'Sabrina's Fantasy Of A Perfect Transition Misfires Slightly
In the nine-episode-long Part Two of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, we finally get what we were teased with in Part One, an out transgender character. One of Sabrina’s mortal friends, played by Lachlan Watson, reveals that he is a trans boy and is now going by the name Theo Putnam. As a trans guy, a practicing witch (although not the satanist kind), and a fan of Sabrina’s campy style, I was excited for the big reveal. Although trans representation in the media has improved over the last few years, we’re still mostly starved for any trans characters and stories. The largely homogenous Sabrina I grew up is not the Sabrina my child will grow up with, and that's great. However, as I watched the nine episodes, I found myself a little bored. While it’s great to see another trans character on a popular TV show, and even better that Theo is played by a non-binary actor, Theo’s transition felt sort of basic, sort of lacking in magic.
All of which led me to wonder, are we sacrificing good storytelling for decent representation? Will there ever be a day when trans characters get to be messy, complicated, and conflicted? Or should we just be happy with what we have? Theo’s narrative felt more like an ideal of how a transition is supposed to go than it did an actual transition story.
Before I get into Theo’s story, let’s cover some personal background stuff. I came out as transgender in April 2018, at the ripe old age of 32, after over a decade of identifying as queer, and several years working as a writer. One unexpected thing that happened when I began to transition, was that some editors I’d worked with emailed me to congratulate me. Not everyone, but a few people reached out to me, which was nice. Many more responded to my “by the way my name’s David now!” emails with a hearty “congrats!” sometimes followed by “let me know if you ever want to write about it!”
As a writer, particularly one who loves the great American personal essay, it was hard to avoid turning being trans into what I did for a living. Fortunately, a colleague of mine, who is a trans woman, advised me to wait. She said to wait about a year before writing a ton of trans stuff, because editors can (accidentally or on purpose) exploit newly out trans people. Not only was there the fact that I might not want a bunch of stuff I said a month into transition to haunt me forever, there was also the fact that cis people tend to spin trans people’s words for their own purposes. Something I wrote about my own personal experiences could, very possibly, be used to paint all trans people a certain way. In short, I could be bad representation, and accidentally hurt my community. I didn’t want that, so I (mostly) waited.
When my editor at Romper contacted me about writing about Sabrina, I was just coming to the end of my “year off,” and starting to think about what, if anything, I would want to write about being trans. I had stopped being consumed by fear of saying the wrong thing, just as I geared up to watch the show.
Theo suddenly realizes he would like to try out for the basketball team, but is initially rebuked because the town of Greendale only has a boys’ team. Of course he gets on the team because of magic, and after tryouts, while hugging Harvey (Nate Richert) and Roz (Jaz Sinclair), tells them, “It’s Theo now,” and they just roll with it.
The problem is, it’s nothing like the experience of myself or most trans people I know, and it’s boring.
After the fact, Harvey needs only a little bit of explaining from Roz, who explains that Theo is a boy, and has always been a boy. Harvey is immediately on board. In a separate episode, Theo has to tell his dad. You might remember from the last season that Mr. Putnam used to be pretty homophobic and had some sh*tty things to say about his brother trying on dresses, but he only gives the tiniest bit of pushback. Then he takes Theo to the barbershop for a proper haircut. Disappointingly, that haircut turned out to be a buzz cut, the kind you could do at home by yourself in your underwear, but maybe Theo doesn’t live in fear of barbers like I do. The guys on the basketball team do bully Theo, briefly, but very soon he’s just, well, one of the guys.
All of that is great, I mean, it’s great that a trans boy in a small town could find the strength to come out as a teenager, and be greeted with nothing but love and acceptance by his friends. It’s great that Mr. Putnam and the dudes on the basketball team all managed to get over their initial hesitation. And it’s great to see a story like that in the media, because it clearly and unambiguously shows people the acceptable way to react when a friend comes out, changes their name, or changes their pronouns. The scene where Roz explains it to Harvey (so Theo doesn’t have to deal with insensitive inquiries) could practically be a How-To Guide for how to be a decent ally. That’s nice to see. It’s so nice to see, that I feel guilty about criticizing it at all. The problem is, it’s nothing like the experience of myself or most trans people I know, and it’s boring.
Theo’s transition feels more like a fantasy of a perfection transition (except when he says “there’s no doctor in Greendale who can help me”; I would like to know why testosterone is so completely out of reach to this young man) than anything else). And that seamless, very linear, story feels out of place in a show that’s otherwise about complications, moral gray areas, and things that are never quite what they seem. Not only that, it doesn’t make sense in Greendale, which is supposedly a somewhat backwards small town that doesn’t even have a girls’ basketball team. Hell, it feels out of place in Theo’s own family.
This show, which is all about nuance and complexity, gave us the most bland and acceptable trans narrative possible.
It almost feels like they were trying to get the representation part right so much, that they forgot to integrate it into the rest of the plot and world-building. That I can understand. So many portrayals of trans people see us as overly tragic, or worse as jokes, or as cis people “disguising” themselves as the “opposite” gender for some form of gain. And knowing that cis people will often use these portrayals of trans people to justify treating real life trans folks poorly, it feels like a lot of responsibility not to provide fodder for that. During one of the biggest and most change-filled years of my life, I mostly avoided writing about my experiences, because I didn’t want to be part of making any other trans people’s lives worse. And this show, which is all about nuance and complexity, gave us the most bland and acceptable trans narrative possible.
I don’t know if I wanted Theo’s character to receive a different treatment, and it’s certainly hard to argue that people should have been less kind to him. What I do want is a world where there are so many trans stories out there that they don’t all have to play by the rules anymore. I want media portrayals of trans guys who love lipstick, trans girls who are tomboys, and non-binary people of all sorts. I want to see the happy coming out stories, but also the hard ones, and especially the in-between stories. In short, I want trans stories that reflect the reality that trans people are human, we are different from each other, and we deal with all different kinds of reactions to our transness.
But that’s not the media landscape we currently have. As things stand, maybe Sabrina has to play it safe to avoid the pitfalls of bad trans representation. And maybe I, as a trans man myself, shouldn’t criticize that. Because as much as I’d like to be just one dude (a witch!) with an opinion about a TV show, I know that isn’t really how this works. I can’t even write about watching TV while trans without cis people assuming I speak for all trans people forever, so I have to measure what I say. And that, is precisely the problem. If you want to cast a spell, you need to commit to it entirely.