Op-ed: Can Media Please Stop Focusing on Trans People's Bodies?
Monday's episode of Katie was billed as an opportunity to discuss trans-specific sociopolitical issues, but it quickly took an all-too-familiar detour toward a singular, overplayed topic: genitals.
Katie Couric is a celebrated journalist whose previous accomplishments include time as evening news anchor at CBS and cohosting the Today show on NBC for 15 years, but the world of daytime television has a reputation for sensationalism in pursuit of an audience. Monday's episode rode the line between being objective and exploitative.
It featured Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox. Carrera is best known from her time on RuPaul’s Drag Race and, more recently, for an online petition to make her the first transgender Victoria’s Secret Angel. Cox stars in Netflix's breakout hit Orange Is the New Black, in which she plays Sophia Burset, a character who, like Cox, is a transgender woman.
In the lead-up to Carrera’s introduction, Couric displayed various photos of the beauty queen in bandages, preparing the viewer for what was sure to be a “shocking transformation.”
As is often the case when I watch a ratings-driven show portray a transgender person in this way, I cringed. My stomach turned in knots, as I knew what would come next. Sadly, my intuition was spot-on: Couric continued down the trans-as-science-project path, introducing Carrera with the words “she was born a man, and that’s why she’s on our show.”
Right from the start, the words “born a man” evoke so much ignorance about trans people. Why is it that only when describing trans people, others feel the need to treat us like we were born fully grown adults? Carmen Carrera wasn’t “born a man,” she was born a baby.
With Couric's announcement that Carrera was on the show first and foremost because she was born male, my heart sank. This was going to be another one of those episodes. The sole reason for this show would be to pique the curiosity of those who see trans people as freaks, as anomalies. Maury, another show hosted by a respectable journalist-turned-carnival barker, used this tactic time and again in his “Woman or Man?” episodes, in which he’d parade out a line of women and ask audience members which ones were “men.”
Finally sitting down to chat with Carrera, Couric dove in, asking a line of questions that I couldn’t imagine her asking a cisgender (nontrans) person, specific to Carrera’s genitals. In an attempt to broach the issue, Couric asked Carrera whether she experienced physical pain as a result of transitioning, on account of “all the surgery” she needed to undergo. Skillfully, Carrera spoke briefly on the topic of breast augmentation and rhinoplasty, intentionally avoiding any discussion of her genitals. For whatever reason, this wasn’t enough to tip off Couric to the fact that Carrera wasn’t particularly interested in answering questions regarding that particular surgical procedure.
Undeterred, Couric continued, asking Carrera whether her “private parts” are “different now.” Carrera responded by doing one of the single most amazing things a trans person has ever done in response to this oft-asked, invasive question: She shushed Couric as she finished the question.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Carrera responded. “It’s really personal.” After a few moments of small talk, the show went to break.
When Couric returned, she introduced Laverne Cox.
One would think that whatever questions had been lined up for the Orange Is the New Black star, they would have been tweaked following the awkward direction of the last segment. One would think Couric’s producers, who probably should have been aware that asking a transgender person about their medical history was a big no-no, would have jumped in with some sort of backup plan. One would be wrong.
After a brief discussion of Cox’s role on OITNB, Couric turned the conversation back to the topic of genitals. Acknowledging that Carrera had “recoiled” at the invasive question in the last segment, Couric continued, pushing the actress to divulge graphic details about gender confirmation surgery. Couric cited a desire to be educated on the topic, pointing out that many people are “curious” and are “not familiar with transgenders.”
Her use of “transgender” as a noun aside — it’s an adjective, please and thank you — her bizarre interest in the genitals of these two women is not justified by a need for “education” on the topic. Her obsession with that single aspect of the trans experience shows just how ignorant the longtime journalist was on the subject.
Cox handled the situation gracefully, telling Couric that yes, she shares the same approach as Carrera when it comes to that subject, and thus is not particularly interested in elaborating on it. Right then, Cox brilliantly pivoted the conversation, speaking out on why it’s harmful for cisgender people to obsess the way they do over the genitals of complete strangers, how this leads to the objectification and othering of trans people, and how this “curiosity” is often the catalyst for violence, homelessness, poverty, and discrimination against trans people.
Discussing the violence that trans women — particularly trans women of color — are often subjected to, Cox touched on the case of Islan Nettles, a New York trans woman. Nettles was murdered last year after her assailant realized that the woman he was catcalling was transgender, and she is just one of many trans women who have dealt with that kind of brutality, and often without justice.
That's when Cox uttered a line so concise and pointed that it was absolutely perfect: “By focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and that discrimination.”
This quote speaks to the heart of so many issues trans people face on a regular basis. So often, we’re treated as nothing more than body parts. Our lives are ignored, our accomplishments diminished, and we’re left being seen as “the freak” someone can book on a struggling daytime talk show in an effort to boost ratings. (It was announced last month that Couric’s show will not return for a third season.)
Unless you are the doctor or a lover of a trans person, the state of their genitals is of no consequence to you. In my everyday life, as a transgender woman, exactly zero people see my genitals. I can’t speak to whether cisgender people tend to go through their days showing each other their downstairs business, but in my life, no, that’s not part of my day-to-day.
Journalists like Couric should know better. After all, when she had Regis Philbin on last week, she didn’t ask him about the condition of his prostate. When Lauren Conrad appeared on the show in December, Couric didn’t ask the date of her last visit to her ob-gyn. When Hugh Jackman made an appearance last year, Couric didn’t question him on the topic of kidney stones. Why? Because one’s medical information, whether the person is transgender or not, is none of her business.
Carrera and Cox, a model and an actress, should be celebrated for their work, their philanthropy, their accomplishments. Under no circumstances should they have been treated to an interrogation that reduced them to their trans status.
Watch Couric’s interviews with Carrera and Cox on the next page.
PARKER MARIE MOLLOY is the founder of Park That Car and works as a freelance writer. She has contributed writing to Rolling Stone, Salon, The Huffington Post, and Talking Points Memo as well as The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @MissParkerMarie.