WIMN’s Voices: A Group Blog on Women, Media, AND…

Susan’s Eye Opening and Instructive Journey

mgarcias Icon Posted by michelle garcia

March 14th, 2010

To be honest, if I didn’t know Rose Arce, the senior producer of CNN Presents’ Her Name was Steven, I probably would not have watched the television documentary. And that would have been a shame.

(Be forewarned, this isn’t a post about how media cover transgender people. For such analysis, see these related posts, this Alternet article, or just scan through WIMN’s Voices’ media and transgender issues section.

The documentary chronicles Steven Stanton’s journey to becoming Susan Stanton. Steven was a father, husband and the city manager in Lagos, Florida. Stanton’s announcement of his intention to undergo a ‘sex change’ became a news sensation and led to his termination from a job he held for 14 years. If that synopsis leaves you thinking, “What does this have to do with me, my interests, my burning issues?” (like I did) please consider this assessment:

The power of this documentary is its nuance. At its essence the documentary is a meditation on gender and the sacrifices a person is willing to make to fully realize their Self. Throughout the doc Stanton reiterates an almost unbearable need for her physical body to reflect her spirit, a spirit that is womanly, feminine. It is a story of discovering, accepting who you really are, regardless of the costs.

For women, who are bombarded with books and articles about “settling” or not, the costs of postponing family for careers or vice versa, choosing to have children or not, it is a welcome reminder that femininity and womanhood flows from our core, our spirit. The rest reflects, not defines.

I wish I had the accurate quote to her statement but I wasn’t taking notes, instead I kept thinking: I can’t believe this is television, U.S. television, the same TV that yells, implores us to subvert our real selves, that too often engages in emotional manipulation. Variety noted, the documentary “more closely resembles HBO documentary fare than what one normally finds on CNN.

Stanton is not a one-dimensional tragic heroine or victim. As the New York Times’ observed: Once she announced her intentions she quickly became something of a celebrity, but the film explores how she angered other transgender advocates when her public remarks didn’t quite follow their standard script.

Stanton apparently didn’t prepare much in the way of forming a support network. I can’t help but wonder why. She also seems genuinely surprised by how difficult it would be to land a job as a woman, which reveals much about the reality of gender bias against women, whether transgender or cisgender. Also, we could have done without the analysis from a CNN reporter which seemed to disrupt the flow and inject an unnecessary interpretation of the emotional climate between then-Steven and his wife.

The most poignant source of wisdom comes from Susan’s son, Travis in his absolute non-judgment to what was going on around him. His acceptance and unconditional love resonates as a theme we can all understand.

This documentary reminds me how authentic and powerful reporting can be when the nuance and complexities of personal identity are allowed to emerge, and when viewers are left alone to reach their own conclusions.

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