Today is #TransgenderDayOfVisibility, and I find myself recalling “Dirty Work” and working with the amazing Jamie Clayton.
As part of the initial writing team that developed the show, I was the one who pitched the idea of making one of the three leads transgender. (If memory serves, @MaureenMcQ had been writing something else that had her researching a lot about transitioning, and specifically the financial costs associated with it, which inspired me to suggest we incorporate that into the show.) Which is how the character of Michelle was born.
We patted ourselves on our backs for how inclusive we were being, but honestly at that stage Michelle was the epitome of a token – all of her stories were about being trans, and there were many, many jokes constructed around that and nothing else.
But then we held auditions, and met Jamie. I wasn’t in on the final casting decision as by then I’d been moved to working on other parts of the show, but I’m pretty sure that she had the part the minute she walked through the door.
And suddenly, all of the jokes and interactions and “fun” bits that were being thrown around about Michelle and her challenges had to be embodied by an actual trans woman. TBH, I shudder to recall some of the things that were pitched and some of the things that made it into the final edits.
But all throughout, Jamie never lost sight of trying to make Michelle a fully-rounded person and more that just “the trans girl.” She put up with a lot of garbage ideas – all from well-meaning, good-hearted creative people who were genuinely trying to make something funny. As if that makes it any better.
I wasn’t in the writer’s room at that point, but I know she pushed back on a few totally egregious things. I don’t know if there was any open conflict, but I can only imagine there were days that were tremendously difficult for her.
Dirty Work only ran for 3 episodes, and since the RIDES platform is no longer available I’m not sure they can still be seen anywhere. But there were plans for more episodes in the works when the company went under, and I’d like to think that had that happened, we would have been able to do better by Jamie and Michelle.
Representation is important. Visibility is important. But it’s not enough. It’s not AGENCY. Working with Jamie on this show taught me a whole lot about that. Even though it shouldn’t have been her responsibility to teach us anything.
But she did, and I’m grateful.