Tonight’s episode of TNT’s crime procedural Major Crimes was a very compassionate look into gender identity, transgender individuals, and a burgeoning plot-line for a major character’s potential coming-out arc. Even as a fan of the show, I admit I was surprised that the show would tackle such heady topics — often done so badly or with hateful language or depictions on television. Indeed, gender identity is something many people struggle with in regular life. But that is why I found tonight’s episodes, “Boys Will Be Boys” to be so respectful even as it was inclusive of the real-life struggles that some people have with their own children, or people they know.
For those who missed it, the episode focused on the murder of a 13-year-old transgender child, who was living as a girl. She was relentlessly bullied — depicted on the show by a bully exposing her genitals in a bathroom and then posting photos and videos of the incident on the internet. Meanwhile, she was trying to convince her parents to allow her to get hormone therapy. Her father was supportive, buying her dresses and encouraging her to express her true identity, while her mother was angry and hurt to see her “son” living as a girl. Without spoiling the ending for anyone, I will say that throughout the course of the investigation, the writers of the show manage to humanize a child trying to live authentically.
The bully uses the derogatory “tranny,” which I thought subtly highlighted why that is a pejorative term and not a joke punchline. Meanwhile, the old-school cops on the team Detectives Flynn and Provenza, reveal a surprisingly enlightened take on the murder. While they make it clear that they do not necessarily understand transgender identities, both cops acknowledge their lack of knowledge in that area but show that it doesn’t matter to them to do their jobs with compassion and respect. Each of them focus on being angry that a child was murdered. I was actually touched by one scene in particular when Provenza — the old, cranky, slightly Archie Bunker-type — gets angry at the DA, who is unwilling to prosecute.
“Do you think I understand this boys wanting to live as girls stuff? I’m trying to swim through this, just like any juror would,” Provenza says. (I tried to transcribe while watching, so it might not be an exact quote.) But he then says that what he can’t ignore is that a kid had his head bashed in with a baseball bat.
Sure, it would be great if every character on TV was totally cool with any LGBT person or non-conforming gender identity. But what I thought was good about this show was that it realistically (well, for TV) revealed how people do struggle with understanding such concepts, even as they are trying to be good people. Provenza is a character who is a good guy. He is older though, and so he doesn’t always “get” the new terms and the new ways that we are understanding the world. But his advocacy for the murder victim in tonight’s show was a touching template for how any one of us who struggles to dismantle our privilege and see things from another person’s point of view is valuable and possible. We can be advocates for change and for people, even as we may still struggle with certain facets of that change. If we have a heart to learn and grow, we have the capacity to change. Compassion, as Detective Provenza shows, is sometimes the most essential ingredient toward enlightened humanity.
Executive Producer James Duff, who co-wrote tonight’s episode, told The Back Lot that writing a story like this — including the as yet uncomfirmed sexual identity of teenage character Rusty — is informed by the confusion and anxiety he faced in his youth.
Duff said that Rusty’s story is one that has taken him back to his own past. “It’s really put me in touch with the calamities of my childhood,” he said. As a teen, Duff was trying to figure his sexuality out and went to someone he trust for help – a priest. “I thought I was being incredibly brave by going and talking to him about it because I didn’t know what else to say. And he told me that the reason I was having these feelings was because the devil wanted me. I was a devout Christian, and Jesus loved me, and he wanted to separate me from Jesus so I all I had to do was pray. And if I prayed hard enough, the temptation would be taken from me. So I prayed like mad for months, on my knees, in my bedroom.” Needless to say the feelings didn’t go away (though Duff told the priest they had so he wouldn’t go to his parents) and he now realizes “that’s how intensely I did not want to be out of the norm and out of my religion, really.”
If this episode is any indication, the Rusty character’s arc will continue to be not only captivating as a story line, but enlightening for many people about how some people come to understand their sexuality. While the Rusty character had spent time as a male prostitute early on, his subsequent placement as a foster child with Chief Raydor has yielded some interesting story and character developments, too. After all, cops are usually in the business of putting away sex workers, regardless of their circumstance. But on Major Crimes, Rusty’s status as a protected witness to a crime, has allowed the cop characters to see the humanity of sex workers, as well as for the audience to look more deeply at what that may mean for some who do that work. It’s not a black and white world.
I was a diehard fan of The Closer, the predecessor to Major Crimes, but I find that this new iteration has brought some truly compelling stories as well as courage by the writers and producers to tackle real-world issues that rarely make it on TV.