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Her Story's Emmy-winning producers on making transgender stories specific and universal

Television Academy Hosts Reception For Emmy-Nominated Producers - Arrivals
(L-R) Angelica Ross, Katherine Reed Fisher, Jen Richards and Laura Zak attend the Television Academy hosts reception for Emmy-Nominated producers at Montage Beverly Hills on September 15, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

One of the most powerful things a story can do is to amplify the voices of people who have been silenced. That’s one of the primary aims of Her Story, a web series about trans and queer women.

Her Story producers Laura Zak and Kate Fisher sat down with Vox culture critic Todd VanDerWerff for his new podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, to discuss why it’s important to center stories on people whom mainstream media traditionally kills or discards, who are rarely considered worthy of empathy, much less of a happy ending.

Laura Zak: This year was the start of the #BuryYourGays movement on Twitter, where basically a huge percentage of the lesbian characters who have appeared on mainstream media have been killed off, something crazy, like at least 75 percent of them. And so even just being able to keep them alive feels like a first step. I don’t know what that is in the writer’s room, if it’s like, “Oh, okay, we have this character but we don’t know what to do with them now, I guess they have to die!”

Kate Fisher: But the idea that people in the queer community can’t have happy endings, like something has to go wrong. They get their heart broken, or they get killed, or something.

Laura Zak: And then also specifically for trans characters, one thing that we talked a lot about when we were writing Her Story is that trope we’ve seen again and again: Where the trans woman, especially in comedies over the years, is the butt of the joke. It’s the, “Oh, surprise, it’s actually a man!” joke. Or you see a group of men and one of them’s flirting with this attractive woman, and then one of the guys whispers in the other man’s ear and then they’re grossed out, and then that woman walks off and it’s the end of the scene. It’s just this really cheap, disrespectful joke that is how, over and over again, we’ve seen trans women portrayed.

That’s a little bit how the title Her Story came out, because it was sort of like, “But what about that woman? What’s her story?” The rest of these characters carry on in their respective roles and films, but that character was literally just a punchline. [The goal was] to move her into center. What is her life like? What’s it like to be on the receiving end of that sort of treatment?

Todd VanDerWerff: What’s the power in storytelling of moving someone who is the butt of the joke to the center of the stage?

Laura Zak: I think it ultimately is what storytelling is all about, and why as a writer it’s always so exciting to be able to approach a story and tell a story that you haven’t seen told in mainstream media before. Because it feels like there’s so much recycling of story that happens in our literary tradition, even, and so many of the great stories that are told now are in some way borrowed or recycled from our canon. When you can access a specific angle that feels new, it’s very exciting, but it also just leads you to universal themes that are going to resonate for anyone.

Both Kate and Jen [Richards, one of the show’s stars], and myself, and Angelica [Ross, another actress on the show] as well, all came from social justice backgrounds before making Her Story, so we all are highly comfortable and familiar with the fusion of art and activism. To be able to make someone who is typically seen as strange or othered feel relatable or universal is the goal. And that is just helping people realize that these are the people in their worlds who are already in their worlds, that they’re not over there. Everyone’s existing together and sharing the same struggles.

As woke as liberal Hollywood likes to think it is, it’s still rare to see lesbians who are alive and happy in mainstream media. It’s still radical to have trans characters played by trans actors, and it’s still radical to position trans people and queer people as fully-rendered protagonists who have flaws and weaknesses like other human beings, and who are still considered worthy of the audience’s empathy.

American media still depicts an alternate universe where queer people and trans people are sad, mysterious, tortured beings who never quite fully snap into focus. And the work of shows like Her Story is to create that focus, to show the world marginalized people as living, breathing humans.

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