TRANSform Me

The three stylists on TRANSform Me holding styling tools.

Alisa at PostBourgie writes about a new VH1 show featuring a team of trans women traveling around the United States to make over cis women in need. I hadn’t heard of TRANSform Me before; this is how VH1 describes it:

TRANSform Me is a makeover show in which a team of three transgender women, led by the inimitable Laverne Cox (I Want To Work For Diddy), rescues women from personal style purgatory. Laverne and her ultra-glam partners in crime have undergone the ultimate transformation, so they’re the perfect women for the job.

They’ll travel the country in their tricked out fashion ambulance, siren blaring, and swoop into scenes of fashion disaster. They’ll not only make women look better but feel a whole lot better about themselves. It’s about discovering one’s inner personal style.

Laverne and the girls will cruise from boutiques to beauty salons in search of just the right look. And they won’t pull any punches with their subjects–or each other!

Each episode of TRANSform Me will cover the makeover of one woman who’s written to the show asking for help. The subject expects to be made over for a reality show–but she doesn’t know it’s going to be by three transgender women.

Ah, hmm.

On one hand: It is good to see trans-identified people in the mainstream. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy wasn’t exactly the most politically conscious show in the world, and in a lot of ways it played into some ridiculous stereotypes, but it did bring gay men into households across the United States; same with Will & Grace. Those shows were problematic for a lot of reasons, but in the trajectory of gay rights and acceptance in the United States? I think they pushed things forward. I think they helped to open a door for Ellen Degeneris — whose original show tanked after she came out as a lesbian — to become one of the most popular talk show hosts in the country (and not just on those godforsaken coasts, either). Popular culture matters, and a lot of times it’s going to be ham-fisted in dealing with marginalized groups, but I fall pretty firmly on the side of “it’s better to have marginalized groups imperfectly represented than not represented at all” (the caveat, of course, is that a marginalized group serving as a punchline is not just “imperfect” representation).

Which brings me to that other hand: I haven’t seen TRANSform Me, but I do worry that the trans women will be punchlines or caricatures. I worry that VH1 set it up so that the trans element of the show is a “gotcha!” moment — “You thought you were getting a make-over, but really you’re getting it from transgender chicks OMG!” I worry that “trans” will get a lot more attention than “women.”

But again, I haven’t seen it (is it even on yet?). Anyone have any further intel or thoughts?

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19 comments for “TRANSform Me

  1. RMJ
    March 5, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I’m reminded of Julia Serano’s argument in Whipping Girl about the highly feminized media depiction of trans women – how it endeavors to depict trans women in the process of putting on makeup and other traditionally feminine accouterments in an effort to frame them as “deceptive” or “predatory”. She makes the point that trans women are almost always shown as playing into rather than challenging gender roles, and when they do not “successfully” conform, they are “pathetic”.

    The full piece is here:

  2. March 5, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    I love all the assumptions involved:
    1) Trans women are automatically better at girling it up because they had to make “the ultimate transformation”
    2) Trans women are into girling it up – this is an inherent part of being a trans woman
    3) Not fitting into strict fashion and beauty standards puts you into a “personal style purgatory.” Cuz every woman’s main goal in life is to be fashionable
    4) When you do conform to the strict beauty and fashion standards, you “feel a whole lot better” about yourself. It’s about empowerment!
    5) Being made over by three strangers is the way to discover “one’s inner personal style.”

    I just pretty much despise makeover shows in general, and I can’t get over my suspicion that a show like this will ultimately be exploitive and end up reaffirming and deepening cultural stereotypes about trans women. But I could be wrong.

  3. Kristin
    March 5, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Vh1 says it will first air on March 15.

    I suspect that the “gotcha!” premise of the show will be very offensive. Trans women are often “revealed” in plot twists and surprise endings in fictional stories. As a plot device, this is virtually always very transphobic.

  4. March 5, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    I have the same problem with this that I had with Queer Eye and have with the “gay best friend” in movies and tv– namely that marginalized people aren’t just servants waiting in the wings to serve the needs of the privileged.

  5. Aliem
    March 5, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    As much as I’d like to say that this is awful and exploitative (which it is) and probably going to create a lot of BS stereotypes about transwomen (which it will), I’m still a fan of the idea of this show for one huge reason: being thought of as a fashion maven (which I’m not) beats the hell out of being either pitied or fear-mongered about (which I am!)

    Would it be better to, say, have a reality show about trans people and their lives independent of some other gimmick? Sure, it’s been done. Transgeneration did that really well. That did a lot to humanize trans people. Making another one would be awesome, but this isn’t it. It’s not even close.

    “TRANSform Me” won’t do as much, but it might counter in its own small way the crap about how trans women are horrible men lurking in women’s bathrooms waiting to watch cis women pee (eew) or tragic figures deserving of pity. I’d rather say “Sorry, I’m not really a super-fashionista… but if you’ll stop wearing that ugly top just because I say so, then please burn it” than remind people that while I’ve had problems in my life, there are plenty who deserve sympathy and support much more than a middle-class queer white college student who happens to have a non-lethal medical condition.

  6. March 5, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    namely that marginalized people aren’t just servants waiting in the wings to serve the needs of the privileged.

    @Natalie – Exactly. Though it thrills me to see trans people on a mainstream (enough) network, putting them in stereotypical roles is kind of a one step forward, two back situation.

    VH1 is advertising this heavily during RuPaul’s Drag Race, banking on its success. (A show that was shopped to, and declined by Bravo, by the way. Drag Race, I mean.)

  7. March 5, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    What Rachel said.. specifically:

    1) Trans women are automatically better at girling it up because they had to make “the ultimate transformation”
    2) Trans women are into girling it up – this is an inherent part of being a trans woman

    I think these are negative stereotypes that might counter-balance the good… I felt QUEER EYE’s stereotypical messages (gay men are primarily into tanning, clothes, cooking and interior decorating) were also negative;, nevertheless, everyone seemed to love the show.

    I usually ask myself: Could a member of the Religious Right watch these shows without a problem? Since I know a fair few of em, I will often ask them outright…. they had no trouble watching QUEER EYE (since it WAS, as Natalie pointed out, really about the straight guy) but they seemed to have some trouble w/WILL AND GRACE. So go figure. (?)

    I think they could watch TRANSform Me without a hitch, which is what concerns me.

  8. March 5, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I am very uncomfortable with this concept. It’s not even really about the glam thing (though, *sigh*) but what Kristin mentioned in #3.

    Trans* people and trans women especially already have to contend with stereotypes portraying us as inherently deceptive. It doesn’t just stop there. Bathroom panics and panic justifications for assault and homicide use this assumption that we are deceptive (just by existing and wanting to do things everyone does, like pee) and predatory, that we put on these disguises so we can get closer to our innocent unsuspecting cis person targets.

    Presumably there will be two reveals in TRANSform Me: one of the person being made over and one that the people doing the makeover are trans women. The people making the show could hardly be playing more into this hateful harmful stereotype if they were trying.

  9. March 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    You know what would be a good episode of that show? If those fashionable trans women came and made over this crusty trans woman who dresses like Kurt Cobain every day. If only I had some interest in being on a makeover show! Bummer.

  10. Bagelsan
    March 5, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    It’s kind of interesting that, for cis straight men, cis gay men can dress them up but the equivalent (cis lesbians) aren’t being told to doll up cis straight women. So it’s not only stereotypes about transwomen, I suspect, but also sort of stereotypes about lesbians-in-absentia — you know lesbians only wear baggy plaid lumberjack shirts and men’s shoes! They can’t be expected to give style advice!

    Certain people are considered stylish by virtue of their sexuality and certain people are not, as always…and I guess cis gay men and transwomen are both considered to perform femininity enough to get grouped together in this kind of show (which also makes me wonder if the show sees *any* difference between the two groups — are these transwoman just being treated like more “fabulous” gay men?)

  11. Bagelsan
    March 5, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    I guess, as a cis woman, I find it less objectionable to have women making over women rather than men making over women, at least. I’m tired of hearing what dudes think of women’s fashion/bodies. :p Silver lining, maybe?

  12. RK
    March 5, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    While I’d have to watch it to really judge the portrayal of trans women on the show, I’m not hopeful. I think it’s probably pretty likely that there will be a ‘surprise twist revelation’ about the women doing the makeovers being trans; but even if there isn’t, the description sounds like it plays into the idea that trans women are all tackily ostentatious… a ‘fashion ambulance,’ complete with sirens and lights? Please.

    The fact that it’s being promoted during Ru Paul’s Drag Race also bothers me, and plays into the same issue… doing drag is not the same as being trans, it’s not even close. Drag is all about taking gender performance to an ostentatious extreme, being trans is all about simply being who you are. I admire drag as an entertaining way for people to mess around with gender norms, particularly with regard to clothing, but these two very different issues get conflated enough when the host of Drag Race says things like, “gentlemen, start your engines… and may the best woman win!” in reference to the male cisgender drag performers beginning this or that challenge. Promoting a show about actual trans women during a show about men who impersonate women (even if they do so passionately and consider drag to be important to their identities) seems like it’s just going to muddy things up more for those who don’t really get the difference.

  13. March 6, 2010 at 1:59 am


    Ok. Looking at the format and the way the show was pitched I can see two things right off.

    One, a trans woman pitched and conceived the show, but apparently it took someone else to actively produce it.

    Two, a 30 minute show doesn’t allow for a ton of time to to a “OMG reveal” and the promo images clearly show the gals together with the person in a dressing room kind of environment.

    Given some of the other stuff, I suspect it’s gong to sorta run like this: audition tape snippets, partially refilmed to show just how desperate this poor gal is for a makeover. Followed by the “you are going to be onthe show, oh joy”, which then segues into the whole “look, here we are to make you over” and “omg, you are like, a guy” with the ten seconds of that followed by so “here’s what we are going to do here” and then the usual montage (probably a take from WNTW), followed by style and grooming tips delivered “trans style”, during which the freaked out person “suddenly realizes just how awesome these gals are” and then the big reveal to friend s and family, who get to see trans folk n a “positive light”.

    I am doomed. Both my roommate and I are into fashion and style (despite a 20+ year difference in ages) and so we’ll watch at least one or two episodes.

    Target demographic skews young, as well, so the reactions won’t be like 50 somethings. Probably late 20’s early 30’s. Middle income.

    I do like the multicultural aspect — as well as the multiple history part. I do not like the obvious stuff, but I’m hoping that since the show was created by trans (I didn’t watch the Diddy stuff so I don’t know how she was there), that much of the trans stuff will be relaxed.

    There’s certainly an effort being made to “get it in front of an audience” so there will almost certainly be shock value — but the curiosity factor may allow it to do what was already noted: make people aware of us.

    I do find it interesting that this show got a slot, while Boss Ladies is still seeking one (five trans women compete for their own beauty salon).

    Eventually we may well get our own Will and Grace, but apparently we’re still en route there.

  14. ginasf
    March 6, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    The ultimate subtext of this show is:

    -femininity is artificial and oppressive
    -trans women value femininity because they are artificial
    -Queer subtext: trans women do femininity because they believe in an oppressive binary and imposed patriarchal standards of gender-policing. Transwomen are oppressors.

    “revealing” trans women’s “real identities” is all about proving how fake, appropriative and deceptive trans women are. Whatever other positive messages of mainstream trans exposure might be in this show are really almost meaningless in the face of this message.

    Moreover, trans women (like myself) are supposed to think it’s a compliment if we’re told by cis-woman, “you know, you actually have a good sense of style/look like a woman (for someone like you)!”

    Forgive me if I take a pass on saying ‘you’re welcome.’

  15. March 6, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Btw, here’s a ‘lovely’ quote from our friends at Queerty about the same show:

    “But this is actually a breakthrough moment for our transgender gals out there. America is used to thinking of gay men as the ultimate style must-have, with their snap fashion decisions and know-it-all tips on slimming outerwear. But it was the T girls who were forgotten about — a shame, because nobody knows about fine-tuning a woman’s outfit than a former man trying to fit in.”

    As usual, Queerty is a multiple community offender.

  16. karak
    March 7, 2010 at 12:24 am

    I’m cautiously hopeful. Most people I know don’t understand the differences between gay men, drag queens, transvestites, and transwomen, so this might be a great platform to get people familiar with the concept of transwomen, at least.

    I’m also a huge sucker for makeover shows, in general, so I’m excited on that ground as well.

    I tentatively like the idea of transwomen being displayed as feminine, beautiful, and “real women”, but like an above poster, wonder if that’s playing into trans stereotypes as ultra-femme and pathetic being the two default modes of transwomen.

    I think I will watch it–along with the Jessica Simpson about beauty around the world.

  17. March 7, 2010 at 2:25 am

    I could do with the help.
    Not to be a Fashionista, but to have the choice.
    Still, as my budget for food and clothing is 70c/day, it probably wouldn’t help.

  18. peanutty
    March 16, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    I watched the show and thought it was great.

    There was no “gotcha” moment – it was made clear from the beginning (but not overstated) that the makeover team are transgendered women.

    30 minutes felt just right for the “OMG reveal” (clothes, hair, makeup and attitude were adequately covered).

    Nicole wanted some direction (she wasn’t ambushed like the people on “What Not to Wear”), and this makeover inspired her to be more confident.

    Laverne, Jamie and Nina were not portrayed as ‘punchlines.’ The fact that they went to Laverne’s hometown and we got to see ‘before’ photos and hear some of their individual stories made them likeable. It’s refreshing to see a makeover team that’s more on the nice and helpful side rather than intimidating and mean-spirited.

    Having experienced a dramatic weightloss of my own, I really identified with Nicole and felt that Laverne, Jamie and Nina are appropriate role models to give advice about re-inventing oneself and making a dramatic transformation into the person you want to be.

  19. angry trans man
    March 18, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    I don’t feel that this post is accurate. I was disappointed to see so many women criticizing a show they hadn’t even seen. Now that the show is available online, perhaps you could revisit the topic (unless you’re going to be anti-feminine, in which case please don’t bother. Yawn.).

    Don’t miss this extensive video interview with Laverne Cox, the creator and star of TRANSform Me. The interview covers topics such as racism, internalized transphobia, and overcoming the lack of opportunities for trans women in the media. Imagine if we actually listened to her instead of speaking on her behalf.

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