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Queer kid on the

Queer kid on the


FX's The Riches features the latest in a growing trend of queer kids on television.

The premiere episode of cable network FX's new family drama The Riches opens with Wayne Malloy (Eddie Izzard) crashing a high school reunion with his two daughters in tow. As Wayne charms the confused classmates under an assumed identity, the two girls deftly pickpocket every available wallet and purse. Izzard is not what he appears to be, but neither is his younger daughter. As the trio ducks out of the reunion, another con is revealed: The young daughter takes off her wig. She's a boy, and as the episode progresses, it's clear he's not dressing like a girl just for the con.

The Riches profiles a family of Louisiana "travellers"--or nomadic con artists/gypsies prevalent in the South--led by Izzard. At first glance it would be easy to think the character of Sam Malloy (played by Aidan Mitchell) was influenced by Izzard, a well-known comedian and straight transvestite who also serves as one of the show's executive producers. But Dmitry Lipkin, who created The Riches, said Sam's gender expression was part of the series before Izzard came on board.

"We wanted to play with identity without focusing on it too much, without making it an issue," Lipkin said.

Sam is among a small but growing number of youthful prime-time characters exhibiting gender identities and expressions that have not been addressed before on TV but are becoming more common. In most cases gender identity and expression are not the defining characteristics of the show, instead supplementing the story.

"It sort of goes to the overall thematic of the show: that you can be what you want to be. That is the American dream," said fellow Riches executive producer Dawn Prestwich. "And for Sam his American dream is to be a girl sometimes, to be pretty."

"It had nothing to do with me," Izzard said of Sam's cross-dressing. "I just pitched [to executive producer] Nicole [Yorkin] and Dawn, 'Maybe he should have my exact same characteristics because I know how it works.' I'm basically playing my dad's reactions to everything I would have done if I were Sam, and what I would have wanted to wear when I was that kid at that age."

Izzard, who has been arguing to critics for years that straight transvestites like himself do exist ("They assume it's a misnomer, or someone has something wrong"), has not tried to influence Mitchell's performance too much.

"I'm letting him get along with it, and making adjustments in wardrobe," Izzard said. "I got him to practice his lipstick."

Cross-dressing isn't exactly new on prime-time television. Milton Berle was the first of many comedians to don gowns and wigs for laughs, a practice that actors as varied as Flip Wilson and Tom Hanks used in the '70s and '80s. In terms of fully drawn-out, recurring characters that cross-dress or explore gender expression, the list of examples is much smaller. In 1994, Wilson Cruz launched his career on ABC's short-lived but critically acclaimed drama My So-called Life, where his character Rickie Vasquez was openly gay, wore makeup, and played with gender conventions.

On ABC's sitcom The Drew Carey Show actor John Carroll Lynch played Drew's brother Steve, a straight cross-dresser who eventually married the show's archnemesis, Mimi (who was often the butt of jokes for her outrageous appearance). In 1998, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation applauded the show for giving the Steve character "an incredible amount of dignity." ABC's David E. Kelley drama Boston Legal features Gary Anthony Williams in the role of a straight cross-dressing legal assistant who appears to exhibit dual personalities.

But in terms of actors under or just entering their teen years, The Riches appears to be breaking ground, especially considering how integral gender identity and expression is to Sam's character.

The Riches comes to prime time six months after the introduction of the character Justin on ABC's new one-hour comedy Ugly Betty. A preteen with an amazing eye for fashion, love of all things Broadway, and no interest in "traditional" boy activities like sports, Justin struck many viewers as the prototypical gay boy in training. While Ugly Betty producers and ABC executives have repeatedly said Justin's sexuality has not been determined, more than a few gay fans of the show see their own childhoods in the character's experiences. Going even further than Justin, the preteen character Isabelle on Showtime's suburban comedy Weeds has exhibited same-sex attraction while at times expressing herself as a butch little girl.

The exploration of gender identity issues with young TV characters allows for a deeper discussion, expressly because they are not adults, says Robert Thompson, the director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

For the characters of Sam and Justin, "it is almost as though one is able to deal with the issue of gender identity by taking the teeth out of it and making it prepubescent," Thompson says.

By removing the issue of overt sexual attraction, a driving force for teenage and adult TV characters, writers and directors can explore identity and expression by themselves, Thompson explains.

"When you backtrack it before someone's physical sexual maturity, it in many ways purifies the subject, to the extent you can really deal with gender identity much deeper than 'what makes someone horny,' " he says. "It's really quite clever. You can explore that territory without all the other complications that come with it."

Izzard believes Sam's gender expression won't be a problem for The Riches' audience, since bigger issues have already been broached by previous TV series, especially NBC's Will & Grace. Sam's gender expression won't trip up viewers "if you're very up-front about it," Izzard said.

"I've been open about that since 1991," Izzard said of his own transvestitism. "The big reaction is there hasn't been a big reaction."

The concurrence of his involvement with The Riches and the issue of cross-dressing in the story line may mean something, Izzard proposed.

"It could be the right time," he said. "It's weird that I walked into this and it was here."

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Christopher Lisotta