Getting To Know The Creator Of ‘Babes,’ The Web’s Cutest Queer Series
By Sarah Ratchford
AJ Ripley makes queer life in a small town painfully, hilariously real.
It’s pretty much impossible to have a conversation with AJ Ripley and come away without having had at least one genuine laugh.
Ripley is the creator of Babes, a new web series about queer life and friendship in small-town Canada. T. Thomason, a nonbinary trans man with ever-present dimples and conspiratorial expression, plays AJ, a nonbinary character loosely based on Ripley. The show chronicles the early stages of AJ’s transition, but its real focus is the relationship between AJ and their best friend Sybil (Emily Reuangrith), both of whom are struggling to feel at home in their small town of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Fredericton, the capital of the Eastern Canadian province, is a white collar city where life mostly revolves around its universities, government, and the military. There is actually a high LGBTQ population per capita there, but queer, artistic, and socially politicized people still find themselves marginalized in the city at large.
Enter Babes. The crew, headed by Ripley and director Victoria Clowater, is made up mostly of women, trans, and queer folks. The first six episodes were released in the summer, and two more dropped a couple of weeks ago. (Rather than building up seasons and dropping them as a package, AJ is releasing them as they’re finished.) AJ and I settle into a Skype call late on a Monday evening so they can tell me more.
The Establishment: What made you realize that now was the time to make a web series?
AJ Ripley: I started writing it a few months before I came out as trans. My father had been diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s and I was losing him quickly. I said to my best friend, Marie Fox, that I just wanted to laugh. In the beginning I wanted to explore that best friend relationship. Not everybody has access to this romantic love idea that is so constantly peddled in popular media, and at that time in my life, I had had a series of failed relationships. She was the one person who was always there. So the story started there, but it sort of grew into this place of fiction. Then, when I came out as trans, this became an opportunity for trans representation, and to do it in a way that we don’t always see. We get this idea that there’s one way to be trans because certain narratives are told so often in popular culture — the “born in the wrong body” narrative is one that we hear a lot, but it wasn’t necessarily that cut and dried for me.
We get this idea that there’s one way to be trans because certain narratives are told so often in popular culture.
My favorite scene is where AJ goes to their first trans support group, and the woman asks what they like to be called. AJ thinks she means in bed, and starts making fun of people who don’t know how to talk dirty. The woman meant pronouns, and confusion ensues. How true to your own life is that scene, and the show in general?
In every episode there’s a flicker of truth, but it is fiction. I remember going to my first trans support group meeting and realizing that there’s this whole language that I need to understand and open myself to. But at the same time, I just wanted to get through the day and call myself something. AJ doesn’t explain transitioning to a cis audience. That isn’t interesting to me. I just want the character to fumble through their transition and have the audience be along for that messy ride.
‘If every trans character we see is only speaking to their gender, it’s a one-dimensional rendering.’theestablishment.co
There’s a lot of truth when it comes to place. Having grown up in New Brunswick myself, the show made me so homesick! How important was it to you to film at home?
It was the most important. Most narratives about trans people are set in bigger cities, and it’s true that there’s less exposure to trans people here. People may not know how to show support or allyship when this might be the first time they’ve heard the word trans, which in New Brunswick is a reality. There are pockets of accepting and wonderful people everywhere, but there’s a different dynamic here than there is in Toronto or New York. I wanted to bust some stereotypes. There’s a lot of misconceptions that older people have an issue with queer and trans identity. What we’re going to learn from Gladys’s character is that she doesn’t have a problem; she just doesn’t have the language. So she’s going to say a lot of inappropriate things. But she’s going to learn and she’s going to accept these people who are in her life now. I think that happens a lot in smaller towns. There may not necessarily be politically correct language, but I think hearts and minds can be open.
I see that happening, too. In the wake of increased awareness and Jeffrey Tambor’s speech calling for better representation of trans actors, do you actually see the trans involvement in Hollywood improving?
This is what my Ph.D. is looking at. I think we have a lot of work to do. When I think of which trans experiences are seen on screen, we don’t get a lot of trans men, we don’t see a lot of trans people of color. We don’t see a lot of non-binary trans people. So those are all areas that we need to consider, but some shows are doing an amazing job. Like I’m 100 per cent hooked on Strut. It’s a reality show about a trans modeling agency, so it’s like ANTM except they’re not competing so they don’t have that weird “Who is more beautiful?” [aspect]. They’re just models who are in the industry and need help getting more gigs. And they’re all mostly people of color, which is awesome.
When I think of which trans experiences are seen on screen, we don’t get a lot of trans men, we don’t see a lot of trans people of color.
I’m downloading it as soon as we get off Skype. To loop it back to your own show, what are your hopes going forward?
I think a lot of the time we see the terrible things that happen to trans people — and they are terrible. But we don’t always have room to talk about how some things that happen to trans people are just weird and hilarious. If we took time to laugh about how ludicrous it is that we police people’s gender so carefully, maybe we could stop doing that.