Queer stabilization of gender and queer regulation of sexuality
in I Am Jazz

by Mary Zaborskis

In the contemporary United States, I argue that trans children are represented on television in queer ways [1]. [open endnotes in new window] Queerness does not manifest itself in representations of trans children’s non-normative sexual desires or the very fact of their gender identities. Rather, queerness emerges in vehement assertions of the stability of trans children’s gender identity as well as in an explicit hyperfocus on trans children’s sexuality. These assertions of gender stability coupled with candid sexual preoccupation ultimately serve to appease audience anxieties regarding trans children’s existence, perceived as inherently dangerous. Trans children’s queerness on television reifies their status as objects belonging primarily to the public, extricates them from the normative category of childhood, and ultimately restricts the gendered and sexual presents and futures they can inhabit. Queerness marks the denial of trans children’s privacy, self-possession, and exploration. In saying this, I am not suggesting that privacy, self-possession, and exploration are automatically granted features of childhood or equally accessible to all children in all contexts. Rather, I point out that there are features unique to trans childhood that ensure such rights and privileges will be unavailable to trans children on television.

Non-trans children experience policing of gender and sexual identity, but I argue that policing occurs in ways specific to trans children and are enabled by the medium of television. Media’s attention to the needing-to-be-stabilized sexuality of trans children stands in opposition to treatment of non-trans children who are permitted gender play and exploration in ways that trans children are not. And non-trans children’s sexualities are often a present-absence at the heart of media as a source of anxiety that is addressed in aslant, implicit, and coded ways. In addition, trans children have to adhere to restrictive scripts for gender identity that assert stasis and solidity in ways counter to modern childhood’s ostensible defining features of open, amorphous, unformed identity. Furthermore, such utopian features masquerade as universal to childhood but in fact are differentially available depending on a child’s race, class, ability, sexuality, and, as I will focus on in this essay, gender identity.

Trans children are represented on television in these ways precisely because of their supposed novelty. While Jules Gill-Peterson reminds us in Histories of the Transgender Child that there is nothing “fundamentally new” (viii) about trans children, a cultural narrative about their newness persists, in part, because of how the media frames their very existence. Trans children are offered to audiences as pedagogical objects; the media produces audience desire regarding trans children (to know them, understand them, have them explain themselves) through its framing of these children. The “didactic” work surrounding the depiction of trans children is then oriented toward responding to mainstream audiences’ imagined, voyeuristic questions and concerns (questions and concerns that are implanted and normalized via the representations):

In January 2017, National Geographic published a special “Gender Revolution” issue, largely focused on children. The newsstand issue featured gender non-conforming and trans youth on the cover. The National Geographic cover available to subscribers featured Avery, a 9-year-old transgender girl. The cover was controversial, eliciting “concern” and “horror” from some of the readership.

The media require that trans children account for themselves in ways no one else—child or adult—has to, and a prescribed media structure demands these children’s intellectual and emotional labor if they appear on TV. In contrast, in terms of government regulation, an adult on TV speculating explicitly about a child’s genitalia would almost always be condemned a violation, but in the case of trans children, it’s permitted because the adult’s probing curiosity—one that often betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of relations between gender and sexuality—becomes valued above the child’s privacy and protection. The very fact of children’s trans identities voids their claims to either “right.” Television representations purport to help trans children by ostensibly making such issues more knowable to mainstream audiences, but these representations actually assist in restricting trans modes of existence, especially in childhood. On TV, trans children’s gender identities must be constantly asserted as static, and trans children’s present and future sexualities are allowed to be a public, explicitly addressed concern.

The public monitoring of trans children’s sexuality is accompanied by a language of care, concern, and hope for trans children’s future happiness. In terms of television, this supervision operates to address a mainstream audience’s anxieties and curiosities over trans children’s interior and exterior experiences of identity and desire. Since current representations of trans children on television are queer, this queerness is part of a larger cultural project that justifies violation of, surveillance over, and scrutiny into trans children’s bodies, identities, and desires. Queer features of represented trans childhood includes the hyperstabilization of gender and the frank discussions of their present and future sexualities. Such queerness does not liberate trans children, but rather it participates in objectification and othering under the guise of inclusivity and progress.

To explore the effects of these queer features of trans childhood, I consider in this essay one of the most mainstream representations of trans children on television today: TLC’s reality show I Am Jazz (2015-present). I Am Jazz demonstrates how television can both make visible and compound the queer features of trans childhood and thus enable trans children’s exploitation. In particular, such shows respond to an entertainment pressure to allow sexuality to be available for public display and does so here in ways that contradict U.S. cultural ideals regarding childhood. I Am Jazz’s seriality, participation in the genre conventions of reality television, and framing as family-friendly television present Jazz’s sexuality as a problem to be resolved across time, via repeating romantic arcs, and by the adults around her, in conjunction with what is framed as the stabilization of her gender through medical interventions. When the queer features of trans childhood look like normativity, this is precisely what enables their televisual production: here, the façade of family friendly television obscures the gender and sexual restrictions and inquiries to which Jazz is subject.

Through an analysis of I Am Jazz, I invite us to think about how the media’s figuration of Jazz works to impose a coherent, legible, sexual and gender narrative upon Jazz alongside Jazz’s own self-declarations that disrupt and refute that neat narrative. I will pay particular attention to the first season of the show to consider the expectations and groundwork the show lays in regard to Jazz’s gender identity and sexual desires. I will then consider this season in relation to the rest of the series, which follows Jazz’s dating life and gender confirmation surgery in acute detail.

The representation of Jazz in the series sets up the stability of Jazz’s gender identity in order to address potential audience anxieties over Jazz’s sexual development. To address these anxieties, the series addresses Jazz’s sexuality in ways that are both candid and voyeuristic. Children’s sexuality does exist, and I am not suggesting that there is an inherent problem in representing children’s sexuality on screen. Rather, I consider how and why the show addresses and frames Jazz’s sexuality in practical, logistical, and clinical terms, especially in relation to her gendered body, in ways that other children’s sexuality is not.

Parents, grandparents, and doctors are shown talking to each other about a teenage girl’s ability to orgasm or not, the location of her clitoris, and how frequently she is masturbating. In fact, our cultural norms all but prohibit such conversation. (Of course, this taboo is paradoxical when we consider how much teenage girls are trained to experience their bodies and sexualities as not belonging to them in the public sphere—evidenced in quotidian forms like dress codes, cat calling, and photo leaking.) However, in this show, these topics come up as a matter of fact and occur frequently in conversations with and about the teenage Jazz in the later seasons of the show. Across the show’s trajectory, we are asked to question if Jazz’s ability to inhabit the category of woman as properly heterosexual will be “complete,” to use a word echoed across the series. We wonder what assurances of such completion will be provided. The family friendly features of the reality TV docudrama veil the televisual violations and excessive examination of Jazz’s body and desires.

Jeanette describes the location of Jazz’s clitoris over lunch. During a Facebook Live event, a stranger matter-of-factly asks teenage Jazz how long she has to wait to have sex after gender confirmation surgery.
The first episode of the series begins behind the scenes, with a producer calling for Jazz. Before Jazz begins the interview that will introduce her, viewers experience an invasive moment of watching Jazz adjust her top.

These aspects of the show’s narrative trajectory respond to adults’ and audience’s desires for Jazz’s identity, sexuality, and future. This figuration of Jazz competes with the living, actual Jazz who tries to assert her subjectivity and desires. And her desires and personal views of identity aren’t just mediated but often ignored and abandoned by the show’s narrative impulse. In the first season, adults refuse to acknowledge or fully incorporate Jazz’s assertions. Jazz’s desires don’t get edited out of the series, so we cannot say they’re erased, but they’re unevenly apprehended, so if what she says affirms adults’ desires, those ideas get absorbed while Jazz’s statements that are unassimilable exist as excess to the show’s narrative trajectory. The unassimilability of Jazz’s desires, however, become even more assimilated as the series progresses. Jazz’s desires and disruptions to the coherency imposed upon and desired for her then become framed as problems to resolve through gender confirmation surgery. In what follows, I will consider the queer features of I Am Jazz that emerge in relation to Jazz’s gender identity and sexual desires in the first season alongside these moments of disruption, and then consider them in relation to the future that gets constructed for Jazz in the following seasons.

What is normative about I Am Jazz?

I Am Jazz is a TLC reality show that features the daily happenings, social life, and medical experiences of Jazz Jennings, a transgender youth and activist. The show began following Jazz starting at the age of 14 and has now aired for six seasons. The sixth season finished airing in March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, and a seventh season has not yet been announced. Season 1 introduces us to Jazz; season 2 features the beginning of the conversation about Jazz’s gender confirmation surgery; seasons 3 and 4 track Jazz’s consultations and preparation for gender confirmation surgery; season 5 features her gender confirmation surgery; and season 6 follows Jazz in the aftermath of her surgery. Each season features 8 episodes, with the exception of season 1, which has 10, and season 5, which has 12. Season 1 episodes aired for 30 minutes each (except for the premiere and finale), while the remaining seasons aired for one hour. Woven throughout the seasons are regular discussions of Jazz’s mental health, dating, and desires, where an almost entirely predictable pattern for the drama of Jazz’s romantic life as a trans girl emerges. She laments not being able to find anyone interested in her because of her trans identity throughout the season and encounters a romantic interest in episode 6 or so. The final episodes of that season feature Jazz’s anxiety over dating and then a successful date that enables the season finale to end on a note of hope and relief regarding Jazz’s sexual future.

Like other programs in the reality television show genre, and especially the subgenre of the docusoap, I Am Jazz resolves the tension around the subject’s perceived non-normalcy by reinforcing aspects of her normalcy throughout the series. Jazz is a transgender girl, but she also plays soccer, hangs out with her friends, and wants to date. The program could be what Karen Tongson calls “normporn,” a show that on the surface appears to have queer content but is actually deeply invested in portraying a world that is “post-queer, post-racial . . . [and] that sanctions our reinvestment in the (usually bourgeois) dramas of everyday life.” Media scholar Joanna McIntyre notes that docusoaps “make a spectacle of trans subjectivities while simultaneously ‘normalising’ them and perpetuating transnormativity.” It’s a move that seems to have an ”affirmative and progressive impetus” but is “ultimately assimilationist” (10).

A sampling of the TLC catalogue demonstrates how this network circulates copious amounts of “normporn."

Moreover, Jazz represents a particular trans child, not all trans children. The show focuses on Jazz as a girl who started to socially transition at the age of five and who is part of a generation of kids accessing hormone blockers and cross-sex hormone therapy at a young age in a somewhat institutionalized (but not yet fully standardized) manner. This focus has led some trans scholars and critics to express concerns over the show’s ostensible transnormativity. McIntyre defines transnormativity as

“a regulatory model of transgender being that assumes and prioritizes certain trans experiences, representations, and behaviours. . . [it] grants legibility and legitimacy to otherwise marginalized folks . . . [but] establishes a hierarchy in which modes of gender alterity are diminished, obscured, and/or subordinated” (11).

In other words, the representation of Jazz functions to singularize the trans experience, sanctioning one pathway for trans existence that gets apprehended as universal.

This function is captured in the show: Jazz has trans friends who speak candidly about the fact that because they socially transitioned after puberty that they have a harder time navigating the world than Jazz. Early in the series, their inclusion in the show provides an important corrective to anyone who might apprehend Jazz’s story as universal. These are trans girls of different races and socioeconomic status from Jazz, with differential access to healthcare and capital. The show’s including a diversity of experiences, however, narrows across the series, which indicates that all these friends desire and will indeed follow the same path as Jazz. Thus, in Season 5, Jazz has a sleepover with three of her trans friends and asks, “Is everyone here going to get the surgery?” Everyone replies with their plans—scheduled consultations and medical appointments are already underway—and Jazz says, “I can’t wait until you guys join the vagina club.” This friend group is close, and given that they’re sharing doctors, information, and experiences, the fact that Jazz asks them if they’re getting the surgery functions as a performative gesture for the audience: of course, she would already know. It actually isn’t a question for this group, and the multiple ways to be trans are constantly being limited and literally edited out across the series. That Jazz “can’t wait” for her friends to “join the vagina club” suggests she is inhabiting a particular mode of trans identity that the others haven’t reached yet but will once they seek the same medical interventions that she has.

I describe this bit of dialogue not to condemn Jazz or her friends for seeking medical interventions, but to notice how the television series frames that surgery as an expected step on a journey with pre-determined, requisite milestones. It is a framing in the service of sanctioning certain modes of trans existence over others. Tey Meadow observes the vexed position of trans children, noting that while medical interventions and technologies “offer relief to many children . . . [they] simultaneously exert their own normalizing pressures to order, taxonomize, and measure gender transgressions.” In other words, some trans children’s efforts to survive and exist open these children up to being critiqued in terms of forces and structures beyond them. The children are critiqued for promoting gender norms and for accessing medical technologies that help them survive—a critique their non-trans peers don’t proportionally encounter. In other words, many children inhabit gender norms, but trans children’s inhabiting of gender norms is burdened with meaning: these children are criticized as responsible for the “normalizing pressures” some trans people are subject to. This burden is inappropriately placed on trans children instead of the gatekeeping structures that subject trans people to “normalizing pressure.”

Jazz, in particular, is also burdened with class, race, and generational ideals. Rebekah Sheldon and Jean-Thomas Tremblay have remarked how, in I am Jazz, Jazz is

“a powerful emblem of futurity, the iconic white, middle-class trans child of contemporary figurations [who] laminates racial innocence onto the history of deeply coercive and violent exploitation of children’s bodies.”

Jazz is representable—able to be an "emblem” and “icon”—on television because she inhabits other categories of privilege (though I would suggest that her Jewishness is an underexplored feature of her identity that complicates the dismissal of Jazz as categorically white). Because of the dearth of representations of trans children, the ways that Jazz’s singular experience gets taken up and framed by others as universal often coincides with criticism against her.