Vi struggles to reconcile her gender identity with society's pressures.

February 11, 2016

Love For Everyone: Her Story

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The depths of YouTube can be perilous. You may begin by watching “How Star Wars Should Have Ended” videos or clips of Marco Rubio short-circuiting and spouting the same empty phrases in N.H. or a Beyoncé interview on the Oprah show. But one click leads to another and you trip and fall into a compulsive matrix of streamed content you never intended to watch in the first place. That scene of Stefon leads you to Bill Hader’s Saturday Night Live audition, which leads you to every SNL skit ever made, which leads you to cats, which leads you to waffles, which leads you to … cat waffles? (True story.)

Despite the toothless material you may encounter on the site, there are nonetheless some videos of high cultural quality – videos that feature linear narratives over an online miniseries format so they’re more accessible to their viewers. The YouTube channel HerStory is one platform for such videos. The team behind the channel has dedicated itself to depicting female-driven experiences, focusing specifically on the stories of trans and queer women.

“Who are they? Who are they dating? Where do they meet people?” asks Allie (Laura Zak), one of the show’s characters and a journalist who is interested in writing about trans women. As viewers begin the meta-fictional series, we become invested in answering these questions too, especially when we realize a project like Her Story has never been undertaken before (or if it has, it did not garner major attention). The cast and crew of Her Story are a collective of trans and queer people who funded this project with personal funds and an Indiegogo campaign. And while there has certainly been an uptick in trans and queer representation in the media, much of this representation has been neither appropriate nor effective. Last month, attempts at queer cinema included the horrid Carol — in which Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara shined in their individual roles, but lacked the effervescence and believability to engage viewers in their forced romance — and detestable The Danish Girl – in which Edward Redmayne, a cisgender male, inhibited the role of Lili Elbee, one of the first trans woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

What’s different about Her Story is its specificity and allegiance to the truth. Jen Richards, the co-writer, co-producer and actress who portrays Vi in the series stated, “Trans women in the media have long been punchlines, killers, indications of urban grit, pathetic tragedies and dangerous sirens. Rarely have they been complex characters who laugh, struggle and grow, who share strength in sisterhood, who seek and find love.” This complexity is evident in Her Story, however, and is what makes the show so appealing. We see developed characters that are not written according to stereotypes. The black trans woman, Paige (Angelica Ross), is not a sex worker, but a highly successful lawyer, suffering from an combination of oppressed identities; she has trouble developing meaningful relationships because “She’s an attorney so she’s more successful than the guys she meets, she’s black, which most guys don’t think they have a problem with until it becomes real, and she’s trans.” Likewise, the story defies queer stereotypes with its exclusion of late-transitioning white trans women, and the plot is not full of urban banalities. That is not to say some trans women do not have these experiences, nor is it to say that the characters featured in Her Story are without their own unique pain and challenges.

The series begins with Allie wanting to write an article about the ways in which trans women experience romance and navigate modern dating. The only trans woman she happens to know is Vi, the waitress at a restaurant she frequents. The show, which touches on being a good ally to the trans community, educates us in a way that isn’t didactic or moralistic. Our first teachable moment is when Allie is trying to decide the best way to approach Vi about contributing to her article and wonders, “What’s the best way to ask what someone is?” Vi is uncomfortable with Allie asking her about her identity directly, but says that asking is ultimately “better than assuming.”

This very question leads to a burgeoning attraction and ultimately a romance between Allie and Vi, though their relationship is not without obstacles. Throughout the course of the series, we learn that Vi is an escort and lives in an apartment with an abusive man named Mark. Despite focusing on the significant experiences of trans women, Her Story takes a universal approach to modern relationships. How can you best help a friend who is in an abusive relationship and doesn’t want to get out of that relationship? Allie, as would many of us, struggles to understand how to best help her friend. Similarly, when the man Paige is dating discovers she is transgender, instead of recoiling he responds, “I have a gambling problem, and I’m just trying to understand when would have been the right time to tell you that. When do you disclose that information?” We’re all hiding a piece of ourselves, the parts of us we don’t want to world to know. So the question reverberates in our minds: when is the right time to reveal the parts of you you’ve kept hidden to the person you’re dating?

At least James’ gambling problem can be hidden. Hiding the fact that you’re transgender is a lot harder. Her Story does a superb job at not allowing the universality of these feelings of misunderstanding to undermine the unique marginalization of the trans women in the series. The dialogue between the characters reads as if it was lifted directly from a diary, so intimate and raw that it could not have been written by someone who did not experience these aggressions and trials firsthand. Anyone can write a caricature; it is the incorporation of subtle details — like Vi being self-conscious about her hands and voice being too masculine and ooking on Craigslist for dates — that differentiates caricature from truth. This mimicry of life is also apparent when Paige is referred to by the incorrect pronoun “he” and Allie is ridiculed for being attracted to a “tranny.” In moments like these, Her Story seems like a great invasion of privacy. There are no histrionic Hollywood gimmicks employed here; there are only women going about their daily lives looking for the love and acceptance we all seek and attempting to be themselves without qualification or shame.

Angelica Ross said, “Shows like Her Story can expose the root of the violence, help remove stigma and show it’s OK to find trans people sexually desirable. It’s OK to fall in love with them.” Tacit acceptance is easier than love and, knowing this, I won’t tie the ribbon on this gift of a miniseries and proclaim the finality of Her Story’s influence. But what I can say is that Her Story opens us up to the possibility of love where no love existed before – and that’s more worthwhile than an eight-minute video of a gray cat chomping on some Eggos.

Gwen Aviles is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]