Whoopi Goldberg-produced reality television show Strut, currently running on American network Oxygen, focuses on a modelling agency, Slay that exclusively represents transgender models. The Los Angeles agency is the brainchild of industry old hand Cece, an Asian American who decided to tap a demographic that has long walked runways secretly but is now benefitting from the increased visibility of trans issues.
From the statuesque Dominique to the catty Arisce, the show features a number of trans models who have found a sanctuary in Slay. There is Isis (not her real name, of course, though she may be bemoaning this pseudonym), who made it to the final fourteen of America’s Next Top Model in 2008 but faced backlash when it was revealed she was trans. There is Ren, the youngest of the lot who is both grateful for and sceptical about her success as a model after spending most of her teenage years as a homeless person.
Finally, there is Laith, the only trans man in the contingent. The most successful at landing assignments, Laith’s struggles are more personal than professional. His religious mother has refused to accept his trans status – the first episode of Strut showcased a tender scene between the two as they go about rebuilding their relationship.
Strut belongs to a rising genre (Caitlyn Jenner’s I Am Cait comes to mind) that uses the reality television format to narrate trans lives. Like all reality television, though, it has a stagey quality that may keep the viewer from organically empathising with the stories of its protagonists. Add to this the fact that the world of fashion is primarily defined by its camp sensibility, and the danger is that the show becomes a conduit for some of the less favorable stereotypes associated with trans people. That, however, does not happen. By letting everything play out in the open, Strut ends up assisting calls for greater sensitivity to trans issues.
Consider Arisce’s arc in the initial episodes. A veteran of the modelling world, she has been losing out to younger models in recent times. When Cece tells her she may benefit from a nose job that will make her face more delicate, Arisce refuses to hear of it. In a piece-to-camera, she draws attention to how she is proud of her black features and how it is the fashion world that needs to expand its notions of beauty. But at a later stage, she reveals her real reasons for not wanting to go under the knife: “I was living in shame for 18 years, not happy with myself. It’s really hard to make me ashamed of myself after that.”
Since it is set in a world where outward appearances matter so much, Strut is able to do something subversive: explore issues of shame and body negativity among trans individuals. Nearly every model here grapples with their looks, yet they are aware that modelling is perhaps the only way they can make a decent living. Surveys repeatedly indicate a lack of job opportunities for trans individuals, who are often poorly educated and victims of abuse.
Transgender fiction shows on television, particularly Transparent, whose third season is currently streaming on Netflix, tend to showcase a certain slice of trans life, one whose narrative thrust emerges from the protagonist’s interior struggle to come out in a largely supportive environment. Trans reality, on the other hand, is varied, and more often than not, deeply tragic. Strut brings a brutal honesty to the portrayal of a population that remains beleaguered.