The SBS VICELAND Balls Deep series features in depth, investigative pieces on American subculture. Hosted by Thomas Morton, each episode is memorable for all the right reasons. And T-Girls, which examines trans-culture and identity is a trashy gem.
It begins in the night library where the studious Morton endeavours to find an academic tome, which will sum up the ins and outs of trans culture, but all he finds is a 1970s Californian Highway Patrol 'pamphlet’ on dealing with transexual and transgender people.
"The language is a little bit rough by today’s standards” Morton acknowledges.
Morton then forays into the Bronx where he meets two T-girls so sassy and street wise that you can almost hear the strains of one of the Lou Reed song, Walk On The Wild Side.
"Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,
Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.”
Ti’aira Chanel, still in her twenties from Memphis Tennessee, knows all about the wild side of town. She’s just graduated from a life of sex work and takes the nerdy Morton to some of her old beats. That part of her life is over now but she says that she regrets nothing as it made her "who the fuck” she is today.
Morton also introduces us to Chanel International, who works as in an advocacy centre for transexual and gay rights. Morton goes home with her, perching himself awkwardly at the kitchen bench and meets her immigrant grandmother, who bought a bottle of Chanel after earning one of her first pay packets. She started calling her grandson 'Chanel’ without understanding that it was a was a woman’s name.
Back in the safe confines of the library, Morton produces one of his favourite books, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. The author tried to change his skin pigmentation in order to discover what life was like for a black man in 1950s America. Morton, a keen advocate of immersion journalism, wonders whether he should dress in drag to understand the trans experience but quickly disregards the idea as simply too frivolous. Next he wants to take oestrogen to explore the hormonal change "which is the root of transitioning”. When he questions Chanel International about taking the hormone, she says that it makes her feel like "I am a woman, bitch, and I am here".
When he floats the idea of taking oestrogen with reformed street girl, Ti’iara Chanel, she reminds him that it’s a medication and not a recreational drug. Sealing the deal for abstaining from it, his doctor warns that it could make him sterile. So Morton must contend with merely hanging out in the Bronx with the Chanels to try to understand their world.
Although this sounds a little like car crash television, it all works extremely well, due to the host’s funny, dead pan reporting - he often lets his eyebrows do the talking. There’s lots of other visual gags too because Morton is so small and slight, it looks like Ti’Aira Chanel could almost squash him with her stilleto.
This Balls Deep episode of T-Girls, is much more engaging and celebratory of trans culture than an entire season of Caitlin Jenner’s reality show, I Am Cait. This is mainly because it is never self-conscious - Morton’s matter-of-fact delivery while sporting several apparent shaving nicks on his neck (there’s no makeup station on the Vice Channel), is at odds with the plastic patina of mainstream television presenting.
Thomas Morton keeps it completely real.
Balls Deep airs a double episode tonight on SBS VICELAND at 8:30pm. Catch previous episodes on SBS On Demand: