“Bones” and its treatment of a transgender murder victim

Although a huge fan of the TV series Bones, when I first came across the episode entitled “The He in the She”, I became a little worried. The television and film industry is notorious for handling trans characters in a way that is nowhere near sensitive or courteous; in fact, many people do not even see the need to approach this subject properly and people do not see it as an issue that trans people are mocked widely in TV and film. Whereas people largely recognise that homophobia, racism and other similar issues are wrong and try to avoid them now, transphobia is rife in popular media. Despite this, I feel the show handles the treatment of a trans murder victim relatively well for such a major TV series and gives hope that the move towards a more trans-friendly media may one day be achievable.

At first, it seemed the episode was going to fit my negative perception of the way in which popular media handles this topic. White, Catholic cis male character Booth seems shocked and uncomfortable when it reveals the victim of this episode’s murder is a post operation male to female transgender person. Although the victim [redacted] has lived as a woman for numerous years of her life, he absolutely cannot grasp calling her she and is persistent in referring to the victim, named Patricia, as ‘he’ along with numerous ‘real woman’ slip ups. He is obviously cannot grasp the idea that Patricia was a she and experiences tongue-tied ‘he-she-he-she’ type moments.

His confusion is, quite frankly, offensive: it’s simple enough: Patricia identified as a woman, and so chose to change the name she was given at birth, have surgery to change her sexual organs and started a new life as a woman – the people who knew her make it clear she wished to be identified as she. Booth is a respected character in the series and it is likely his views are meant to represent those of the masses and his complete inability to understand and respect the victim is worrying. It perpetuates the idea that refusing to acknowledge a trans person as a valid human being is right as at the beginning of the episode, even though Bones herself and other characters seem comfortable with idea of a transgender person, no one makes any attempt to call him out on his ignorance.

Booth is not the only character who lacks understanding and holds narrow minded views. Previously, Patricia was a married Evangelist pastor who frequently appeared on TV with his wife and children. He went missing in Thailand with a significant amount of money, and it is assumed this is when he had his surgery and started living as Patricia. Patricia’s old wife is interviewed by the FBI and she makes remarks such as ‘He would never offend God in this manner.’ She also states that we are created in God’s image so anyone who does anything to change that, such as having a sex change, is going against His will. The religious connotation of the episode itself is worrying; many Christians would be outraged to see a transgender pastor of their church and therefore the writers of this episode need to be very careful how the approach this without causing mass outrage. Paired with ignorant comments as the one mentioned above though make it seem as if Bones doesn’t want to set itself apart from other programmes on air, it wants to remain ignorant like the rest out of fear of offending anyone.

However, the episode takes steps to suggest that in reality, they do want people to be more open minded towards transgender people. The other characters present in the episode are much more accepting of Patricia. It is assumed the initial suspect, a member of Patricia’s church named J.P., fell in love with Patricia and murdered her out of disgust when he discovered the truth about her gender. This begins to draw awareness to the very real threat of violence transgender people face. In interview, it is revealed that although J.P. did develop feelings for the deceased, he was trying to heal his broken marriage with another woman and he knew the truth about Patricia’s gender identity and it did not make him think any less of her. In fact, when Booth makes an ignorant comment along the lines of Patricia wasn’t a real woman, the suspects responds with ‘Don’t say she wasn’t a real woman, it makes you sound ignorant.’ J.P. is wholeheartedly supportive of his friend and respects her and this is where the episode begins to shift its attitudes towards transgender people into something much more positive.

Patricia’s son, Ryan, is also located and questioned as a suspect, but he too is not phased by his father’s transformation into Patricia. He seems proud that Patricia chose to live her life the way she wanted in private so as not to shake her son’s faith in God. Bones and her colleagues at the lab have no trouble referring to the victim as she and the members of her church all admire and respect her even though they know about her past. By the end of the episode, Patricia is painted as a respectable woman, an admirable character, her life does not seem to be viewed as a negative thing. Even Booth starts to show more insight into her life, making a comment that she lived ‘split in two’ which implies he has begun to see how difficult her life must have been and that he now feels more compassion towards the victim.

Of course, the episode still has a long way to go before it can be considered an episode which represents trans people in an entirely positive way. The episode contains too many offhand comments that suggest the victim chose to be a she, ‘she gave up being a he’, even though people are born with their gender identities, they do not just simply wake up one and day and decide what gender they are; even if they did, it does not make the way they choose to identify any less valid. There is also an undercurrent within the episode that Patricia is only accepted as a woman because she had surgery to reconstruct her face and genitals to help her become a woman biologically, as well as in mind. There is the suggestion that had she not had this surgery, and just decided to live as the female Patricia, people would not be so understanding of her. However, because the characters in the episode are able to accept and understand her decisions, because she is not reviled, and there are characters who openly call people out on their ignorance towards Patricia, I believe this episode of Bones is a tentative step towards the right direction.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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