I surprised a lot of people last night, I think, when just before shutting my laptop for the evening I posted the following on on Facebook: “I won’t be watching the Jenner interview tonight. After much reflection, I actually don’t think it’s all that important.”
Many interpreted my brusqueness as an indicator of low expectations for the content of the interview, which is eminently understandable. Media coverage of transgender stories is so predictably terrible there’s a drinking game for it (“Shot of subject putting on makeup: drink one shot”).
But that wasn’t the case at all. I expected the content to be solid; I know and trust the people ABC consulted for their cultural competence and messaging advice. In fact, I hoped the interview would set a new standard in the field. (By most accounts, it appears to have done so.)
So here’s what I meant when I said “it’s not all that important”:
1. The Jenner interview will have very little qualitative impact on The Work.
The things that need doing to secure legal equality and social inclusion for transgender people today, post-interview, are substantively the same as the things that needed done yesterday: educate the public, advocate in the halls of power, defend our communities from attacks, and support those in need. The Work hasn’t changed for decades — for centuries, really. It’s the same Work across all movements and identities and contexts. The Work is what marginalized and oppressed people have always had to do to survive and thrive in the face of the apathy of the privileged and the antagonism of the prejudiced. Same old, same old.
2. What may have changed post-interview is the quantity of The Work that needs doing today.
Because of increased awareness, interest, and attention brought by the Jenner interview, there will likely be more opportunities to educate, advocate, defend, and support than there were yesterday. More transgender people will choose to live openly, inspired by Jenner’s courageous choice. More companies will want training on transgender inclusion. More schools and churches will need help crafting inclusive policies. And, unfortunately, more exclusionary and discriminatory bills and policies will be drafted. More justifications for hatred will be offered and more violence will be done.
To me, this was all the more reason to do something more productive with those two hours last night than watching television — really important things like resting my body at the end of a tiring day of travel, enjoying my family after a week working in California, spending time with my mom who’d dropped by for the weekend.
As weird as it may sound, the fact that the interview may have created more opportunities to advance transgender equality made it far less important to me to watch it.
3. The media doesn’t work like you think it does.
I think we transgender people often look to the media as the creator of or the solution to all our problems. If we could just get more of our good stories out into the media, we think, we’d win this damn thing. I see this all the time — we’re falling all over ourselves to get in front of the cameras, to get on reality shows, to get our picture on the front page. It’s a little embarrassing sometimes how bad we seem to want this, and to what undignified levels we’re willing to stoop to get it.
But the truth about media is that it isn’t really a problem or a solution. It’s just a tool — a tool that’s far more unwieldy and far less effective than is often realized, because it’s a tool with a mind of its own. And it’s got its mind on its money, and its money on its mind.
Always remember — never, ever forget — that the media isn’t primarily about keeping the public informed or disseminating accurate information or objectively reporting events. The media is a business, and just like any other business it is about making money. To wit: ABC ran the Jenner interview because they knew they could get millions of eyeballs on the commercials they ran during those two hours. Period. If they didn’t believe they could get and keep those eyeballs on their ad content, they never would have run the interview.
So whether you’re creating it or consuming it, commercial media is almost never worth the time, energy, or emotion you invest in it.
“But Allyson,” you’re saying, “You do media all the time.”
Sure, I’m on TV sometimes. But it’s not much time relative to the time I invest in doing The Work in more efficient, more productive ways. That’s because the media is a really poor tool for advocacy, defending the community, and supporting those in need. It turns out that relationships are a far more efficient way to get those parts of The Work done. Go figure.
And with the one little bit of The Work where the media could be most helpful, educating the public, it’s hobbled by it’s dependence on ad revenue. It has to show pictures of a trans woman putting on mascara or doing the laundry in a skirt and heels or dramatic ‘before and after” shots, because society’s desire to leer at those things is what gets eyeballs on the screen. It’s no coincidence that the news program called “the gold standard for covering transgender issues” was canceled earlier this year because of low ratings.
You don’t get millions of people to watch a transgender story by telling it well. Unless, of course, the subject is already part of a multi-million dollar media empire. And even then you have to run hundreds of promos and pull out all the social media stops to gin up viewers, and you still have to stoop to a few of the same old clichés. That’s what most of those viewers are there for — and you can’t risk disappointing them.
For that reason alone, the media will never be more than a mediocre tool for doing The Work. And for that reason alone, media events like the Jenner interview will never be all that important in the grand scheme of The Work.
And that’s why I won’t be watching.