CARMELITA: IN MEMORIAM
I wrote this little piece back in 2008 when the television show "Dirty Sexy Money" was in it's second and final season. Candis Cayne's portrayal of Carmelita was so huge for so many transgender folks. I wanted to repost it here on the new Lavernecox.com
CARMELITA: IN MEMORIAM
I’ve been an avid fan of ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” since it’s debut over a year ago. My favorite storyline on the show, of course, involved the relationship between Patrick Darling played by Billy Baldwin and his transgender mistress Carmelita played by the groundbreaking Candis Cayne. The true love between the two was always portrayed as something that could never succeed or be taken public because of Patrick’s political ambitions or more accurately his father’s political ambitions for his son. But Carmelita and Patrick’s love always drew them back to one another. It was a beautiful albeit tragic love story that as a trans woman I so desperately needed to see.
But alas there would be no happy ending for Patrick and Carmelita. As I feared since the show’s inception, Carmelita was killed off. Trans people being portrayed as tragic figures who are often murdered violently is very consistent with the history of the representations of trans people on film and television. But Carmelita wasn’t tragic. She was heroic and her portrayal represents major progress in the realm of representations of trans women on film.
In the fall of 2007 Candis Cayne made headlines as the first transgender woman to have a recurring role on a primetime television show. Before this moment recurring trans characters on television have been played by nontrans men and women with the occasional nonrecurring portrayals by actual trans people. Though this was a huge moment of progress for our people in the realm of representation, the bigger progress is what ended up being a truly beautiful transgender love story on television which involved an actual transgender person albeit fictive.
On last week’s episode Patrick again declared his undying love for Carmelita and his desire to have her by his side at his inauguration. This was so moving to see for me as a trans woman for so many reasons. For years I’ve dated men who even when they’ve loved me would never have me by their side for the most important moments of their lives. Many trans women I know including myself have been in relationships with men who want to keep us a secret. The extent to which straight male attraction to trans women is stigmatized in this country cannot be underestimated. We have a long way to go when it comes to masses of Americans having a nuanced understanding of transgender identities, but we have even further to go when it comes to lifting that stigma. To have a story line where a wealthy successful politician wants to have the transgender love of his life by his side for his inauguration is downright revolutionary utopian even in this day and age and for me wholeheartedly welcomed. It has been my experience and the experience of many trans women that most men aren’t so courageous as courageous as we trans women are.
But television and the movies have given us storylines for years that might seem implausible, mere romantic fantasies. But these fantasies for generations have given audiences spaces to live out these fantasies through the characters on screen. Transgender folks have been denied the opportunity to see ourselves reflected back to us living out such fantasies until “Dirty Sexy Money”. Until Dirty, in the realm of mainstream television and cinematic representations transgender folks have been resigned to what performance theorist Jose Munoz calls disidentification. Munoz writes: To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect’ with the disidentifying subject.”
But the Patrick/Carmelita love story is not such a moment of disidentification but of identification. It’s truly revolutionary to see a real trans woman respected and loved to the degree that Baldwin’s character does Carmelita. She is a character who has value and integrity. After discovering how Baldwin’s character covers up the accidental death of his wife, Cayne’s Carmelita out of personal integrity can’t be with a man who’d do such a thing. Episodes later she finds it in her heart to forgive him. Their love is too strong to deny. Her characters ambivalence is profoundly human.
Candis Cayne as Carmelita at Patrick’s inauguration, descending the stairs of the capital building next to her beloved is regal, dignified and glamorous, the vision of the archetypal first lady with a twist, Jacqueline Kennedy meets Ursala Andres. I couldn’t help but compare this fictional moment to Obama’s acceptance speech the night he was named president elect in as much as it’s a moment I’ve never seen before on television. A transsexual first lady, wow! that’s hot! Although fictive it’s about time. That moment gave me space to fantasize about a moment I couldn’t have as vividly without it as did Obama’s real acceptance speech.
But the story is inevitably tragic if Cayne’s character isn’t. As they descend the stairs together gunfire erupts and Carmelita is predictably shot. We are teased with the possibility of Patrick declaring his forbidden love and devotion to a transgender woman publicly, very publicly but the narrative withholds that possibility restoring the hegemony of transgender love being doomed. “Dirty Sexy Money” teases us with the possibility of transgression but ultimately pulls the rug out from under us reinscribing a familiar narrative where the trans person is punished with death,
This is often the case with mainstream representations of marginalized groups. Difference is used to tease and entice but ultimately the dominant oppressive social structure is restored often through violence. But we must not let this diminish the progress that Cayne’s character on “Dirty Sexy Money” represents. We really are in the infant phase of trans representation in mainstream media. It was only a year ago that Cayne became the first trans person to play a trans person in a recurring role in prime time. If we look historically drawing correlations with the progress of African American representations, it was several decades ago that it was historic for black people to actually play ourselves in films. These historic moments for black folks arose out of the phenomenon of black face. If we compare, trans folks are slowly emerging from our parallel history of a black face of sorts, representations that mock and diminish the humanity of real trans people.
But even as black folks started to play ourselves in films and on television, it took decades to move beyond stereotypical portrayals. We’re still not fully their yet as black folks even though the progress is staggering. So even with it’s shortcomings “Dirty Sexy Money” is a watershed moment in the history of transgender representation. It gave me and other trans women as well as trans attracted men a primetime fairy tale where a trans woman might possibly be able to find love with the man of her dreams out in the open. It’s a fairy tale long overdue despite the tragic ending.
On tonight’s episode of “Dirty…” Patrick mourned the passing of his beloved with a memorial service. This is my memorial to Carmelita. I mourn her and celebrate her, as well. I know that her existence has made possible some of the groundbreaking mainstream media moments trans women including myself have had this year. I know that she has also made possible even more progressive moments to come. Thank you Carmelita. I celebrate you. Thank you Candis Cayne, the actress who brought her to life and who thankfully lives on. You have helped to make possible what wasn’t before you.