Last night, the CW premiered America’s Next Top Model Cycle 11. As usual, a whole mess of really pretty girls attempt to win one of 14 spots in the Top Model house, where they’ll compete in a series of challenges and photo shoots. Each week, one model gets eliminated until the ultimate Top Model is chosen. The previous cycle, Cycle 10, marked the first time a plus-size model took the top slot. This season is the first season to feature an openly transgender model (in part because the eligibility rules of previous cycles prevented anyone not born biologically female from becoming a contestant.) As such, I’ll be blogging weekly about the show, though I won’t be recapping it, exactly. I’m going to focus specifically on the viewer experience of watching a show featuring a TG contestant.

Isis Tsunami appeared during Cycle 10 as an extra in a shoot at a homeless shelter. Tyra and the producers apparently found her noteworthy, and sought her out for Cycle 11. Media reports prior to the airing of the premiere revealed that Isis is the transwoman in the competition.

It takes exactly 16 (actual, not television) minutes for Isis to get any real screen time. Up to that point, she is part of the crowd. When Isis finally gets her individual screen time, it’s in front of the review panel: Miss J., Mr. Jay, and Tyra. Tyra, of course, fires a bunch of standard-issue questions at her: “Are you pre- or post-op? When did you first know you were a woman? What do you expect your appearance here will do for the GLBT community?” I know that Tyra’s an ally, but her rapid-fire, talk-show questions seemed a little too naive for me. I imagine she chooses those questions because that’s what viewers want to know, but I was really hoping for something a little more profound. And really, is it anyone’s business besides Isis if she is pre- or post-op? This seems to be a common theme when talking about transpeople – everyone wants to know what they have “down there.” But cismen and ciswomen would probably be pretty annoyed if every conversation involved questions about the state of their genitalia: “So, let’s talk about your vagina. What’s it look like?” or “How’s your penis today?”

Also, I think the question about what Isis expects to accomplish on behalf of the GLBT community is unfair. Of course she’s inevitably handed the mantle of Representative of All TransPeople. But it’s not really fair to make her assume that role, since not every transperson will share her experience. And I think when the host of the show (who should really know better) asks a question like that, she’s making the assignment of that role more valid.

Isis, to her credit, seems comfortable, matter-of-fact about her story, and able to take on whatever is dished out. She answers Tyra’s questions without flinching, and displays a refreshing sense of candor in doing so.

The other contestants figure out pretty quickly that Isis has a backstory. However, they don’t handle it particularly well.

One contestant, Kacey, says, “She lookin’ pretty manly.” In a waiting room outside the one-on-ones with the review panel, several girls crowd around Isis to quiz her: “So is it true?” they ask. “Is what true?” she replies calmly. “Are you all female?” they want to know. Isis eyes them carefully: “Was I born physically female? No.” The girls don’t quite know what to do with this information – they sort of look at each other uncomfortably.

The lack of respect for the TG community in this episode only gets worse. It doesn’t seem that anyone is capable of comprehending that Isis is, in fact, “all female,” regardless of what her anatomy says. Kacey and another contestant, Clark, later sum up the general assessment of Isis and her situation. Kacey says, “I don’t see Isis as competition. I’m not discriminating against her, but – honey, no.” Oh, that’s nice – she’s not discriminating against her and she’s assured us of that by telling us that she’s not discriminating against her. That’s sort of like saying, “I’m not racist, but black people are shady.” Or “I’m not sexist, but women are whiny bitches.” Riiiight. Oh, and Clark – sweet, blond Clark from Pawtucky-East-Timbuctoo, SC. You gotta love Clark’s comment:”But if she’s in the way of my winning, I mean – I’ll stomp that man right out of the competition.” Uh-huh. ‘Cause nothing says respect and fair treatment like refusing to call a transwoman by her preferred gender. Finally, during elimination review, Mr. Jay says, “She is really trying to be a woman.” Mr. Jay, who is an out member of the GLBT community, probably means well with this statement. However, it falls flat for me – Isis isn’t trying to do anything. She actually is doing it. She’s living as a woman, facing the world, putting herself out there. Acknowledging anything other than this fact is trivializing her life.

Isis manages to survive the first cut (from 30 girls to 20), and the second (from 20 to 14). (Not sadly, Kacey is eliminated from the final 20. She is shocked, and I have to admit that I sort of laughed when it happened.) After moving into the house, Isis is subjected yet again to another round of questioning. This time in the kitchen, she is surrounded once more by a bunch of girls asking questions about her transition – will her voice change (a bit), what will happen to her Adam’s Apple (she can have it filed down), etc. Again, Isis seems willing to answer their questions. One of the girls says, “But what do you do with it? I mean, you were in a bathing suit!” Isis smiles coyly and replies, “The magic of…tape.” Several of the girls look like they might puke. Hey girls, don’t ask the questions if you don’t want the answers. Someone asks, “What if you have to do a nude shoot?” Isis again is ready: “I’ll take care of it.”

Sharaun, in a confessional video, responds to the conversation in the kitchen: “America’s Next Top Model is not going to be a drag queen. I’m sorry. It’s just not.” Sigh. Again: refusing to acknowledge Isis as anything more than a freak show, referring to her as “it.” Another display of sadly hateful behavior. Sharaun is the contestant, too, who introduces herself to review panels, judges and photographers alike as “Sharaun, and I am America’s Next Top Model.” Did anyone else notice she has crazy eyes?

It seems to me that there’s a little bit of the ladies doth protest too much – so far Kacey, Sharaun and Clark have all stated that they don’t see Isis as actual competition because of her, you know, not actually being a woman. Some of the other contestants – like McKey and Elina, for instance – have hardly commented on Isis’ gender identity. Could it be that Kacey, Sharaun and Clark are actually feeling a little threatened? Methinks that’s not too far off from the truth. Why is it that transwomen make some ciswomen feel threatened? Is it because transwomen tend to do feminine so damn well?

After the interrogation in the kitchen, Isis decides to go for a dip in the pool. Her voice over indicates that it’s the first time she’s gone swimming in public in a bikini (and a pair of shorts), and that she really feels like it’s a big step forward for her. McKey swims with her, and the two horse around in the pool a bit. The conversation between the two eventually comes around to Isis’ gender, with Isis explaining how she feels like she’s going through puberty all over again. McKey smiles and says in a sort of wistful voice, “You’re like a butterfly.”

Say it with me now: Awwww.

Meanwhile, Clark and some other girl (whose name I never got) are talking about being unsettled by Isis, and the knowledge that she has “something else down there” – ok, at least they’re honest. But then they get disrespectful. Clark (who, by the way, doesn’t know what “bureaucracy” is) makes a statement to the effect of, “Hell yeah, I’m freaked out. Walk around my town like that, you get shot.” She makes it sound like that’s something funny – it appears she doesn’t realize that violence against transpeople is a very real, very scary and very wrong thing. She goes on to say that she comes from a “good Southern family” – as if Isis couldn’t possibly be a good person -and that she feels there’s no place in the competition for a “he-she.”

Again, I say: Sigh. What is it with these young, beautiful women? I’m still not sure I understand why what a person has in her pants makes any difference in how she is treated. I sort of wonder: if Isis had claimed to be post-op, would the girls have reacted differently? Would they be more or less comfortable? Is a “fake” vagina better or worse than a “real” penis?

The first challenge of the season is a one-on-one meeting with the judges. Each girl gets to meet with Miss Jay, Paulina Porizkova and Nigel Barker. Sharaun does her whole, “I’m Sharaun, and I am America’s Next Top Model” (with the crazy eyes) thing. Isis sits down for an all-business conversation with Nigel, who tests her on some model basics: “Find your light,” he says. She does. Later, he gives this assessment: “Isis knows her stuff. Though there is something ‘unusual’ about her.”

The theme of the episode’s photo shoot is “political issues.” Clark has to pose for the issue “Bureaucracy” and she spends a fair amount of time before her shoot asking people what it means. Mostly she gets laughed at. (She later confesses that she figured it out when she saw “the red tape.”) Isis’ issue is privacy, and her photo is gorgeous:

During the shoot, she has extras on her set – Sharaun and a couple other girls are meant to portray shadowy figures in the background. While Isis poses and concentrates on the photographer, Sharaun mouths off behind the curtain: “Damn, Isis, you need to shave. Ugh. And you’re sweatin’ too much.” Later, Sharaun lets loose in the confessional: “Isis is in her shoot tryin’ to be all sexy, but the reality is, she’s a man.”

Before Isis leaves the set, Mr. Jay tells her she has a really good shoot.

During the judging panel review, the girls appear one by one before the judges to review their photos. The judges all seem to like Isis’ shot, and she seems pleased. Tyra tells her, “I see a story here. I see your story, in fact.”

This irritates me. I think, based on this statement, that Tyra is going to dime Isis out during the judging discussion, and that bothers me. If a transwoman is included in the competition, and the idea is for her to be treated like every other contestant (and that clearly is the idea, considering the fuss made in previous cycles about Asperberger’s syndrome, plus sizes, female circumcision, etc.), then it doesn’t do anyone any favors to spill Isis’ issues. I think it unfairly skews the way the judges will look at her – no longer will she be “Isis, another model.” Now she’ll be looked at through the filter of “Isis, the trans model, who looks pretty good considering she’s not actually a woman.”

The girls are sent away so the judges can discuss the pending elimination.

During the judging conversation, though, Tyra keeps quiet. Instead, it’s Miss J. who lets the cat out of the bag – which is slightly less annoying, considering his tendency to play with gender. Paulina says, “Ooh,” which is neither here nor there. Nigel has a great reaction, actually. He says, “Considering the transgender issue, it would be really easy to caricature her. But she knows her stuff…” and goes on to dismiss the topic entirely, stating that she knows what to do, how to find her light, etc. Nigel is clearly unfazed. (Here’s a great article, too, that sheds some light on Nigel’s position – and also makes mention of the ANTM tendency to include “issue models.”)

The girls are called back in to the judging room. Cute and quirky, bundle-of-nerves Marjorie (who has gone without mention so far simply because she didn’t say anything at all about Isis) gets the first call. She looks more surprised than anyone, but the judges seem to like her. Isis is number two. And at the bottom: Sharaun, who gets eliminated. Heh.

Next week, on America’s Next Top Model: posing, contortionism, a confrontation about discrimination, Benny Ninja and a rope ladder. Neat.

Shoutout of the Week: Big ups to McKey, whose nonchalant attitude about Isis’ revelation is a refreshing display of tolerance and acceptance. McKey calls Isis’ desire to be open and honest about her story “commendable,” and is the only one to talk to her about it without condescending, disrespecting or being disgusted by Isis.

Karmabomb: Sharaun gets eliminated. Maybe next time she’ll think twice about bad mouthing the tranny.

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