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This is first edition of the new What to Watch series, a new series focused on web series and some television media that is either created by queer and trans people of color or have queer or trans main characters of color.
The first series to be highlighted is The Switch. The show is a comedy created by queer trans filmmaker Amy Fox and will be the first television show to be created by queer and transgender filmmakers while also starring a transgender actress in a lead trans role. The show follows Su, an Asian trans woman who finds herself in the East Vancouver Queer Underground scene after she comes out at work and is subsequently fired. The show centres around her making her way through the East Vancouver Queer Underground while trying to figure out what to do next, where her life is going to go from here, and who she is going to be.
Su is joined by interesting cast of characters. There is Chris, an assassin who targets oil executives; Sam, an electrologist who is also a sorceress; and Zoe, a transgender teenager. The show will follow the comedic adventures of all of these characters while tackling heavy issues including work discrimination, immigration, poverty, privilege, sex work, access to services, and intimate partner violence.
Vada caught up with Amy Fox to discuss how The Switch came to fruition, the inspiration behind the characters, the importance of transgender people representing themselves, and what she hopes people will take away from watching her show.
Where did the idea for The Switch come from?
The idea for it came from myself and Liz Martin. In 2009, we were a transgender comedy duo who performed for an event called Gender Euphoria. However, once she and I ended up living in different cities, we had to find another way to reach out to as many transgender people as we could. We were originally thinking about creating a comic book since a comedy tour wasn’t really an option for us. Once we learned that you could make a web series in 2010 for relatively little money, however, we decided that would be the best way to reach the most people.
The show originally started as a web series. Why did you decide to change The Switch to a television show?
We changed The Switch from a web series into a television show, because we wanted to use the medium that could reach the most people. While people watch web series, they’re still considered fringe. Having a television show really signifies that we are moving forward towards the mainstream, and I would like this interrogation of oppression to become a normal thing.
How did Julie Vu get involved in the project? How did you find her?
We didn’t find Julie. She actually found us, and asked us if she could get involved. She is a well-known YouTube blogger who talks about transgender issues as well as beauty and aesthetics. She was originally our Zoe, and Su was being portrayed by an actress named Domaine Javier from California.
How did Julie Vu go from being Zoe to Su?
We ended up switching Vu’s role to Su, because certain changes with our conservative government and the local actor’s union made it nearly impossible to work actors and actresses from outside of the country unless they wanted to work for free. We chose Julie, because out of the all of the actors and actresses we worked with in Su’s demographic, Julie took direction the best.
Was the casting of an Asian Trans woman intentional? Was it originally important for you to have a Trans woman of color?
When we first began casting, we weren’t specifically looking for an Asian trans woman. The original Su was going to be German-Canadian and portrayed by Liz Martin. Once she couldn’t be a part of the project, however, we held an open casting for a trans-person of any race between ages 20-40, and Domaine Javier just blew us away. Javier is Filipino, and once we cast her, we knew the show would become much more relevant if we could talk about some of the experiences of being an immigrant of color in Canada while being trans and dealing with a system that was not necessarily made to serve you.
Once you decided to take the storyline in that direction, what steps did you take in order to make sure you portrayed the story of an Asian Trans woman as accurately as possible?
Fortunately, there were a lot of resources available to learn about the immigrant experience, the queer woman of color experience, and the Southeast Asian experience in Canada. To make sure we portrayed Su correctly, there was a lot of research and reading up on oppressive media portrayals of immigrant, Southeast Asian women. We also had a writer on staff who was the child of Southeast Asian immigrants who double checked a lot of the writing and gave us additional insight we could include.
What was the inspiration behind some of the other main characters on the show?
When we were writing the characters, we drew inspiration from quirks the writing team had in themselves as well as their varied experiences. We had one person who was dealing with coming out at work, one person who was a traveled immigrant from Southeast Asia, people who recently moved to Vancouver and were trying to settle in, and a person who identifies as trans who was previously affiliated with the gay male community. We wanted to include as many of their experiences as possible, and you see this in the main characters.
Chris is based on my quirks and how I come across to people. After transitioning and even before to an extent, I had a tendency to pick a political fight. I’ve been involved in multiple causes where I’ve developed a reputation for going for the throat. In those cases, I felt like the other party was abusing the negotiation process, so direct action was needed. I am also a utilitarian, which is an ethical philosophy that believes in doing the largest amount of good for the largest amount of people. Unfortunately, this philosophy has also been used to justify some destructive behavior. Chris is seeing these executives whose decisions are causing floods, droughts, famines, and wars, and he sees that society not only allows this but rewards this which leaves Chris with very few options for recourse. Chris’s actions try to reframe the conversation around these executives’ actions an act of mass violence which cannot be resolved through the law or dialogue.
When we were crafting Chris’s character, we were definitely influenced by anti-heroes like Dexter and Walter White. These characters think they are doing good but are not really aware of the consequences of their actions and their role in perpetuating the problem. A part of the problem with Chris’s actions is the vigilante culture he embraces is often violent, sexist, and xenophobic. We wanted to explore these things and question whether this anti-hero thing really isn’t cool.
Sam is what we would call a “fluffy bunny.” She came from us riffing on how supernatural traditions can be interpreted in a fairly privileged, queer white woman’s community. Sam tries to help people, but her efforts go awry due to her naiveté about how other people experience life who are not middle class, cisgender, white lesbians. While Sam believes she is “trying to move positive energy in their direction”, she is actually trafficking in the forces of Hell, so to speak.
Zoe is a reflection of what many trans youth go through such as the isolation that often comes with being trans. When you are an adult, you have a little more autonomy about where you want to go and who you want to be around; a luxury many youth don’t have. Zoe tries to cope with this isolation with a great online social life which has provided her an outlet. However, this often divorces her from more physical and personal interactions with other people, and that’s a kind of isolation being online cannot necessarily cure.
In addition to these characters, there are also three major male characters: Russell, Nate, and Phil. Russell is a heterosexual male who is attracted to trans women and exploits them to keep anyone from finding out and questioning his heterosexuality. Nate, on the other hand, is trying to figure how his attraction to trans women fits into his heterosexuality in a healthy way. Lastly, Phil is a trans man who is desperately trying to fit into West Vancouver’s West End gay culture. All three of these characters were inspired by my friends’ experiences as well as those in the writer’s room.
On the Kickstarter page, you said The Switch was a magic-realist comedy. Where did the idea to include a magical element come from?
There’s a lot of geek genre material that’s been very popular since the mid-90’s whether we’re talking about comic books, web series, anime, manga, or role-playing games. Usually shows with magical elements are focused on people trying to save the world, but in this case, it’s just a part of the background in the show. The magic element is also symbolic of someone who’s been dropped into an unfamiliar world. In this case, it’s Su coming out as trans, being exposed to new ideas, and meeting new people while trying to make her way through the East Vancouver Queer Underground. Also, I just wanted the magic element in there because I think it’s cool.
The Switch covers some very heavy topics. Why was it important for you to include these issues?
We wanted to include some heavy issues affecting the lives of the transgender community, because the team wanted to see the kind of television that would speak to us. For example, it is very common for trans people who come out or are outed on the job to get fired, and we wanted to show that. However, if you make programming about issues that are not centered around white, heterosexual, cisgender, non-immigrant males is considered niche programming. Television is often made in an environment that is extremely insulated from social consequences, and the people who make it have large amounts of money and privilege, and don’t understand that most people face injustices and oppression on a regular basis.
How difficult did you find it to touch on these topics while keeping the show humorous?
It wasn’t hard at all to include these topics while using humor, because anger, logical contradictions, fear, and joy are present in great concentration when you are dealing with and/or fighting oppression. Using humor is a way to highlight the absurdity of the oppression people have to face. We also wanted to use humor, because so much trans media is depressing. The most people can hope for is a bittersweet hope, so we wanted to create something that would make people happy.
A lot of media with transgender characters have cisgender actors or actresses portraying them. How important was it for you to have a Trans woman actress portraying a Trans main character and why?
When we were casting the transgender characters, it was important for us to have transgender people play trans roles. I wanted that because whenever people from the majority portray people in the minority, the resulting portrayal oftentimes relies on stereotypes that uphold the status quo rather than creating something done with understanding and compassion. I think one of the best ways to break that cycle is to have trans people at every creative stage in media that addresses trans people and hopefully, in media that does not. This is us saying that we as trans people are capable of representing ourselves as writers, directors, actors, and crew.
Ultimately, what do you hope people get out of watching The Switch?
First and foremost, I hope people will laugh and be entertained, because it’s a good show. After that, I’d like to show people that trans people have stories worth telling whether the viewers are trans or not. Many times as trans people, we are expected to relate to only cisgender characters, so I wanted to give us some heroes.
Production for The Switch will begin in February 2015 with its first scheduled broadcasting on Canadian television in August 2015. In the meantime, however, you can take a look at their Kickstarter page. You can also take a look at their original test pilot below.