By Dane Figueroa Edidi
When I heard the rumor that the new Secret ad featured a trans woman, I thought perhaps Secret will be crafting a full campaign, hire a bunch of trans women at a wage where they can thrive in this (violent) economy and donate to trans-led organizations. I thought perhaps Secret would have a commercial that featured the music of transgender non-conforming people of color, as well as feature multiple trans actors. I thought perhaps, this time, we would see something different than the normal tokenization of our lives and exploitation of our pain that has become all too common in this age I like to call: “Token Trans Friends #ThereCanOnlyBeOne”. This thought dissipated the minute I saw the Secret ad.
I understand very well that corporations like Procter & Gamble (the parent company that makes Secret, the deodorant/antiperspirant) are primarily focused on profit. I also understand trans consumers are often never the focus in these ads that place us strategically at the center, like a trans doll ripe for cis consumption, tokenizing us. In fact, the goal is always aimed at the cis audience, utilizing whatever means necessary to draw some sympathy from them so everyone can get a pat on the back, feel as if they have done something, but mostly never know the ways in which structural oppression affects our community.
Tokenism is defined by Oxford as “the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality within a workforce.” A token has no value beyond its intended performance. When we apply this idea to the ad, Dana, the trans woman played by performance artist/model Karis Wilde, has as much value as the cis gaze affords her. Everything about the ad must be geared towards convincing cis people she is worth their time. Even her pain must be packaged in a way that the masses will consume it. She must be as close to palpable as possible, and so, while I read an article that spoke about her being non-binary, she is still white passing.
Next, the bathroom captures such a pristine image it could draw the conclusion that we are not dealing with a community space where the intersectionality of race and class are at the forefront of anyone’s mind. No, this is a cherubim-faced white woman, in a white world and visually we are being told she deserves to be treated with respect if for nothing other than her white skin and perhaps, socio-economic position. Remember, everyone else in the commercial is white/white passing. The context is decidedly white.
Now, someone will say to me, “Dane, how could you draw all these conclusions from this? Why discuss race? Why not simply enjoy the commercial and feel good that at least one trans person got a chance to be the face of it?” And I reply because I am a black trans woman and I have found that tokenization and exploitation are common distractions utilized by capitalism to make us forget that it (capitalism) isn’t the right model for transliberation.
While the audience is being treated to the “feel good factor”, we are being asked to forget the average income of a trans woman of color is less than ten thousand dollars a year and when an organization or corporation has the capacity to do more, I will always demand them to do so.
How many trans employees does Secret or Procter & Gamble have? How many TGNC actors and models could be hired as the faces of a new sweeping initiative that would be led by trans people, hired to leverage Secret’s access to resources? How many trans POC-led organizations will Secret partner with to fight anti-trans violence? What percentage of the proceeds garnered by Secret could go to said trans-led organizations so that the transpeople doing the work in their communities are sustained?
The threat of violence that TGNC people have to face is a real thing but violence wears many faces and not only are we killed by lovers, members of family and community, but also systems in place that strangle us with more than just bathroom laws. I am weary of us being treated like cattle in political arenas and inside shows of capitalistic theater that devour our stories while discarding our lives.
So, while yes, I will always celebrate TGNC people getting a job, I will also always push for us to exist in a world in which tokenizing our pain and limiting our experiences to cis-centered narratives is never an acceptable means to hand out ally cookies. I would have liked to see ads that featured more than one TGNC person, I would like to see a life in which trans people are thriving not simply surviving. When you have more, you do more and I will never applaud one act by a cis-led organization or corporation, when one thousand acts are what said corporation is capable of, not in this life in which the death toll continues to rise, and TGNC people are told we can only exist when we make cis people feel good.
Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi is a Nigerian, Cuban, Indigenous, American performance artist, author (Yemaya’s Daughters, Brew, Baltimore: A Love Letter, Wither, Remains: A Gathering of Bones, and Keeper), teacher, choreographer, oracular consultant, Priestess and advocate.
She is the co-host of Inside Out Radio Show, a Founding Member of Force Collision, Curator of La Ti Do’s annual Celebration of Trans Artist and Capturing Fire’s Alchemy, the Trans Women of Color Collective’s Director of Global Initiatives, a 2016 Helen Hayes Nominee, and the first TWOC Playwright to be chosen for Theater Alliance’s Hothouse Festival. She works to create new pathways for other trans and GNC Artist/Creatives of Color, originating the role of Vaudeville Queen and Artistic Ancestor Cordelia Mcclain in Erik Ehn’s “Shape” at La Mama. A Healer-Historian who focuses on the positionality of trans, and GNC people within ancestor cultures, she has brought a message of collective liberation and healing all across the country.