Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back provides a necessary rebuttal to Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire, and challenges conventional assumptions and narratives that are attached to transsexual bodies. She provides many examples of medical and autobiographical transsexual accounts that fit within the ‘born this way’ narrative. Although this concept largely ignores the reality of transsexual experience it has served to validate transsexuals seeking sex reassignment surgery. Stone explains: “[i]t took a surprisingly long time—several years—for the researches to realize that the reason the candidates’ behavioral profiles matched Benjamin’s so well was that the candidates, too, had read Benjamin’s book, which was passed from hand to hand within the transsexual community, and they were only too happy to provide the behavior that led to acceptance for surgery” (Transgender Studies Reader, 228). Conviction in having been “born in the wrong body” did not insure one’s surgery, rather, memorizing the right script did.
Stone’s Posttranssexual Manifesto summons a new representation of transsexuals that does not rely on these conventional standards. She calls attention to transsexuals who pass, and relates passing to a type of invisibility (232). While the purpose of passing is to not draw attention to oneself, Stone encourages transsexuals to insert themselves in the discourse, and reclaim an authentic transsexual experience. She writes: “I could not ask a transsexual for anything more inconceivable than to forgo passing, to be consciously ‘read,’ to read oneself aloud- and by this troubling and productive reading, to begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written—in effect, then, to become a (look out—dare I say it again?) posttranssexual” (232).
Stone’s article and manifesto got me thinking about popular culture representations of trans individuals outside of the ‘born this way’ narrative, and I remembered one example that has the potential to align with the posttranssexualism Stone might have envisioned. Unfortunately, this character is fictitious, and is played by Rebecca Romijn rather than an actual trans woman.
Meet Alexis Meade, a MTF transsexual on Ugly Betty. The Meade family owns Meade Publishing, and Mode, the fashion magazine where the show’s premise takes place. Daniel Meade, the second of the Meade children, is the editor of Mode magazine. In its first season the show falsely leads viewers to believe that Alex Meade, the family’s eldest son, died in a tragic skiing accident. However, the fourteenth episode of season 1, “I’m Coming Out,” reveals that Alex did not die. Rather, he staged his own death to disappear, and begin the two-year transition from Alex to Alexis. The following clip should explain things (start watching at 7 minutes):
While Alexis Meade is by no means the ideal representation of posttransexualism, she is notable because the option of invisibility is unavailable to her. Stone asserts that: “[t]he highest purpose of the transsexual is to erase him/herself, to fade into the ‘normal’ population as soon as possible. Part of this process is known as constructing a plausible history—learning to lie effectively about one’s past” (230). The remarkable thing about Alexis is that her celebrity prevents her from lying about her past. Alexis Meade does not resign herself to the margins of invisibility, rather she returns from the dead, and chooses to reveal herself in the highly visible moment of Fashion Week.
Another reason why Alexis is notable is because her history in transitioning from male to female is complex. At times she does rely on the ‘born this way’ narrative to explain her transition. For example, she refers to her new body as “correcting a mistake.” However, the show provides a few glimpses into the life of Alex Meade that do not fit with this narrative. Alex was a cissexual, heterosexual man who seemed to achieve conventional masculinity with ease. Alex Meade did not exhibit effeminate traits that would have signaled an inclination toward transsexualism. In addition, there is a later episode where Alexis awakes from a coma, and does not remember transitioning from male to female. She mentally awakes as Alex, and is clueless to makeup and other feminine beauty standards (start watching at 2 minutes and 30 seconds):
Alex’s history seems like a more authentic transsexual representation because it does not pass “directly from one pole of sexual experience to the other” (227). The two-year transition from Alex to Alexis and the relearning of femininity indicate that this MTF was not totally ‘born this way.’ Some may call these details plot holes, but it could be argued that the writers of Ugly Betty were trying to demonstrate how the categories of sexuality and gender are fluid rather than fixed.