Opening the field of
transgender audience reception

review by Beck Banks

Review of Struggling for Ordinary: Media and Transgender Belonging in Everyday Life by Andre Cavalcante (New York: New York University Press, 2018). 224 pages. $27, paper.

In his first book, Struggling for Ordinary: Media and Transgender Belonging in Everyday Life, Andre Cavalcante takes the reader through an ethnographic journey of transgender people's reception of the media and the role media play in their daily lives and identities. For four years (2008 to 2012), Cavalcante observed transgender support groups and performed in-depth interviews with people in the Midwest and, to a lesser degree, in San Francisco. Through a well-written blend of theory, observation, and interviews, he creates a concept that addresses his transgender interviewees' desire to be sometimes acknowledged as queer while wanting to live a life where daily tasks—finding a restroom, interacting with coworkers, or getting coffee at a cafe—are socially normalized. Cavalcante dubs this theory "queerly ordinary;" to participate in a queerly ordinary life is "lived queerness," that is, how queer people engage in day-to-day living.

The ethnography takes place from 2008 to 2012, prior to “The Transgender Tipping Point” article (2014) and the increase in transgender visibility that took place after it. Struggling for Ordinary provides a history of trans representation and a snapshot of transgender audience reception leading to this turn of events. The book explores key moments in transgender visibility in the 20th and 21st centuries. Christine Jorgensen’s rise to celebrity after surgically transitioning in the 1950s is among those.

Queerly ordinary means being able to experience in even amounts the mundane in everyday life and to be recognized as queer. A utopian idea of trans allows people to be perceived both as regular and as queer. Such a goal is not just something many transgender people want in their daily interactions but also in their media. They want to see transgender characters recognized in ways that do not fetishize or totalize trans identity. I want to see this, too. It's part of the reason I have started making trans-oriented films with other trans-identifying people. Honestly, though, it feels like it would take a tremendous effort to flatten and objectify the lives of the rural trans folks I'm working to document in my writing and productions. Yet, I see these reductive portrayals in mainstream shows...much more often than not.

During his fieldwork as a dctoral student, Cavalcante heard many transgender people speak about longing for ordinary life and having queer sensibilities. As he describes these queer sensibilities, he draws theoretically from the usual suspects (Duggan, 2003, Edelman, 2004; Epstein, 1996; 2003; Halberstam, 2011; Munoz, 2009; Warner, 1999), who discuss assembling a life lived in provocation, exploration, and creative unfolding. Cavalcante posits that this kind of utopian queer life is not always wanted or possible for transgender people. He adds, "I've always been uncomfortable placing the responsibility of 'the revolution' on the shoulders of the most marginal and disenfranchised" (pp. 19). Such a perspective, drawing on lived realities, lays the groundwork for the book and the lives examined. 

The people interviewed span a spectrum of experiences. There is the Midwestern grandmother who transitioned later in life, remained married to her wife, and negotiated an open marriage as her sexuality shifted. There is also the San Francisco-based hyper-intellectual activist, artist, and writer who sees gender as a shifting landscape. Cavalcante doesn't simplify these voices; he presents various people and their complexities along with their media consumption and media use—social media, television, movies, chat groups, and more. He also provides a history of transgender representations on screen.

As one participant expressed, drag queens and transgender people were often conflated in films like the 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar with (left to right) John Leguizamo, Wesley Snipes, and Patrick Swayze. While many films prior to the “Tipping Point” provided reductive characters, some portrayals, such as Boys Don’t Cry, offer more developed characters. The violence in the film, however, can factor into resilience reception and becomes an oft-repeated trope.

Cavalcante applies parasocial theory, affect theory, queer theory, post-structuralism, and cultural studies theory about representation to a new kind of audience studies. Academia lacks transgender audience reception studies and research. Cavalcante manages to bridge theories to write this book. It's no small feat. 

The text draws the idea of the "ordinary" as a dialogue mediating individual agency and its battle with hegemonic structures. To do this, Cavalcante uses Alice Kaplan and Kristin Ross' (2002) concepts as the fundamental basis of how he defines "ordinary" while acknowledging Henri Lefebvre's (1987) concept of the ordinary as a power struggle and Michel de Certeau's (1984) view of everyday life as one positioned in personal agency. He looks to E. Patrick Johnson's (2005) bidirectional view, looking both toward the academy and the front porch, to create a livable theory, to articulate "lived queerness."

Struggling for Ordinary updates ideas in queer studies, making them applicable to the transgender experience, thus contributing to the field of transgender studies and, particularly, to transgender media studies. The book is even more interesting because it encapsulates transgender media reception before the 2014 "Transgender Tipping Point," as Time Magazine (Steinmetz, 2014) dubbed it while addressing this cultural shift in gender attitudes finally visible to the mainstream.

Upon first seeing the Cavalcante book, I paused. I worried that the title indicated the book would focus on the tragedy of being trans. It does not. I feared it would work within binaries. It does not. I was concerned there would be an oversimplification, a two-dimensional portrayal of transgender life. That is not the case. Why did I have these concerns? Well, it's not just because I see these so often in the media; it's because of Cavalcante's positionality. He is a white, cisgender gay man with a tenure-track job. I have found that academia on the whole isn't moving forward with gender identity the way its students are.

Within circles of transgender graduate students from various universities, I regularly hear tales of uncredited work, tokenization, and transphobia. People doing transgender studies are not usually sought out in job descriptions or hired. It seems that cisgender scholars performing transgender research find it easier and safer to get recognition for their work than for it to be performed by trans people. At times, it feels like transgender people get studied instead of transgender studies. And I would not dismiss some of the fantastic work coming from cis people. It's needed. If the author's cis, however, that's enough to raise an internal red flag...or several...when I first encounter a new text by someone who isn't trans-identifying.

The text takes a look at online resources and trans-centric media, such as the comic Venus Envy by Erin Lindsey.

Cavalcante does a remarkable job of putting transgender voices first. Within the first chapter, it's clear that he is deeply aware of his positionality and understands what it means to access trans lives and inclusive gatherings. Cavalcante makes note of the ways he is not a complete outsider. As a cis gay man, he says he comprehends the struggle around gender identity and expression. The political grouping of LGBTQ led him to be a transgender ally. The insider/outsider relationship further blurs as he begins to share his experiences in weekly transgender support groups, which shifted his research methodology into a participant-observer one. The book is an excellent example of how an outsider can do ethnographic research well and respectfully.

Cavalcante's primary idea of queerly ordinary or lived queerness creates a much-needed space for transgender people, one that offers respect to their lived experience and media representation. The theory can be applied to media representation and audience reception studies, pushing against transgender spectacle-oriented or medically-based narratives. The concept can be easily applied and expanded. However, while Struggling for Ordinary does an outstanding job of understanding transgender audience reception and portrayal, there is room for work that delves into other differences according to transfeminine, transmasculine, and nonbinary reception and more exploration of how place and situation shape people. The umbrella of transgender is immense in its scope. 

Struggling for Ordinary contains another concept within it that is less developed: resilience reception. It looks at how people endure a constant barrage of negative portrayals in the media. Cavalcante says that resilience studies have traction in other fields, just not yet in media studies. In one chapter, he focuses on resilience reception, using case studies to see how people have reacted to negative media portrayal. Resilience reception might involve approaching media with the expectation of disappointment and result in withdrawal and avoidance. Cavalcante is generous in sharing this partially formed idea, primed for development within the field.

Struggling for Ordinary: Media and Transgender Belonging in Everyday Life breaks ground in transgender audience reception studies and provides a new theoretical framework within transgender studies. It is poised to be a contemporary classic in this burgeoning field and media studies.