In Memory of Erica Bettis (2001-2002)

Most anything that emerges from Donald Trump’s mouth will get me to yell “Bullshit!”

Everything that slithers out of Mike Pence’s mouth will.

(Okay, I lied.  Anything that either one of them says will.)

And pretty much any rote, plastic-smiled recitation – by anyone – of Dan Savage’s most famous nothing-ism will as well.

It does not always get better.

Well after the Human Rights Campaign and Barney Frank began perfecting their tag-team transphobia mantra (‘This is too new to deal with!’), a major, mainstream motion picture had a trans woman as a main character – and the makers of that motion picture allowed a trans woman to play that trans woman.  Director Clint Eastwood, strange political creature that he is, saw fit to allow The Lady Chablis  to portray herself in the movie.  And Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil  premiered on November 21, 1997.  A week and a half later, the Fox television series Ally McBeal featured a storyline about a trans woman sex worker – who is given a job at the titular character’s hoity-toity law firm in order to give her a chance at a life and career she had never had before.  Even if, two decades on, you’re not familiar with the episode “Boy to the World,” you can probably guess (accurately) two things about it: (1) the sex worker character of Stephanie was played by a cis gay man and (2) without any explanation whatsoever, despite being handed the sort of job that no trans women in the real world – even ones with law degrees – were even being considered for in 1997 Stephanie goes back to hooking on the street and ends up being murdered.

And the less said about Ask Harriet, the better.

Now…fast forward four years.

In the fall of 2001, it seemed as though representations of trans women on prime-time television were getting better.  Ally McBeal had recently had a somewhat less disgusting trans storyline.  There were problems with the Cindy McCauliff arc, but it was light years more legitimate than the Dame Edna-infused storyline that would soon be inflicted on its viewers.  Throughout the summer CBS touted a heavyweight new drama which would get the choice, post-60 Minutes slot on Sunday nights: The Education of Max Bickford.  The touting was not without good reason.  The title character, an Ivy League History/American Studies professor, was going to be played by Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss; another Oscar-winner, Marcia Gay Harden, would co-star as another prof in the same department (who, for purposes of intrigue, was also one of Bickford’s former students – with whom Bickford had had a brief sexual relationship.)  Bickford’s oldest child would be portrayed by future sci-fi Battlegoddess Katee Sackhoff.

Okay, CBS actually didn’t have the foresight to tout Sackhoff in that manner; in retrospect, if somehow they had been able to, I’m sure the ratings for Max Bickford would have been better (but then Sackhoff would have been unavailable a few years later and the rebooted Starbuck might have ended up being portrayed by a Kardashian – but I won’t go there.)

And, there is also no way that CBS could have known that this new series – set in liberal academia and focusing on an ultra-liberal faculty member therein – would end up premiering less than two weeks after 9/11.  Here is how Variety’s pre-premiere review – dated September 18, but probably actually written before the attacks – viewed the upcoming the series:

CBS deserves to gloat over “The Education of Max Bickford.” The much-promo’d Richard Dreyfuss starrer is primed to score with the adult crowd. A complete turnaround from “Touched by an Angel,” the project could use some tinkering, but its literary proclivities and sharp dialogue translate into a noteworthy fall entry.

Ah…tinkering.  There’s the rub.

For the main cast also included another prof character. Erica Bettis would be portrayed by Helen Shaver.  The premiere of the series features Erica coming back from a sabbatical.

Steve Bettis had left on the sabbatical approximately a year earlier.

Finally, there would be a trans woman character on a prime-time network show who was neither a sex worker nor a drug addict nor a punch line (we’ll never know if, had the absurdist comedy The Last Precinct survived beyond eight episodes, the character of Mel eventually would have been blessed with some degree of depth.)  Yes, Erica wouldn’t be portrayed by a trans woman, but focusing on that would have seemed like quibbling at the time.

Steve had been Max’s best friend and Max, while aware of the transition, was not fully comfortable with it.  But the discomfort wasn’t situated as Pat McCrory-esque right-wing, fake-morality.  Rather it was that of a middle-aged academic who thought of himself as liberal but had some trouble handling change (sex and otherwise) when it might affect him personally.  It really came to a head in what was my favorite episode of the series: “Who Is Breckenridge Long?”  The Erica portion of the story involved her receiving her post-transition birth certificate – something that unnerved Max, who, despite being anything but right-wing, nevertheless devolved into a favorite right-wing (and TERF – I know…same thing, but I digress) rant: likening gender transition to species transition.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say Max mentions dogs and Erica does something to Max which humans are known to do to dogs (hint: a rolled-up newspaper was involved.)

The other part of the story involved the person referenced in the title of the episode.  Or, more accurately, it involved a fictional alumna of the fictional school – who had worked for the real Long at the real State Department before and during World War II and, when the modern-day students of her alma mater protest her being given an award due to what Long is most remembered for doing (and, most importantly, not doing), is forced to admit that, indeed, when she was young she had been complicit in the anti-Semitic manner in which Long had operated his portion of the agency – and how it impacted the ‘voyage of the damned.’

That part of the story also involved whether people could change.  Some of the students accepted the old woman’s assertion that she had; others didn’t.  The combination of the two storylines has allowed me to use the episode not only in my trans history classes but also in history classes dealing more generally with 20th century history.

But there wouldn’t be many more storylines involving Erica for me to use.  A combination of unspectacular ratings and nasty fighting between CBS and the show’s producers led to a decision being taken to shift the focus of the series away from Max’s life at the university and toward Max’s life at home.  Someone had to go, and it damn sure wasn’t going to be the second Oscar-winner in the cast.

Now, as much as I did – and still do – lament the jettisoning of Erica, I have never been unreasonable about it.  If the decision was made to get rid of the character – whatever the reason may have been (ratings, change of focus of the show, etc.) – then make it a useful event.  I’ve always felt that the producers of the show missed a golden opportunity by not killing the character off – not via some throwaway line or the cast opening an episode by coming home from her funeral (in either event, with the character never to be heard of again) but as the main event: an anti-trans hate crime murder.

One with a useful explanation – you know, unlike Ally McBeal’s Stephanie?  An event which an ostensibly liberal show with an ostensibly ultra-liberal lead character could have used as a platform for genuine Education (capitalization intentional; remember the name of the series?) on the topic?

No, having the trans character meet the historically stereotypical fate for non-hetero Hollywood characters would not have been my first choice for Erica upon watching the premiere of the series in September.  But if forced to choose, I would have preferred it over a silent disappearance in which she may as well have just left her Ivy League tenured teaching position (you know, the type that tenured TERFs ensure that no trans women are ever considered for) to shack up outside of Milwaukee with Chuck Cunningham or some other infamously, and inexplicably, disappeared series characters.

As it was?

I tuned in to watch a new episode of the series one Sunday – and the opening credits did not include Helen Shaver.

I can take a hint.

It didn’t get better for Erica – and around the same time it really didn’t get better for the overall genre of trans characters on television.  The next one was a lawyer – only CBS didn’t bother to mention that up front.  And by ‘that’ I don’t mean her being a lawyer.  CBS mentioned that.  And, logistically, there was also a character that was trans-something or another.  Granted, anyone with any sense could have guessed how things were going to transpire on the first episode of First Monday, a midseason replacement series which premiered in January 2002…

and which aired its final episode even before Bickford aired its final one.

But what will always be remembered is the first First Monday episode.

The silence is deafening, and I have finally concluded I must be in shock or denial. Believe me, I have waited most of this week to read one commentary on CBS’s new television show, First Monday, which actually addresses my concerns about the portrayal of transgendered people in its pilot episode. Nothing.

I sensed I might be prone to overreaction when Nina Totenberg ran some really awful audio trailers from the show on Tuesday morning, decrying its appeal to base humor for content. I hoped my sensitivity to the clips I heard might be assuaged by as objective a viewing as I could achieve. I checked my ideological guns at the door of the TV room and settled in. The horror, the horror…

Let’s cut to the chase, folks. The segment that dealt with trans issues was a poorly padded beating by a blunt intellectual instrument. As Nina had so adroitly noted earlier, one was left to wonder in which universe an individual would be placed for interrogation before an opening public session of the High Court, but that was the fate of the trans person who was appealing an apparent INS ruling against granting sanctuary. She was humiliated repeatedly by the phony Justices who suggested that she could easily go “back home” if she would just “put your pants back on.” Not that the Justices actually gave this person the benefit of pronoun choice.

But it gets better, right?  Dan Savage wouldn’t lie, would he?

[W]ere you thinking this was all? But you may be forgetting the most titillating stereotype available to those whose phobic worldview lurks just beneath the surface of civility. The gorgeous babe who was Angel’s attorney was… what else… a transsexual woman herself. We were led to suspect something when, after her appearance before the Court, this attorney confided that the transgender community had anticipated putting a case before the Supremes, but her real regret was “he’s just a transvestite.” (This, of course, contradicted her explicit contention before the Court that in fact Angel was NOT a transvestite, but a true transsexual.)

Not until the “busy litigator” tore herself away to romp in a salsa club with a conservative clerk of the Court, and not until after the camera had dwelt longingly on her well-rounded bottom in rampant frottage on the unsuspecting clerk’s groin did she turn and announce that her real incentive in representing this client had come from her being “a transsexual too!” Not content with the shock value of this statement, the producers insisted in doing a voice-over on this clearly non-transsexual woman, one in which we are led to believe that her voice drop of some octaves was inevitable and natural. Need I say that this revelation spelled the end of the date? It was the end of my internal apologetics for the educational potential of the show…

I’m offended by the presumption and exploitation that CBS has allowed in this show, particularly because it’s directed at trans people. But, if this incident stood alone, it might be tolerable. What it really does is reinforce the prevailing atmosphere of exclusion, abuse and derision that is permissible in this culture towards trans people. This is meant to steal our hope, our self-worth and our courage to believe we may actually be admitted to our own social and legal community. It has a profound effect upon us, though we scarcely dare to speak about it.

Lori Buckwalter’s “Supreme Indignity ” was the sort of cogent, trans-centric analysis of the atrocity that should have permeated the LGB( ) world in early 2002.  But that world had better things to do – and nothing substantively trans was anywhere on the list.  Gay, Inc. was still smoking a cigarette after successfully ramming through gay-only legislation in Maryland the previous spring (to make the state, as HRC crowed, a “discrimination-free zone”) and it was gearing up for sloppy seconds in New York at the end of the year.  And HRC’s ‘WorkNet’ was still mal-informing the world regarding the 1979 trans-inclusive Los Angeles Civil Rights Ordinance.

I started writing this piece before the untimely death of The Lady Chablis.  Unfortunately, her death comes in the general vicinity of the anniversary of the Bickford premiere.  Nevertheless, I will understand if anyone views it as a bit tacky that, on the heels of a real trans woman who was allowed to portray a real trans woman in a real movie, I’m devoting considerable space to a trans woman television character who was portrayed by a non-trans woman.

But, remember: that was 2001.

Yes, in 2007 there was Dirty Sexy Money (which came close to disposing of Candis Cayne’s  Carmelita in the manner I’d envisioned for Erica Bettis.)  And in 2016 we have Orange is the New Black and Transparent.

But in 2016 we also have Re(Assignment), Anything and one other thing whose title I refuse to even mention.  (And if I was willing to debase myself to any degree I could probably find a few people who will still defend Israel Luna’s cultural hate crime against trans women.)

It does not always get better.

Sometimes it seems like it is getting better.

But our protections are no more ‘robust‘ than the next judge says they are not.  Anyone who tells you differently is either not trained in the law or is trying to sell you something (or both.)

And our image is no better than however much the next Hollywood opportunist wants to distort it.

1 Comment

  1. In their statement, the Arquettes said that their sister’s career “was cut short, not by her passing, but by her decision to live her truth and her life as a transgender woman.”

    “Despite the fact that there are few parts for trans actors, she refused to play roles that were demeaning or stereotypical,” they said. “She was a vanguard in the fight for understanding and acceptance for all trans people.”

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