Trans representation in TV and movies has been growing these days. Fully fleshed out characters, played by trans actors, are increasingly becoming a norm. Ah, it’s almost hard to remember the bad old days…and I won’t do anything to remind you. Still, there’s a distinction to be made in the quality or quantity of that representation. I’d like to talk about two trans-masculine characters in recent shows from Netflix: Theo from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Buck Vu from The OA.
As for the actors and the roles themselves, there’s nothing to criticize. The actors are both transgender. The story notes that the characters are and doesn’t play into any bad tropes about being transgender. So far, so good?
The unfortunate difference lies in how the two characters play into the larger stories.
Buck is part of a cabal of teenagers (and one adult) who give up tons of their time and energy to follow their newfound savior, the eponymous main character, ‘The OA’. I won’t tell you what that stands for, because it’s a surprise and incredibly stupid. The biblical overtones and overwhelming self importance of this show are so painfully etched into my brain stem that I can hardly stand to recount it. It all centers around the main character telling her group of disciples absurd stories and teaching them mystical ‘movements’ (that look like the interpretive dance from Sia music videos), and the group, Buck included, just exist for The OA to show how awesome she is and provide an audience.
I was almost begging for Buck to have more to do, to see more of his life on his own and his circumstances, his hopes and dreams or even hobbies. Instead I had to keep watching a blonde savior figure – who, I should add, is played by the person who co-wrote and produced the show – keep spinning absurdities to her captive audience. The problem isn’t exclusive to Buck, either, because the entire group around the OA is under-characterized and stereotypical. The trans character feels like a second thought thrown into a vanity project, even though the show fulfills a lot of other things we all might want for trans representation.
The situation of Theo in Sabrina is incomparably better. He starts out as an apparent girl to the audience, sort of a tomboy. He and Sabrina’s other friends form a close-knit circle that really seems to matter to her and the story, since each member, including Theo, is a complex person with a family and motivations. Theo comes out over the course of the second season in an organic way, and he even has a whole story-line dealing with a fantastical and powerful dilemma (especially for a trans person): if you could change your body by magic, but had to pay a price, would you?
I was very harsh about The OA, because it aims so high but fails, in this way as in many others. But the young actor, Ian Alexander, does great work with the material he’s given, so I don’t want to criticize him for the shortfalls of the screenplay. I just hope there can be more well-rounded, well-thought-out characters like Theo in the future.