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Should You Go-See Oxygen's Trans Model Reality Show Strut?

The gorgeous glamazons of the Slay modeling agency let you see what their professional and personal lives are like. Will you be interested?

What Is This Thing?

In New York and Los Angeles, the Slay agency sends models on runway go-sees and books them covers of magazines like Attitude. What makes these stunningly attractive people's stories noteworthy enough for a reality show to have been built around them? WELL: Slay is the world's first transgender modeling agency.

When Is It On?

Tuesdays at 9 PM ET on Oxygen.

Why Was It Made Now?

Since Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans last year, there has been interest from the (well-meaning, non-gross segment of the) general public in what it means to be transgender; how to be respectful when speaking about gender identity; how to be supportive allies. Representation in pop culture is beneficial to minority groups, but surely Oxygen is airing this show less for political reasons and more to capitalize on a trending topic.

What's Its Pedigree?

The show comes from Executive Producer Whoopi Goldberg, whose One Ho Productions here partners with 44 Blue Productions, the company behind Wahlburgers, Pit Bulls And Parolees, and Hollywood Medium With Tyler Henry. Two of the models in Slay's stable who are featured on Strut are already fairly well-known: Laith De La Cruz (that's him in the center up top); and Isis King (second from right), a contestant on Cycles 11 and 17 of America's Next Top Model.

...And?

I was a little trepidatious going in about the idea of Oxygen, of all networks, trying to take on a topic with so much potential for idiots to get it wrong or be offensive -- particularly when the show is, as a viewing experience, barely distinguishable from a Real Housewives joint. It's not that I'm not interested to know the models' transition stories if they want to tell them; it's that I am wary of how well this show's producers will present it to the viewer between THes of them shit-talking each other. (Exception noted: a quick interview in which Ren self-deprecatingly describes how her voice used to sound before she practised pitching it higher.)

Strut is definitely a show about models whose experience as transgender people is secondary, for story purposes, to their experiences as aging models, or inexperienced models, or models who self-sabotage because they're nervous about a photo shoot, or models who hold grudges against their peers and don't mind talking about it on camera. You want to see models in a bunch of different outfits and wigs? This is the place.

...But?

When I say it has the Housewives stink on it, you know what I mean, right? You're seeing relatively well-off people in pleasant settings having extremely staged conversations with one another about other scenes coming up later in the episode. Laith has very, very pretty eyes, but they alone can't distract me from the shoddy performance he gives when he's pretending, to fellow model Dominique (top left), that he might see if he can get a magazine cover shoot postponed because his skin looks bad and he lost control of his diet this week: of course the shoot happens, and he looks great and nails it. Even a later scene where he goes to visit his mother, who we're told doesn't support his living as a man, doesn't feel authentic: his mother can't stop smirking at him, and they both seem like they're putting on a skit -- poorly -- of how an intolerant parent might behave toward her LGBTQ child because that's what the narrative demands.

The other Housewives-y aspect of the show is that it has a villain: Arisce (top right). She's been around a while, but that's kind of the problem: she's prepared and experienced, but she's losing jobs to younger models like Ren (second from left), who's such a slacker that she shows up to a go-see without her book as if she's never seen an episode of Top Model in her whole life, uh duh that is Rule #1! Arisce is also, supposedly, losing work because clients don't like her nose, and she ends the series premiere reluctantly telling CeCe, the head of agency, that she'll think about surgery. But even this feels like the setup for a plotline in which Arisce arrives at the conclusion that she's beautiful as she is.

Finally: judging by the first episode, we are seeing only a very small sliver of a very privileged segment of the transgender community. The average trans woman's biggest problem isn't whether she's going to have to go to a launch party where some other bitch might throw a drink in her face (which literally is how the series premiere ends, extremely fakely): transgender people are disproportionately living in poverty and targets of violence, not making their livings in fashion. It's not that I really expect Oxygen to make a 13-episode reality show about transgender people doing less glamorous kinds of work, because I don't expect Oxygen to make reality TV about ANY people doing less glamorous kinds of work. But I Am Cait, for all its flaws, did give the impression that Caitlyn Jenner either understood or was being helped along to the realization that she had a responsibility as a wealthy and powerful person to lift up less fortunate members of her community. That show actually featured a lot of scenes in which trans people in troubled circumstances got to tell their own stories to a national TV audience and bring awareness to endemic problems that face this population; maybe that sort of thing is yet to come in future episodes of Strut, but I'm not seeing any trace of it in the premiere.

...So?

As someone who learned a lot from the actually radical discussions that regularly broke out on I Am Cait, Strut feels like thin gruel. But maybe it does represent progress of a sort, as transgender viewers get to see themselves in a boring catfight show of their own.

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