This essay is not a critique of the individual Jazz or her family, but rather an examination of the structures that facilitate someone like Jazz being imagined in a certain fashion. It’s a palatable depiction that seems representative of the trans youth experience, addressed to an audience largely unfamiliar with and even vehemently opposed to trans persons, experiences, and existence. In this way, I Am Jazz is what Gill-Peterson might call “a bad trans object of cis culture.” Jazz is permitted conditional entry into the category of human for a presumed cisgender audience. Her narrative of having “a girl brain and a boy body” has permitted her (always fraught and difficult) access to medical interventions that work to bring her gender identity and body into mainstream, culturally sanctioned alignment.
|Jazz first came out on television as trans in 2007, when 20/20 aired an interview between Barbara Walters and Jazz’s family.||Jazz’s childhood explanation that she has “a girl brain and a boy body” is a clip that has aired as part of the opening credits for I Am Jazz.|
The conventions of the reality television docudrama promote this entry. Jazz comes from a traditional, well off, nuclear family—two heterosexual parents, older twin brothers, an older sister, and a set of grandparents who are fixtures in her life. Her trans identity is presented in the context of white middle-class norms, values, and family-oriented plot points. Situating Jazz in the “normporn” world of such a family drama augments her palatability to an audience that might otherwise protest her existence. The melodrama of the white heterosexual family unit secures Jazz’s representability.
Interestingly, the representation of Jazz in the series diverges from typical representations of trans youth sexuality, where discusses of their sexuality are largely absent. Trans children often must affirm what Nat Hurley and Steven Bruhm articulate as the
“dominant narrative about children: children are (and should stay) innocent of sexual desires and intentions. At the same time, however, children are also officially, tacitly, assumed to be heterosexual” (ix).
In The Queer Child, Kathryn Bond Stockton notes how when it comes to trans children in the media, there is “strikingly, decisively, no mention . . . made of object choice, attraction, or sexuality in reference to these children, not even for the teens. And this, perhaps—this absence of any sexual conceptions—is why” (8) they can be represented. In other words, before I Am Jazz, the representable trans child was a child sanitized of sexuality. Sexuality might be a feature of adolescence that can, at times and under certain conditions, be represented, but sexuality in relation to trans children is apprehended as an ontological threat. The trans child cannot be sexual without risking losing the already precarious validity of their gender from the social milieu and its institutions. Picking up on Stockton, in a discussion of an OWN Network special on Jazz and her family—the precursor to the TLC series—that aired in 2011, Gabrielle Owen asks, “Is the trans child a queer child?” (96). Owen, in part, responds by saying the more apt question is “not whether the trans child is queer in essence, but rather where and how the trans child is allowed to emerge as queer” (98).
Elsewhere, I have argued that the most queer television programs airing in our contemporary moment are reality shows featuring children. In this genre—which ranges from docusoaps to competition shows—we encounter slews of children exploring and defying gender norms and discipline. Exploring gender is never the premise of these shows, but it is inextricable from the cultural landscape in which these shows operate. The conventions of television also ensure the representation of this gender exploration, particularly on reality television; the confessional mode often operates to augment the humor of child particpants, frequently juxtaposing children’s self-descriptions against adults’ contradictory claims, a framing that often reminds us of adult projections onto children. From boys vs. girls challenges on cooking competitions to inventing romantic tension between boy and girl partners in a dance number, gendered scripts circulate within and determine the drama that these shows manufacture. Children often reject or comment on the gendered norms being imposed on them, and relations between the disciplining of children’s genders and the failure of that discipline makes for campy television. Reality television creates space for many children to explore gender; indeed, it’s almost a genre mandate.
What’s different—and differently queer—about I Am Jazz is that Jazz’s gender isn’t disciplined on the show—it’s her sexuality that’s explicitly disciplined. Her gender doesn’t have to be disciplined because it’s necessarily asserted as a static, non-negotiable fact. Her gender confirmation is framed as something that will deepen and “complete” her identity, but the stability of her gender is a given—Jazz progresses but the experience of her gender identity remains fixed. I don’t want to suggest that Jazz’s gender isn’t stable in the ways she asserts, but rather to emphasize that this assertion is a requirement for Jazz’s representability and for her to get validated in medical, legal, and cultural spheres. The space for exploration afforded to children elsewhere in reality television shows isn’t permitted to Jazz—and that is quite queer. Asserting the stability of Jazz’s identity coupled with explicitly discussing her sexuality reverses the usual pattern we see with children’s representation on television, which relies on exploration of gender but silence around childhood sexuality. It also distinguishes Jazz from other representations of trans youth that erased their sexuality entirely.
As a trans child, Jazz must adhere to gender norms more strictly than other children in order for her identity to be considered valid by audiences and gatekeepers of trans futurity—doctors, policy makers, and other authority figures. This adherence is exceptional to trans children—non-trans children are not required to assert the stability of their identity in the rigorous and epistemically violent ways that trans children are. The show’s figuration of Jazz works to assure audiences that her sexuality is going to properly align with her gender; indeed, that is the anxiety that the show works to domesticate across six seasons. Owen argues,
“When it comes to identity, childhood and adulthood are ideologically interdependent oppositions: childhood is conceptualized as open and unformed so that adulthood can manufacture an arrival at stable identity. This dynamic is what queers all children (according to Stockton) and also what allows children to inhabit queerness without appearing non-normative” (103).
Yet this mode of “queerness” for “all children”—the “open[ness]” and "unformed[ness]" of identity—is vehemently denied to Jazz. Her gender identity and the inhabiting of that identity have to be presented as static, solid, and already arrived in order for her to a) continue to access the medical interventions she seeks for her gender and b) to normalize her for a mainstream audience. The fixity of Jazz’s gender—and its work to help fix Jazz’s sexuality—is also what permits the show to continue to stay on the air. The narrative stabilization of Jazz’s gender enables her to be represented in ways that have the potential to be assimilated into mainstream understandings of gender as static across one’s lifetime.
The fixity of Jazz’s gender is reinforced by her access to medical interventions. Medical interventions are accessible because of this gender fixity and help to strengthen it. Such a fixity, coupled with Jazz’s public facing trans narrative on I Am Jazz, constructs what Kadji Amin might call
“an organized, progressivist temporality that joins both continuity and change as a form of what queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman has termed ‘chrononormativity,’ a social patterning of experiences of time in conformity with normative frameworks” (220).
Amin says that trans narratives in the media, such as TV talk shows and in the press, seemingly
“implant . . . normative narratives of sexed development, continuity, and coherence. To say that transsexual autobiography is chrononormative is not necessarily to say that it is bad but rather to illuminate the ways in which it produces an experience of healing and empowerment for certain trans subjectivities and one of fragmentation and invalidation for others. Attending to the vagaries of transgender and transsexual experience, on the other hand, may necessitate a recognition of what some theorists have described as a ‘queer’—that is, nonchronological and nonnormative—form of temporality” (220).
Here, Amin is saying that divergences from the dominant trans narrative in the media and elsewhere might be read as forms of queer temporality that defy the chrononormative. I want to claim that even when we are discussing the trans child accessing medical intervention that seemingly contributes to this progressive, teleological model of gender development and stability, that is still queer because it requires a temporal securing of gender that is out of sync with other modes of childhood. Trans childhood, then, may enact a kind of queer temporality, which can be captured in the seemingly low stakes world of the docusoap.
Regulating sexuality in season 1 of I Am Jazz
The first season of I Am Jazz features many unassimilable moments of Jazz’s assertion of potential sexual non-normativity. Jazz frequently questions her sexuality, but these moments don’t get apprehended or reinforced in the trajectory of a non-threatening narrative of Jazz’s asexuality and/or heterosexuality. The show toggles between wanting to provide space for Jazz’s questioning of her sexuality while also still affirming heterosexuality as the likely default that she will inhabit. I am interested in moments of unassimilability in the face of the narrative impulse toward her heterosexuality. I follow them as what Pete Coviello might name as the “any number of broken-off, uncreated futures, futures that would not come to be” (20). The first season does not makes an effort to assimilate these moments into the telos of normative sexual development and narrative of gender transformation. In contrast, I consider what these moments mean for the seemingly transnormative subject and how they interplay with the queer features of Jazz’s trans childhood: gender fixity and explicit sexual preoccupation.
Before the show works to represent and discipline Jazz’s sexuality, it first establishes the stability and fixity of Jazz’s gender identity. The first episode, “I Am Jazz,” introduces us to 14-year-old Jazz and her family—parents Greg and Jeannette and siblings Ari, Sander, and Griffin. Jazz’s gender transition from boy to girl is firmly asserted as an event of the past. Her medical transition, which is explored across the series, is ongoing, but she socially transitioned from boy to girl, and that aspect of her transition is complete and reflects her stable, unwavering gender identity. The family instead speaks of Jazz’s current gender shifts in terms of temporality. While the camera cuts from one environment of domesticity to another—the family dinner table to the domicile (where the confessionals take place)—Jazz’s mother Jeannette explains, “As she’s transitioned from a young girl into a young lady . . . I really don’t know what to expect and I’m nervous.” Jazz’s “transition” now is linear and progressive—she will move from “girl” to “lady” at the pace dictated by proper gender development. “Lady” connotes that part of this proper development will be properly sexual, racialized, and classed—she will appropriately occupy the category of upper middle class white woman. “Girl” has been a time of presumed and culturally desired asexuality, and “lady” will be a time of racialized bourgeois heterosexual desire.
|Jazz’s parents’ confessional takes place in this domestic space with family photos in the background. Here, Jeanette discusses Jazz’s shift from a “young girl” to a “young lady."||Jeanette describes her parents’ interest in Jazz’s medical appointment as something expressed in a “loving nosy way."|
The show presents the medical interventions that are part of Jazz’s particular gender transition as facilitating her proper sexual development. In the first episode, Jeannette visits her parents without Jazz, and they discuss the “medical component” of Jazz’s gender transition. While Jeannette acknowledges that Jazz is a “little behind her friends”—suggesting a temporal lag to her gender development—she quickly asserts that the estrogen and puberty blockers are contributing to Jazz “developing nicely like a young lady.” The show acknowledges potential anxieties about Jazz’s gender asynchronicity—which could yield sexual non-normativity—and then dismisses these anxieties by asserting that Jazz’s gender and sexual development is that of a “young lady.” Notably, this discussion about the anxieties regarding the temporality and outcomes of Jazz’s development happens in the absence of Jazz. Adults, including strangers, regularly discuss Jazz’s gender, sexuality, and body in her absence, modeling a public possession over Jazz that then justifies audience voyeurism —the (il)logic is that these strangers are just wondering and saying aloud what everyone wants to know. Janet Mock has discussed the way that trans people are subject to excessive scrutiny and violation in the public sphere under the guise of “bridging an understanding gap” between the trans person and the presumed non-trans audience, who are, through this, positioned as the authorizing force in regard to trans identity.
|Jazz shows her friends her “tampon chapstick” at their sleepover, then she explains how she has to remind her friends she doesn’t menstruate.||Jazz’s friends discuss their breast development.|
Jazz discusses her bodily insecurities throughout the show, and while she asserts firmly that these insecurities are tied to her gender dysphoria, her family re-narrates her insecurities as bound with heterosexual desire. While at a sleepover, the camera cuts between Jazz socializing with her friends to Jazz in her confessional describing what it’s like, as a transgender girl, to bond with other girls over physical development anxieties. Jazz says that her desire to develop breasts and a nice figure is about both feeling and being recognized as the girl that she is: “For me, it’s mostly about fitting in and being another girl” so that she can “look like a girl to everyone else.” She then states that this desire, “for other girls . . . [i]s mostly about boys.” While perhaps an oversimplification of the whole range of complicated desires and pressures that emerge in relation to non-trans girls going through puberty, Jazz feels this distinction is important. She wants to assert that her desire for her body to look different is about her gendered desires and not about her sexual desires.