on the transgender community. Anya, for example, pointed to the depiction of the clown: "To Wong Foo, oh god, give me a break! Nice comedy, but has nothing to do with who we are." Remi talks about daytime television and how The Jerry Springer Show and others delegitimize trans guests.

Many participants noted that their greatest concern in media was the omnipresence of violence and tragedy in transgender representation. With these narratives in mind, it's not difficult to see the desire for stories of ordinary, everyday life for transgender individuals. Cavalcante takes these desires into the digital realm, exploring instances of what he terms "transgender possibilities". The web comic Venus Envy is one example. Creator Erin Lindsey describes Venus Envy as "a typical high school romance comedy" that atypically happens to include "lesbians, cross-dressers, and of course transsexuals." The comic is one of a multitude of digital spaces where trans people can find community and representation that better models their desired realities.

Finally, Cavalcante invokes what he calls "resilient reception", a term used to describe the various coping mechanisms that his participants have used in response to the emotional upheaval, hurt, anger, and pain resulting from mediated experiences. In light of disempowering messages, how do people find ways to empower themselves? Some choose to limit their encounters with certain media. Others find way to channel their anger through activism or creative endeavors. Many take these same tactics in their striving for the ordinary in everyday life.

Struggling for Ordinary makes important contributions to media studies and LGBTQ scholarship. As part of media studies, reception studies strives to see audiences as individuals rather than nameless monoliths, and Cavalcante's research takes care to present specific, contextualized perspectives.

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