On October 30th, 2015, PEOPLE.com launched a short webinar series about the Keswanis–an American family that has apparently taken over for the Kardashians. The television show, titled The Keswanis: A Most Modern Family, follows the challenges that mom Vaishali and dad Anil face as they raise three kids–each working to overcome their own struggle. Particularly striking are the narratives that structure the storyline of their youngest child Devina–who is the “transgender princess” of their modern American family. Whereas American popular media representations of gender-variant, preadolescent children have invariably focused on children who “express extreme gender dysphoria or in some way “signify the ‘tragic queer’ motif,” Devina is championed as the poster child for the modern 21st century American family in The Keswanis. Drawing on common tropes of disguise/deception, loss/death, travel, and home, Devina's story closely fit a contemporary homonationalist imagining of transgender belonging. Devina’s transformation takes place outside of the home space so that “the indeterminacy of gender during the transition is obscured” in order to appease national anxieties about gender liminal subjects. Returning home, Devina’s pledge to the American Girl Scouts speaks to her incorporation into the structures of white homonormative America. Devina's gender is finalized by presenting her transition as a loss and death for the family. This language serves reframes the moment of gender transition to obscure Devina’s pre-op status in order to imagine her as a transfixed transgender subject. Despite being heralded by South Asians in the diaspora as politically progressive, we should remain attuned to the ways in which the possibilities for gender alterity have remained closed as the fight for LGBT rights has manifested in North America.
In her book, Transgender History, Susan Stryker explains how the 21st century saw the emergence of “a lot of good documentary films and television shows about transgender people–as well as a lot of exploitative or sensationalistic mass media representations.” However, to date no detailed study exists on trans children. Rather, the majority of scholarship on transgender children comes from fields such as mental health studies that oftentimes pathologize the trans child. At the same time, media studies scholarship generally focuses on representations of transgender adults or teenagers. The one study that looks at representations of gender-variant, preadolescent children in popular American media, has found that these disparate depictions “centre on children who express extreme gender dysphoria or in some way “signify the ‘tragic queer’ motif.” The Keswanis troubles this “imagined community” of childhood transgender belonging that is produced through mass media by sharing Devina’s celebratory story of transitioning.
Scholars of popular media have argued that there is a “contemporary obsession with ‘reality’ television–one that fosters a preoccupation with what this culture regards as deviant.” Citing examples such as the TLC reality television show “19 Kids and Counting,” these scholars have focused on television media deviating to the tradition with blinders on. Whereas “19 Kids and Counting” is populated with subjects described as “backwards” and “traditional,” the Keswanis are described as “a most modern family” in the show’s title–deviating beyond the acceptable boundaries of modernity. This is re-enforced in each episode, where one parent will explain to the audience that although they “might not be your “normal” American family,” they purport to being “cool”, “accepting,” “modern.” Under this framework, accepting Devina's gender transition is framed as stretching the boundaries of modern liberal American ethics.
In his work, Transgender on Screen, John Phillips explains the narrative structures which allows the stories of transgender people to become comprehensible for gender normative audiences. He explains that “given their mass audiences, screen representations of transgender play a significant role in this wider narrative quest for the identity of a self no longer definable in terms of the “grand narratives” that have conditioned our thinking.” In three seven-minute episodes, The Keswanis offers audiences a glimpse into the different quests for selfhood that animate the lives of the three Keswani children. After first learning about how their oldest son “Big Nik” overcame his dwarfism by becoming a social media star, the second episode explores dad Anil’s anxieties over their middle child Sarina, who is working through her lack of confidence with pageantry and modelling. In the final episode, the television show delves into the life of their youngest child Devina, who has “recently transitioned” and identifies as a transgender girl. Ultimately, all three children are presented as having internal obstacles to overcome; they must transition and move into appropriate subject positions.
disguise / deception
Phillips also notes how every film in his study followed a structure of disguise/deception and unveiling/revelation. This trope, which treats the transgender character as an inherently deceptive character, crops up in the Keswanis most legibly in the opening sequence. When Devina’s photo and name are shown, the title “princess” pops up on screen, only to be quickly qualified by the term “transgender.” For the audience, Devina’s gender is denaturalized and reconstructed as surprise, something to entertain the audience. Other family members are similarly quick to qualify and “reveal” their daughter’s true gender identity. After talking about how his younger sibling is “a flowy ball of noise and craziness, the editors have older brother Big Nik quickly move to expose Devina before the opening sequence. He says in a matter-of-fact tone, “I don’t know if you know, but Devina is a transgender child,” at which point the story moves directly into the hurt that the family experienced “losing Dev.”
loss / death
Build into the project of homonormativity is the need for LGBT people to remain in transfixed gender categories. Because of Devina’s age, she is unable to undergo operational surgery and hence may be read as within an on-going state of transition. For example, there are a number of nasty comments on the page where the audience reads Devina’s transition as incomplete and impure because of her young age. Comments about her pre-op status reveal national anxieties about transgender bodies who occupy a gender-liminal space. In order to construct Devina’s transition as complete, her parents explains a transition phase using the language of loss and death. Devina’s mother explains: “When you are a parent of a transgender child, you lose that child that you thought you had. It is like a death and a birth of another. And its not necessarily a bad thing, but its a huge adjustment.” Devina’s older brother chimes in as well, explaining the difficulty behind accepting that his younger brother “is gone forever.”
performing gender normativity
Devina is “naturally” going to follow in the footsteps of her older sister. There is a family consensus that “she loves dancing, she wants to be a famous singer, she wants to be a famous actress and model.” Her bedroom is seemingly decorated for a girl–with pastel colours covering the walls, bedding and everything in between. Through and through, Devina is expected to live up the gendered norms of femininity following her transition.
There are imagined limitations to what Devina can do after her transition which are heavily gendered. In the opening scene when Big Nik is talking about his loss, he explains how it is “hard because I never got to do many sports as a kid, so I thought she could be the person that I never was. But its not about me and you know, I got to realize that.” Gender norms remains naturalized as Devina is relegated to a space where she is no longer suited to play sports in an effort for her to appear as transfixed.
Moreover, there are particular editorial decisions that were made in order to make Devina’s female gender more visible to the audience. In a particular segment, where Big Nik calls on Devina to have a dance battle, the camera show a a 15 second segment of Devina dancing. Dancing Devina is presented for her femininity – she is “naturally” going to follow in the footsteps of her older sister. There is a family consensus that “she loves dancing, she wants to be a famous singer, she wants to be a famous actress and model.” Her bedroom is seemingly decorated for a girl–with pastel colours covering the walls, bedding and everything in between. Through and through, Devina is expected to live up the gendered norms of femininity following her transition.
Rather than challenging dominant gender norms, the producers and family seek to show how Devina–after transitioning–is no different than her cis-gender counter-parts. It becomes starkly clear when Anil challenges the audience: “Some people wonder if we are activists, whether this is morally wrong, but spend a day with us, and tell me that she is anything but a girl.”
travel for trans/formation
Scholar Aren Aizura writes about the relationship between transgender narratives of transitioning and themes of travel. In his chapter for an anthology on the topic, Aizura identifies a “journey out and return home” narrative that he contends crops up often in American trans narratives of transitioning. Pointing to the popular Christine Jorgerson’s story of returning to the United States after transforming in Europe as the beginning of these narratives, Aizura explains how narratives of transitioning have often entailed a component of travel, where the subject goes to a location and comes back completely transformed. By placing the transformation outside of the home space, “the indeterminacy of gender during the transition is obscured” in order to appease national anxieties about gender liminal subjects. Similarly, the show explains how Dev goes on an excursion to the clothing store and returns completely transformed, without his boy’s clothing. It is most clearly articulated in the short description for the episode: “Smart, precocious and mature beyond her years, Devina's journey – and her determination to be true to herself – is both inspiring and irresistible.” It is critical to note that Devina’s transformation is only legible by re-asserting the gender and sex that Devina was ascribed at birth. As the announcer explains: “Born a male six years ago, her parents now say that the signs were there from the beginning.”
Devina’s transformation is narrated in tandem with the transformations that her siblings go through – transformation that are facilitated by changing their self-presentation using different technologies of the self. Whereas, clothing and beauty products seemingly complete Devina’s tradition for her family, pageantry and photography serves as the medium through which their middle child Sarina overcomes her insecurities and Big Nik uses social media in order to “overcome” his disability.
girl scouts: a national home
Because the television show frames Devina as having completely transitioned, she is given access to spaces designated for female bodies and is accorded the promises of home that come with that transition, in part because of her family’s incorporation into the fabric of White America. Bannerji explains “the privileged space of the transsexual homecoming is a fantasy: “a fantasy, moreover, racially and culturally marked as Anglocentric, heteronormative and capitalist.” As an organization invested in policing gendered borders, the Girl Scouts organization is the perfect space for Devina to realize these promises. The television show offers the audience a glimpse into Devina passes two critical borders in order to become a member. Where “the border marks a sphere of normality, of homeliness, that privileges properly gendered and sexed national bodies,” it becomes clear that Devina has been incorporated into the structure of white homonormative America as she crosses this final border. In a triumphant final scene, Devina takes her pledge “to live by the girl scout law,” joining the Girl Scouts and thereby taking her place within the American nation.
The (re)incorporation of the Keswani’s “new child” is contingent on Devina’s capacity to fully embody American girlhood, which demands her transformation “from pre-op to post-op, from transitioning to transitioned, from transgressive to transfixed” as gender theorist Nael Bannerj explains. Considering how the Keswani family is constitutive of the well-educated articulate ethnic American family,” the pressures of incorporation into white America play out against a backdrop that implicates questions of race, ethnicity and diaspora. While the television series has been heralded by South Asians across the diaspora as politically progressive and radically inclusive, let us not forget how the possibilities for gender alterity–including those of her own Sindhi community–remain closed for Devina as long as the Keswanis continue performing the national march toward modernity.
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