So you get invited to do a guest appearance on a television show and represent a minority group you belong to. You show up on set and you have a great time, feeling like you’re really connecting with the people involved and, critically, you’re getting a chance to be a positive role model for people who might be watching. After shooting wraps up, you’ve got a good feeling, and you can’t wait to see the show air.
And then you tune in, only to find that you were actually used as the butt of a joke.
That’s what happened to Carmen Carrera with “Cake Boss.”
Carmen’s a trans woman who’s appeared on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and happens to be smokin’ hot. She only recently came out as transgender, and has been using her public profile to raise awareness about trans issues and educate people about life as a trans woman. As she goes through transition, especially as a Latina, she’s acutely aware of the dual risks of being transgender and a woman of colour in a world where being either can make you more vulnerable to sexual assault, violence and discrimination. Being bold and outspoken like she is takes guts.
When she was invited to do a guest spot on “Cake Boss,” she was told to flirt with one of the personalities on the show, Cousin Anthony. The goal, according to postings on her Facebook, was to show that, hey, she’s a woman, and she’s attractive, and her past history matters less than her current identity. She gave Cousin Anthony a peck on the cheek, and that’s when the show’s head, Buddy Valastro, crowed on voiceover: “That’s a man, baby!”
Yeah. That’s the point where my heart would be sinking while watching that episode. Especially topped with Cousin Anthony’s tweet about the matter, where he referred to Carrera as “it.” He later deleted that comment, but the Internet never forgets.
Here’s the thing: It’s pretty common to lure people onto television and radio shows under false pretenses for the purposes of setting up a prank or creating some kind of awkwardness. It can make for good viewer numbers, and it shakes things up. I know why producers do it -- and it’s why I’m careful when I’m asked to do media appearances, because I try to ascertain why, exactly, I’m being asked to appear, and how my appearance will be used.
Even with careful research, though, it’s possible to be taken by surprise, and in this case the “prank” revolved around Carrera’s very identity; not her politics, or her taste in fashion, or any number of other things that might create dramatic tension but wouldn't involve a fundamental attack on your very being. The show very deliberately invited her to appear with the specific goal of making a mockery of her to amuse viewers and humiliate Cousin Anthony, with nary a thought of what it might do to Carrera, or to the trans community in general. And they misrepresented the nature of that appearance, telling Carrera that the reveal would be handled sensitively and in a positive way.
Calling a transgender woman a man on a nationally televised show reinforces some very dangerous attitudes about trans women. Attitudes that they are constantly fighting; attitudes that Carrera herself wanted to fight as part of her appearance. She thought she was appearing as a representative of the trans community. Instead she was used as an object of cheap humour and nothing else.
Having a “prank” where you reveal that a woman is trans is utterly foul, because it suggests that a person experiencing sexual attraction to her should be grossed out and appalled because a trans woman is something other than a woman. Calling a trans woman a man is deeply transmisogynist, and doing so in a venue where millions are watching is seriously irresponsible.
I dont promote misleading someone or putting down the trans community. I am a beautiful transgendered woman and if a guy hits on me at a bar, ITS OK! That was the message. Hearing things like “You’ll never be a real woman” or “I hope you burn in hell for changing your gender” or “You will always be a man” is the EXACT TYPE OF IGNORANCE THAT THIS SHOW HELPED TO PROMOTE.
Carmen was, rightly, infuriated by how she was depicted in the episode:
I am trying to be a positive role model and to educate people and now, thanks to this episode, it looks like I am feeding into the ignorance. I am trying to say you can be beautiful and have a family and a job and a life as a transgender person and instead, by doing this show, I feel like we took 20 steps back.
She later received an apology (and an offer of a cake), and TLC has at least temporarily pulled the episode from rotation after considerable outcry, although they may choose to edit and re-air it later. Both of these things are progress in this individual case, and I’m glad Carrera got an apology, because she must be experiencing some serious pain over this right now.
Meanwhile, all the viewers who had a chance to see the episode walked away with some very bad messaging about trans women.