Showtime and CBS — both owned by CBS Corp. — have rocky track records when it comes to sensitively portraying transgender characters. Shows like How I Met Your Mother, Mike & Molly, Ray Donovan, Californication, House of Lies, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have frequently used transgender characters as either the punch line to jokes or have limited the roles of transgender characters to murderers or victims of violent crimes.
That's why I approached Two and a Half Men’s December 5 episode, "Numero Uno Accidente Lawyer," with some hesitation after learning that the show would be introducing a transgender character named Paula as Alan’s (Jon Cryer) new love interest.
To my surprise, Paula (Paula Marshall) was portrayed in a relatively respectful way. Though her status as a transgender woman is the basis of a number of jokes (at one point Alan says, "No guy likes to hear that his girlfriend had a bigger penis than he does"), Alan’s acceptance of Paula prevents the show from falling into the many pitfalls so many other CBS and Showtime portrayals have. Not once was she called a man, nor were any transphobic slurs used at any point during the episode.
This marks the second time Two and a Half Men has portrayed transgender individuals in a somewhat positive light. In 2004, the show aired an episode titled "An Old Flame With a New Wick," in which Charlie (Charlie Sheen) meets Bill (Chris O’Donnell), a transgender man he had previously dated. Much like the portrayal of Paula as a transgender woman in "Numero Uno Accidente Lawyer," the show’s portrayal of a transgender man was far from perfect but managed to stay respectful.
Near the end of the most recent episode, Jenny (Amber Tamblyn), who happens to be a lesbian, turns to Alan and says, "You’re going out with a post-op transgender person without any judgment? Very enlightened."
I’m inclined to agree.
Marshall is slated to appear in at least one more episode, with Diane Farr (Rescue Me, Numb3rs) making a guest appearance as a woman from Paula’s past this Friday. Intuition leads me to believe Farr will be portraying an ex-lover of Marshall’s, though there’s been no official word as to what the connection between the characters will be. My only hope is that the show continues its trajectory of positivity, steering clear of disrespectful and tasteless jokes designed to dehumanize Marshall’s character.
Watch Paula and Alan's meet-cute — and what follows — in the clip below.