There are a lot of things that media can do. It can inform, entertain, challenge, distract, instruct, condemn, rally, terrify, delight.
And of course, there are people in control of media distribution, company programming execs, network censors, etc.
Which means that sometimes, a show will come along to challenge our pre-conceptions and investigate difference, a show with the potential to display and normalize a valid but-often-misunderstood way of living and instead, it will get left out in the cold.
I can’t know for certain why Pretty/Handsome wasn’t picked up from its pilot (barring interviewing those who made the decision), but I can guess, and I can talk about what we could have had. Because even if the show doesn’t run, we have the pilot, and it’s enough for a good bit of discussion.
Pretty/Handsome is a pilot created by Nip/Tuck director and writer Ryan Murphy for FX. Hollywood pitch would be “American Beauty meets Transamerica.” It stars Joseph Fiennes as Bob Fitzpayne, a gynecologist with an affluent family, a beautiful dedicated wife (played by Carrie Anne-Moss), and two sons–a child genius and a nearly-college-aged lacrosse star.
Bob is also a transsexual, and his family doesn’t know. The main action of the show hinges on the growing tension of keeping this aspect of his life and personality secret from his family as he is faced with a challenge at work that brings issues of gender/sexual identity, community status and bigotry into the fore. Bob is presented with a FTM transsexual who needs a gynocologist to treat him for an unknown issue. The stir that having a male transsexual patient in a gynocology clinic in Small Town New England stands as the example of the social pressures and bigotry faced by trans people everyday. Bob’s wife Elizabeth is un-satisfied with her marital sex life, but is too committed to Bob and her family to leave. As she says in the pilot — “You can leave and be alone, or stay and be lonely” — she’s chosen the latter. Genius son Oliver is too precocious for his own good, combining hyper-intelligence with youthful curiosity and libido to get himself into trouble, while older brother Patrick’s future is threatened by a teen pregnancy and being ‘dragged down’ by a dead-end girlfriend (dead-end according to everyone but Patrick, of course).
In just a pilot episode, the show clearly sets the stakes of the interpersonal and sociological drama, and they are high. It’s intense the whole way through, jumping from dynamic to dynamic, but the leads are all compelling in their flaws, and in no place is Bob reduced to the stereotype of a transsexual. Bob gets a taste of what it would be like to live and be seen as a woman, even for just little snippets of time, and it helps him re-connect with his wife (which of course makes for a larger turn as he reveals the fact that he would rather be a woman all the time) Bob is a person with a secret and enormous pressures to keep that secret, bound up with gender expectations, societal expectations, familial expectations, and more. Given chance to unfold the story, we could have seen a maturely depicted narrative of a transsexual taking the steps towards unifying the person they see themselves as and the body they have/the way they are seen.
Instead, we got a pilot, and won’t get any more (unless the show gets picked up elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem likely as is).
I strongly believe we need shows like Pretty/Handsome. Television as a delivery mechanism has a lot of space for genre and content, and I would hope that in-between Survivor and Hardball and Chuck and Monday Night Football, we’d have room in our televisual field for shows that tackle important social issues through the lens of fiction. One of the important things media exposure does is normalize things. It also provides validation through representation. I don’t have much trouble feeling like a valid social being, because straight white males in their mid-twenties are frequently depicted on television and in film, especially in the West/1st world/Global North. But you don’t have to go too far back to see an American TV/film world where white people were the only ones depicted with any kind of real range and breadth. Even still, we have certain stereotypes that practically everyone are forced into.
Having a(nother) show (done well) that depicted a rounded individual who happened to be transsexual, working through the issues involved with being in that fringe group and dealing with very real social pressures could go quite a ways towards helping show transsexuals as people. Just people, like you or me, with a particular set of challenges in life that they have to deal with.
But luckily, in the current age, pilots like this get leaked and scholars like me can talk about what could have been, and use opportunities to bring up the issues when they might not otherwise occur (in the field of American TV/film/new media). Watching TV shows isn’t enough by itself, of course, but it can sometimes open a door for someone to re-examine their pre-concieved notions and provide room for further consideration and dialogue.