The OA’s Trans Character is great

milkboys Films & Cinema, Television 4 Comments

Stranger Things might be the big pop culture hit when it comes to mystery shows but it’s not the only Netflix series worth a (binge) watch. The OA follows Prairie Johnson, a young woman who’s returned to her family after disappearing seven years prior.

Looking to reconnect with those she left behind in captivity, Prairie gathers a group of misfits to hatch a plan. One of her compatriots is Buck Vu, a transgender teen who’s been turning to the local drug dealer—another of the cadre—for his testosterone.

 The show doesn’t shy away from positive and negative reactions to Buck’s identity, especially from his family. But he’s a nuanced character, not a token representation for the sake of diversity. He might also be the first Asian-American trans character in a mainstream television series.

Ian Alexander, who plays Buck, is transgender in real life, too—a nice change of pace from Hollywood’s usual approach of casting cis people in trans roles. Raised in a conservative Mormon family, he faced rejection by his parents, who tried to force him into conversion therapy.

“I remember particularly being obsessed with FtM transition videos,” Alexander told Affinity of his earliest inklings about his identity. “I didn’t connect with it personally yet, but I still remember tucking my long hair into a hat and taking a few ’boy’ pictures.”

If he looks familiar, that’s because the high schooler became something of a viral sensation last year, when he clapped back at transphobic UCLA students.

“I was frustrated, but decided to use humor rather than waste my energy on people who clearly don’t understand what they’re against,” he told Buzzfeed at the time.

He answered an open call for a young Asian trans actor that circulated on Tumblr, and the scored the part. Ironically, showrunner Brit Marling says they were told the role was impossible to cast. She told Vulture:

“We’d always written the character as a 14-year-old transgender FTM Asian-American, and when we gave our casting director Avy Kaufman that description, she said, “We might not be able to find this person, so what are you flexible on?” We told her we weren’t flexible, so she finally took to the internet and posted some casting notices on various trans chat rooms and groups, and audition tapes came flooding in.

Ian was among them, he had shot his with his iPhone in his bathroom and uploaded it all without his parents knowing. Out of nowhere, his parents get a phone call that Netflix wants to cast their son! They’re like, “What?”

His tape was brilliant.

He told us, “I’m having a really hard time in school, because I wanted to act but it’s not like the plays that are done in high school have roles that describe a person like me. You can’t imagine what it was like to go online and see a posting for a Netflix show that describes me.”

We got really lucky.

Comparisons to Stranger Things are easy: They’re both Netflix shows about mysterious abductees who fall in with a group of young men. But while Stranger Things’ queer factor is pretty much subtext, The OA puts it out front and centre.


Comments 4

  1. It’s good that they’re finally getting real persons for the “acting” roles. It’s about time.

    The Fosters attempted, but didn’t succeed — even with gay writers. Hayden Byerly was first supposed to play a trans role (or at the very least, a cross-dressing one), then as the show progressed, they changed his role to be one of a “tween” gay person, but at 14, that was stretching it. I give them kudos for showing a “kiss” (a 4-second peck, really) between younger boys [“Jonnor”], but in the “end” the corporations and religious right won out. Jonnor never kissed again — they were lucky enough to just hold hands 2 or 3 times.

    While Jude has kissed (more realistically) with his new boyfriend, as soon as they even start something else, there’s always some sort of “interruption” to halt that so that, AGAIN, the corporations and religious right win out so that they won’t be “offended.”

    I wish this show more “luck”.

  2. Is the queer subtext in ST El? Or Mike and El? Or Mike and Will? Or just Will? Or that punk gang? Or Max?

    And why have there been so few ST posts on milkboys? Only three or so. There should be at least five more before this year’s over. In particular, there has been no Will at all. :( And way too little Mike of course. Some Max too.

  3. The OA may be an interesting series, but it can’t compare with BBC America’s regular all-day marathons of Star Trek (OS), Star Trek (TNG) and Star Trek Voyager. Even cooler is the Heroes & Icons channel – every night from Sun-Fri, starting at 9pm, they show 5 episodes in succession – one from each series – Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Yeah, it keeps me up ’till 2am sometimes.
    Thank God for Cable TV.

  4. I’m all for showing honest trans characters in fiction, but the OA is such a pretentious pile of nonsense that it’s a terrible vehicle for, well, pretty much anything.

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