I am not a trans woman. I am writing this piece as a nonbinary identified mixed race woman, and I recognize that this show speaks to and for, first and foremost, an audience of which I am not a part. I apologize in advance if I step out of line at any point; I am only doing my best to elevate the narratives crafted here.
Her Story is a rare gift, one that we must fight to make less rare.
From the website: “Her Story is a 6-episode new-media series about two trans women in Los Angeles who have given up on love, when suddenly chance encounters give them hope…Her Story depicts the unique, complicated, and very human women we see in queer communities, and explores how these women navigate the intersections of label identity and love.”
The main three characters of this season are Violet, a white trans woman with a past drug addiction and a history of sex work, Paige, a Black trans woman and Lambda Legal lawyer, and Allie, a white cis lesbian writer. All three are skinny and able bodied.
Paige is straight and Violet identifies as straight, though she says: “Before my transition, I dated women.” Allie asks if this is common, to which Violet replies “it’s not uncommon. There’s really no normal.” That line alone simply needed to be said: trans experiences are vast and diverse, far beyond stereotype, and it’s tremendously refreshing to hear this expressed honestly.
Her Story does not endeavor or suggest to represent all of them, only to represent the trans experiences of these characters authentically, and this awareness is also refreshing.
Her Story explores some of the realities of trans womanhood, the beautiful and the painful, from a place of authority. I want to talk a bit about just some of the issues touched upon — and the rest, you’ll have to watch yourself!
Passing, Dysphoria, and Body Policing
One of the most memorable and crucial scenes takes place in the beginning of the second episode, when Violet describes her own internal process of body policing to Allie. Our cisheteropatriarchal society has very specific codes for being perceived as a cis woman, and Violet expresses what it’s like to instinctively police yourself to protect yourself as a trans woman, as well as instinctively checking your own identity as it compares to cis people.
Overall, the concept of “passing” as cis as a demarcation of trans validity is a problem. Trans women should not have to alter their voice, appearance, or mannerisms any more than they choose in order to be recognized as female — trans women should not have to appeal to the male gaze to be recognized as female (ie, many cis conversations surrounding Caitlyn Jenner), but transmisogyny and prescriptive standards of womanhood often heavily shape these experiences.
Even if a trans individual is confident in their own gender identity, being misread or “outed” by a cis person can make them feel less valid, even if that cis person believes they have good intentions. “Are you transgender?” Allie asks, and Violet replies, “I wish it weren’t so obvious, but yes.”
Not all trans people and trans women share this experience, but many simply want to be recognized as people and women.
Furthermore, it is not always obvious — when Violet points out that Paige is also trans, Allie is surprised.
“I’ve never met a trans person before,” Allie says. “That you know of,” Violet replies, reinforcing that making assumptions about identity based solely on the perceived body is ignorance as well as an outright form of body terrorism.
Violet then explains that next to a cis man, she feels no doubts about her womanhood. But next to a cis woman: “Okay, look,” she says. “This whole time, a part of my mind has been noting how much bigger my hands are, wondering if people are clocking my voice. It’s hard to feel totally present with all of that.” This struggle is a familiar experience for many trans people. Even if it does not trigger dysphoria, it is still a level of self-consciousness that cis people have the privilege of not experiencing. Violet should be able to get a cup of coffee with a cis woman without having to compare Allie’s existence with her own valid womanhood, but that is not the reality for many trans women — this scene is.
More Radical Reads: Vulnerability and Visibility as a Trans Woman
Cissexism, TERFs, and Outing
This scene also gets at what becomes a larger theme: the way our identities are affected by the perceived gender binary. Gender is a spectrum, not a binary, but many cis people — including queer cis people — do not recognize this truth.
Trans women have spoken about how they feel they must “perform” femininity around cis women to whom it seems to come more naturally — though of course, the reality is that gender is a construct and that cis women are performing too, they’ve only been doing it longer and haven’t been perceived otherwise.
Later in this episode, Allie mentions her interest in Violet to her friends, who are all cis lesbians. Most, especially one named Lisa, respond with vitriolic transphobia: they challenge Violet’s validity as a woman because of the assumption that she has a penis.
Much of the rhetoric used by Allie’s friends is popular with TERFs and radfems: “trans exclusionary radical feminists,” cis people who purport to support equity and feminism but exhibit militant cissexism, believing that trans people are “pretending” for one reason or the other.
Lisa goes so far as to say that trans women “represent the exact opposite of what feminism has worked to achieve” and claims that they are invading female spaces, too-familiar TERF rhetoric. Paige eventually calls Lisa out for her ignorance, explicitly citing how liberal-minded feminists and queer people can be just as or more dangerous as outright hatred, their ostensible well-meaning obscuring their actual prejudices and lack of intersectional consciousness.
Dating When Trans & Violence Against Trans Women
Violet also has choices taken away from her at the onset of the show. She reveals that she participated in escort services, a connection she made through a trans support group and not an uncommon choice for trans women, for whom careers and validation are too often in short supply. Violet expresses that she had never felt attractive before, and “the money was proof that [she] was worth something.”
Her cis boyfriend, Mark, was formerly one of her regular clients. Now, he has manipulated and trapped her with promises of money and stability — and the insistence that she is worthless without him, that no one else will “love” her. Mark violates her physically as well as emotionally. Her Story sensitively explores this too-common abusive dynamic between cis men and the transgender woman they fetishize then manipulate. Cis men like Mark use the self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy catalyzed by transphobia that may already exist in their girlfriends in order to blame the women for their own acts of hatred and violence.
More Radical Reads: Not Everyone’s Born This Way: Coming into My Trans Identity
It is crucial that these stories are told. It is crucial that they are told from a place of sensitivity and authority. We cannot avoid the fact that the premise of Her Story is somewhat framed through Allie’s eyes — an ignorant cis lesbian who makes more than a few upsetting comments. This choice seems to serve to bridge the gap between viewers though — acknowledging that the show is by and for trans women, but also seeks to educate queer people and would-be feminists by calling out their common mistakes. Ultimately, watching this was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Every word is carefully chosen, every plot line is written with the intentionality to share and shape trans realities. Finally, finally, finally, a show that allows trans women to fall in love, speak their truths, call “allies” on their problematic ignorance — and to star, to be neither the subplot nor the sidejoke, but the focus. A show that tells her story.
So watch it! It’s 6 episodes, about 8-11 minutes each, and free. I can’t wait for season two, and I hope that Her Story sets precedents for many, many more stories to come.
[Feature Image: A shot taken from the Her Story web series. Her Story co-writer/actor Jen Richards is on set at a bar. Richards is leaning over the bar smiling with long brown hair falling to her shoulders, there is also a small crowd in the bar. Photo Credit: Tamea A. photobytamea.com]