Soap operas have been an on-again-off-again part of my every (week) day life since I was a little blackgirl trying to keep up with conversations in my mama’s living room. All the grown women in my family watched “the stories,” whether it meant having them on while they cooked and got ready for a second shift job, recorded them on recycled VHS tapes to watch every night or on the weekends, or taking their lunch hour right around 1 o’clock so they could watch, uninterrupted, at work. We watched the scandalous and fantastical lifestyles of oblivious whitefolks and invited them into our homes like close friends. We spoke about them with the same familiarity. We spoke of them like we knew them personally. Judging their lives made us feel better about our own. The stories gave us something and somebody to talk about that wasn’t us and wasn’t like us. The extravagant and exaggerated lives of daytime dramas were the original “ratchet” television to capture my blackgirl imagination.
I can’t explain why I continue to watch (and/or record) soap operas other than it being a habit from my childhood, a continued way I try to stay connected to my rural blackgirl self and the ways “the stories” in some ways inspired my own storytelling. They also give me something to talk about with my family (even my daddy was an avid All My Children fan) and nonacademic friends that is not generally that deep. Shooting the shit about what is going on on ‘the stories’ is usually an escape from real life issues and dilemmas and an opportunity to shake our heads at the unfortunate events and bad decisions of fictional (but always beautiful) characters. It is also good gossip for me and my homegirls. It’s not unusual for me and my friend Keysha to start a phone conversation with, “Girl, are you caught up on The Young and the Restless?”
My complicated relationship as a soap fan is not something I ever imagined I would bring into my academic and intellectual life, until now. Last week The Bold and the Beautiful, a CBS daytime soap, offered an unexpected plot twist that outed the popular (and until the recent appearance/cast of her long lost sister, the only) black woman on the show as trans*. This story is groundbreaking. Even though soap operas have broached taboo topics and issues related to social justice in the past (remember this, this, and this?), this is the first transgender character on broadcast daytime television.
The character, Maya Avant, has been a recurring character on the show since 2013, and while the actress that plays Avant, Karla Mosley, does not identify as trans*, she is an ally and advocate, and has sought guidance and direction from GLAAD to do the story justice.
Soap opera storylines are generally generic and pretty predictable. Happiness is always fleeting and relationships are incestuous, with everyone sleeping with everyone who is not directly biologically linked. It was no surprise, then, when Maya Avant’s (Mosley’s character) happiness (garnered by breaking up a marriage, of course) was recently jeopardized when her long lost little sister showed up with a “secret” that could seemingly ruin Maya’s life. It wasn’t difficult, as a long time soap opera watcher, to speculate about what the secret might be. Perhaps Maya was secretly married, or was pulling a con to trick her new man out of his fortune, or, (and this is what I really thought it was,) Maya’s sister was really her daughter. My last guess seemed inevitable as the episode drew to a close and Maya’s sister, Nicole, claimed to have found “proof” (a birth certificate) that Maya was not who she claimed to be.
“You’re not Maya,” her sister said eerily at the conclusion of the show, “you’re Myron. You’re not my sister, you’re my brother.”
I stared at the television with my mouth literally dropped open. Wait….what now!?! That was one hell of a cliff hanger, and it wasn’t even sweeps week.
I was excited as a viewer, an ally and an educator, at the emergence of a storyline around trans* identity and sex reassignment on daytime television, on a soap opera (these ain’t my grandmama’s soaps).
On Monday, March 23, I anxiously (and frankly suspiciously) tuned in to see more about the emerging storyline. I was anxious because hell, that’s good TV, but I was also suspicious and worried about how the delicate storyline would be handled. I’m not here for transphobia in any of its iterations. I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how transparent and transgressive the dialogue was. The story unfolds through a conversation between the sisters that begins confrontational and transitions to informational. Maya and her sister have an honest exchange that mimics the questions, judgments, curiosity, and candor folk often have about trans identity and with Maya generously answering questions and articulating her truth.
Here are a few jewels from the conversation I transcribed (click here to watch the episode) with the good preaching in bold:
Nicole: “The least you could do is tell me the truth. Are you my big brother or my big sister?”
Maya: “Whatever you think you know, Nicole…”
Nicole: “M-Y-R-O-N. That is what I know. You were named after Grandpa Avant.”
Maya: “You never had an older brother.”
Later, Maya accuses Nicole of blackmailing her,
Nicole: “What else was I supposed to get you to admit that you’re a freak.”
Maya: “Father used that word too.”
Nicole: “Our whole lives were a lie because of you….. You didn’t look then like you do now. Did you always have that voice?”
Maya: “It’s been a few years.”
Nicole: “Did you always talk like a girl?”
Maya: “How do girls talk?”
Nicole: “You weren’t born with those” (referencing breasts).
Maya: “No woman is.”
Nicole: “Even your face is different. I saw it right away. Your cheeks, your eyes, what did you do to yourself?”
Maya: “I grew into my body the same way that you did.”
Nicole: “I’ve read about the operations, the procedures, what did you have done? How many? Why didn’t you just wear the clothes?”
Maya: “Because being myself isn’t an outfit that I can put on and take off.”
Nicole: “But if you didn’t look right in a dress, didn’t that tell you something? Mainly that, you’re a boy?”
Maya: “No, I never was.”
Nicole: “I mean the way nature made you.”
Maya: “This is the way I was born. Every third woman in this town (LA) has a little bit of work done, a new chin, a new nose, new breasts, who knows what kind of private alterations. Would you go up to her on the street and ask how many? Is she not a woman because some rebuilding has been involved?”
Nicole: “It’s not the same thing and you know it.”
Maya: “I always knew.”
Nicole: “You couldn’t. Kids don’t think like that.”
Maya: “I knew I wasn’t supposed to say anything, nobody had to tell me that. I hated haircuts and Sundays. Little boys had a freedom that little girls don’t have and I never complained about that, but come Sunday, I knew that I was supposed to be wearing dresses like the other little girls at church. Our mother said I would grow out of it, that lots of little boys play with dolls, she said.”
Nicole: “She said those were her dolls.”
Maya: “She was always trying to protect me. Make excuses for me. Mothers’ll do that. Maybe it was how much I got sent home from school or how much I got beat up that made her panic, but at a certain point I stopped panicking and I realized that I’m not a freak. I know this is a shock but the reason you have only known me as your older sister is because that’s who I am. It’s who I’ve always been.”
Nicole asks about her birth certificate,
Maya: “I had it changed. It’s one of the reasons I had to come to California. I still had to go before a judge in Illinois but it’s done now.”
Nicole: “They let you do that?”
Maya: “Let me? You have no idea the barriers that they put up, the affidavits, the evaluations, the doctor’s signatures… Look the bottom line is, I had a medical problem that I needed corrected so that my outside would match my inside and for the first time I felt like me, for the first time I loved myself, and isn’t that the point in living?”
Yaaaaaaaaas! Everything Maya said was giving me life. I never thought that I would think to myself, I need to cop that soap opera episode to show in my gender class, but listen, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. In a moment when transwomen of color are being given a platform (listen please get some Janet Mock and Laverne Cox in your life) at the same time that they are being murdered at alarming rates, these conversations are needed and necessary.
I don’t know what will happen as the story unfolds but I am excited about the possibilities and encouraged that the storyline will instigate some necessary conversations and discussions about the LGBTAQ+ community that focuses on the “T” (and the “tea”). Either way, I’m here for it.