The Un/Familiar Trans Romance of BOY MEETS GIRL (The Sitcom & Movie)

In September 2015 BBC2 began airing a new sitcom Boy Meets Girl, a 6-episode series focused on an early-days romance between young man Leo (Harry Heple) and middle-aged trans woman Judy (Rebecca Root). It was not the first mainstream British show to feature a transgender character in a prominent role (Coronation Street‘s Hayley Cropper, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh), but it is the first to have that role played a trans actress (Root, also a comedian and voice coach, transitioned in 2003). The show was developed by Elliot Kerrigan for the Trans Comedy Award, a competition run by BBC Writersroom and media advocacy group All About Trans, which offered comedy writers up to £5,000 for a script featuring positive portrayal of transgender individuals.

The sitcom is a collision of the traditional and progressive. The kind of conversations the characters have, about transition, identity and genital status, are not the ones we’re used to seeing on a terrestial BBC channel. The subject is interesting and even provocative, buy my God the form is antiquated. The credit sequence, set to the anodyne tunes of Lindisfarne’s ‘Meet Me on The Corner’, is like they plugged ‘family sitcom’ into a Beeb computer, setting ‘unassuming’. We have a standard sitcom family: average block hero; gruff, put-upon Dad; brash Brummie mother (played by Denise Welch) and Inbetweeners-style younger brother, who uses words like ‘sick’ and ‘bruv’. Judy’s annoying, dim-witted sister and mother round off the panto feel. And across Simon Carlyle and Andrew Mettam’s six teleplays there isn’t a good gag in sight. Boy Meets Girl has its heart in the right place, but as entertainment it sucks.

It’s disappointing but not that surprising coming from the BBC, which consistently drops the ball when it comes to comedy, especially to sitcoms, a failing that applies to both Northern Irish and mainland programming (this is the network that ran My Family for 11 seasons). Given the involvement of All About Trans, and the corporation’s risk-averse nature, it’s easy to suspect that the priority was politeness and non-offensiveness, rather than sharp comedy. Boy Meets Girl is ground-breaking but it is also safe and domestic and doesn’t make much a case for watching beyond the first episode.

But before the Beeb’s efforts, there was another Boy Meets Girl; an independent American film made available on Netflix during the year, also about a transgender woman, also played by a transgender actress.

Boy Meets Girl the movie is written and directed by Eric Schaeffer, a New York writer-director-actor who was once a contender for Gawker’s Douche of the Decade after his reality show I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single. Working off a premise that feels pure Lifetime, the film stars Michelle Hendley as Ricky, a trans woman with big city dreams living in a small Kentucky town. Schaeffer cast Hendley, not a professional actress, after seeing Youtube videos she made to document her transition.

Working in a coffee shop and waiting on an acceptance letter from New York’s Fashion Institute, Ricky designs fashion from at home and shares her creations on Youtube. Otherwise, she shoots the shit with her long-term male best friend Robby (Michael Welch, who played Mike Norton in the Twilight movies and has been cast in Syfy’s Z Nation). The film opens with a Youtube-style straight-to-camera video of a teenage Ricky using Dylan-style flash cards to explain her various troubles (anorexia, bullying, the death of her mother), but college-age Ricky seems to have put the bulk of her woes behind her, enjoying an easygoing relationship with her father, brother and the customers that filter in and the coffee shop.

Enter a Southern belle. Francesca (Alexandra Turshen) is beautiful, conservative and repressed, with a daddy running for office and a marine fiancé in Afghanistan, who, of course, she’s saving her virginity for. They meet and there’s a bit of frisson. Francesca tells her boyfriend about her new friend and he explodes with transphobic slurs, calling Ricky a ‘freak’ and ‘thing’ that makes him ‘want to puke’. The film seems to setting up an obvious and binary culture war opposition, progressive, tolerant, gender-fluid liberal America versus the bigotry of stars ’n’ stripes apple pie, while also confirming right-wing paranoia about subversion and infiltration, Ricky ‘tempting’ the good all-American gal.

From a basic technical perspective, this is not a great film. The budget shows: limited locations (lots of indoor scenes), small cast, TV-friendly shooting style, basic lighting. In storytelling terms there’s also an over-reliance on melodrama and coincidence. Example: Ricky’s little bother has been helped her make Youtube videos on her computer, but it isn’t until the third-act moment of conflict that he notices his sister’s videos describing her teenage suicidal thoughts, even though the folder is right on the desktop, and there’s only two icons on the desktop in the first place. Robby and Ricky have just had a big fight, and the video prompts him to run around the town after her, fearing for her safety (the film, to its credit, doesn’t give Ricky some dramatic moment of self-harm, trusting that she’s used to dealing with pain by this point).

One of the film’s strengths is how it integrates parts of the trans experience into romantic comedy beats and tropes, blending the familiar and unfamiliar in a way that is both predictable and radical. Ricky still can’t afford to have the genital reassignment surgery yet, so she still has sex with her dick. She likes guys, but has only had sex once, and that was a while ago, Francesca is the first girl she’s ever been attracted to. Their romance is doubly taboo then, functioning as both a transgender and lesbian moment. When they kiss in Ricky’s bedroom, the actors’ hesitant anticipation and the naturalistic, low-frills presentation make their scenes of tentative physical intimacy genuinely erotic and exciting. Moving to the bed, they exchange affectionate, exploratory banter like any other pair of lovers, though the terms are more specific:

‘You’re soft, like…’
‘A girl?’
‘And it’s hard, like…’
‘A boy?’

There are good scenes involving Ricky and Robby just talking to eachother about her burgeoning romance with Francesca and how it further complicates the question of labels: gay, straight and bi. Ricky considers herself straight (a girl that likes boys), but she’s having a lesbian moment, and she’s going to be fucking with her penis. She has to ask her friend what it feels like to be inside a vagina, and what exactly she’s supposed to do (Bobby assures her that once she gets going, nature and thousands of years of DNA have made sure she’ll know what to do). For Bobby, struggling to get his head around shifting definitions, a dick in a vagina makes it straight sex. But, Ricky proposes, has he ever had a girl stick some fingers up his ass, and if so is this really a million ways away from receiving anal?

This is not the most elegant approach to sexual fluidity, to be fair, but it does feel close to how friends in the real world would actually chat about the issue, and plays up the difficulty of keeping everybody in their lane. Also, critically, Ricky is not a special snowflake. Angry at her nonchalance towards her romance with Francesca, Bobby explodes in a rant at her self-pity: ‘You think you have the market cornered in feeling alienated? […] We’re all just stumbling through life, trying to figure this shit out!’ It’s a moment of catharsis before the inevitable resolution, when the two realise their all-along love for eachother, but it’s also an attempt to broaden the specific experience of trans alienation and loneliness and bring it within the more general sphere of Life’s Occasional Shittiness.

There is also the question of trans bodies on screen. The film talks about the mechanics of trans sex but is cagey about showing it in action, sticking within the across-the-board confines of the romantic comedy. We get some flesh when Ricky goes to bed with Francesca, but a fuller moment of exposure occurs later, just before she and Bobby confirm that they’ve loved eachother all along. A panicking Bobby finds her swimming in the lake and she bursts from the lake, the full frontal reveal of her naked body, and stands naked in front of him.

It’s a potent image and one that sticks with you. Female bodies emerging from water (lakes, the sea, pools) has historically been an cinematic marker of seduction, glamour, availability and power. But the water is also a site of danger and otherness, even monstrosity, with creatures from black lagoons and mythical bifurcated mer-people. The moment when a nude Ricky wades out of the water, one of literal and symbolic revelation, is mesmerising and challenging and unglamourous. You honestly don’t really think about how little exposure cinema gives to trans bodies, at least in a manner that isn’t designed to humiliate. ‘You still think I’m beautiful?’ she asks; we know what his answer is going to be. The two get down to it; cut to the standard morning bedsheet tableaux. Honesty and vulnerability are means of destranging the unfamiliar, bringing it — again — within the sphere of recognisable human experience.

The urge towards recognition is central to the film’s ethics and character dynamics, confounding some expectations about how conflict is going to play out. When David, Francesca’s fiance, returns home he confronts Ricky and wrestles her to the ground, for a second there hangs the unbearable possibility of rape, but she fights back and references vaguely their previous run-in. Later, David explains the reasons behind his anger to Francesca: He lost his virginity to Ricky when they were at high school together, a quickie in a closet, while she was transitioning. He’s ashamed of this brush with queer sex and was anxious of Francesca’s new proximity to his secret. They both apologise and Francesca reassures him that she’s not a lesbian and she’s not in love with Ricky, she just really liked being around her. They decide to postpone but not cancel the wedding, and use the time to get to know eachother properly again, resolving to be more honest in the future.

The value of being seen is paramount to the ending, which is both insufferably cheesy and quite moving. Robby, David and Francesca turn up to Ricky’s house with stuffed bags of letters. Robby been got in contact with actual Youtuber Grace Heibig (AKA Daily Grace), who, clad in one of Ricky’s creations, urges her followers to send her a dollar each so she can afford fashion school. Ricky’s teenage video goes viral, and a montage shows it being watched on computers and phones Across These United States. It’s a reminder how far ahead of film web video platforms like Youtube are in offering young people the space to articulate and share struggles with sex and gender, and receive recognition from a community of viewers.

Youtube’s importance in the narrative of Boy Meets Girl is a marker of how the broadening of queer and trans representation in culture is intertwined with changes in how content is made and consumed. The film’s existence is helped by the increased affordability of film-making equipment, and distribution networks like Netflix that allow small films to gain wider audiences. One of this year’s indie breakout success, the fantastic screwball buddy comedy Tangerine, cast amateur trans actresses as its leads and was famously filmed on a modified iPhone. Word is that the Wachowskis’ Sense8, a Netflix original show which features trans characters, really pushes character and form (though I haven’t had the chance to see the show myself).

Mainstream society’s ongoing knowledge and acceptance of trans experience means learning to think about familiar ideas and routines in altered ways. Clichés guard against the terror of the new by giving us stabilisers. If deployed with some finesse they can smuggle in the future.

Boy Meets Girl (movie) is available on Netflix.