“We got new music, I like it,” Janet Mock says, in a break between segments of her video show on a Friday morning in March. “Well done, Nick!” she exclaims to her producer, who’s in another room, communicating with her through her earpiece. Mock sings the tune and snakes her neck, snapping her fingers and rolling her torso in the chair from which she commands her set, which looks like a fancy but somewhat sterile living room.
The music is new, but not much newer than the show, So Popular!, which premiered on MSNBC’s digital platform, Shift, in December.
Mock’s panel of guest commentators has just left the set, after a discussion that covered Madonna’s stance on women’s rights, Kelly Osborne’s and Kathy Griffin’s departures from E!’s Fashion Police, and President Barack Obama’s remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Today, the “feminist clique,” as Mock dubbed the panel, included journalist and speaker Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Ebony columnist Michael Arceneau, and The Daily Beast’s entertainment reporter, Kevin Fallon. They had spent their time on camera discussing topics that, as Mock put it, “you often pretend you’re too smart to like,” as part of her mission to “expand the idea of what’s political and worthy of analysis.” At one point, the conversation turned to racial and ethnic diversity on television, and to Shonda Rimes, the wildly successful creator of Grey’s Anatomy, SCANDAL, and How To Get Away With Murder, all of which have racially diverse casts and two of which star black women. “Shonda’s form of activism is to write,” Mock said, as her panel nodded in agreement.
The idea of doing what you love as a form of activism is one that Mock likes, and it’s what she’s doing herself. Mock’s form of activism—her most visible form, at least—is being Janet Mock.
Mock is the first openly transgender woman of color to host a show on a major channel, on a digital platform or elsewhere. Mock came out as transgender in 2011 in an essay in Marie Claire, out of a desire to do something about the horrifically high rates of suicide among transgender teenagers. Over 50 percent of transgender youth have considered suicide, and a quarter have attempted to kill themselves.
“I never wanted to be the poster child for transsexuals—pre-op, post-op, or no op,” Mock wrote. “But the recent stories about kids who have killed themselves because of the secrets they were forced to keep has shifted something in me.” In 2012, she began a social media campaign called #girlslikeus, created with the purpose “of connecting, upLIFTing one another, and sharing resources and stories.” The campaign aims to “empower trans women to live visibly and connect in sisterhood and solidarity.”
Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness was released last year; it chronicles her childhood, her transition, and her need to tell her own story rather than have other people tell it—incorrectly—for her. Accordingly, her activism to change the media narrative around transgender women continued: She pushed back against CNN’s Piers Morgan when his coverage of her was insensitive, and after Katie Couric asked predictably body-focused questions in an interview with transgender model Carmen Carrera and transgender actress Laverne Cox, Mock implored journalists to “please stop asking about [her] vagina.” Then, she conducted an interview with fellow journalist Alicia Menendez, who is cisgender, in which she asked Menendez the kinds of intrusive questions she is continually asked, and that no self-respecting journalist would think to ask of a woman who is not trans: Do you use tampons? When was the moment you first felt your breasts budding? “Because trans people are marked as artificial, unnatural, and illegitimate, our bodies and identities are often open to public dissection,” she wrote in Elle. “Plainly, cisgender folks often take it as their duty to investigate our lives to see if we're real.”
Now, she’s still doing activism around transphobic violence (she sits on the board of the Arcus Foundation, which gives out grants to LGBT social justice organizations, such as the Trans Justice Funding Project and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project), but this new show marks her shift from activism as we might usually imagine it—as explicit efforts to raise awareness and money—to the activism of being oneself in public—doing the work you love and are good at. It’s being the role model you didn’t have. It’s living your life to show girls like you that they should keep living theirs. Mock’s dream was to move to New York City and be an entertainment journalist, and that’s precisely what she’s doing.
Which is not to say that her experience as a transgender woman of color doesn’t shape the kind of entertainment journalist she is; it most certainly does. It’s hard to imagine a writer at People or an anchor on E! asking, “How can we be critical fans?” and meaning it in the “how can we enjoy pop culture without sacrificing our feminism?” sense rather than the “ugh, that dress looks hideous” sense, or calling on Madonna and Patricia Arquette to read a book about intersectionality before expounding on the status of women. Yet that is precisely what Mock asked of her feminist crew at the taping I observed.
IN AN INTERVIEW with The American Prospect, Mock explained that she sees her career so far in several clear stages: the entertainment journalist phase, the advocate and activist stage, and now, a stage in which she can blend her passion and her obligation. “This show is the perfect combination of all my interests,” she says. “It’s the cockapoo of shows. I worked at People, which is literally just entertainment … and it didn’t really challenge me to bring in all my feminist conscience or my social justice lens.”
After she came out in the pages of Marie Claire, she says, “it was full-throttle activism—checking people on privilege, doing college speaking tours.” Now she feels like she’s gotten some of that out of her system, though she hasn’t given it up with her shift back into entertainment journalism. Quite the opposite. “With this show, I can do what I love without feeling like I have to sacrifice my lens on the world as a transwoman, as a woman of color,” she explains. “Pop culture was a major piece of how I learned about the world and myself.” So Popular!, she says, is “the perfect combination of all the parts of myself.”
If pop culture was a learning tool for Mock, it certainly wasn’t a perfect one. Though depictions of transgender people, and particularly transgender women, have improved lately, when Mock was growing up they were almost always limited and pernicious. If she had learned about transgender people solely through popular culture, Mock says, “all I would know would be victim, sex worker, site of trauma, or punchline. We’re either laughed at or beat up.”
With the arrival of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon’s Transparent, Mock observes, audiences have been exposed to more complicated portraits of transgender women. Mock doesn’t think these depictions are perfect, since “both are from the imagination of non trans people,” and says she’s excited about Sense8, the forthcoming Netflix series helmed by Lana Wachowski, because it features a transgender character and was written largely by a trans woman.
As devoted as she is to rich and nuanced—and numerous—portrayals of transgender life, however, Mock knows that the problem of violence against transgender people is a pressing one. As much as she enjoys her form of activism, of being visibly fantastic and happy, she’s aware that most trans women of color aren’t so fortunate. With violence and poverty still weighing on transgender people, Mock knows that many of the people she’s viewed as representing are struggling to survive; thriving is a long way off.
“How are we ensuring that people can walk safely on the street, on the subway, in their schools, in their places of worship?” she asks. “Are we making sure people have access to health care, and can stay in their homes and their schools? What do we have apart from just LGB shelters, that are often problematic when it comes to gender identity?” And for people like Mock, who have the power to shape what stories are told about transgender people in mass media, how do you cover those pressing issues without reinforcing the stereotype of the victim or site of trauma? Mock laughs when I ask her this. “How do you have a nuanced conversation in mass media about anything!?” she exclaims.
And yet, that’s what Mock is doing.
Mock thinks that’s in part due to the medium. “TV is having such a huge moment with trans issues,” she argues, “because there’s so much space and TV is the writer’s medium, not the director’s.” Still, there are very few places on television where you can find conversations about pop culture and politics that foreground not just women, but gender, where guests and hosts throw around the words “intersectionality” and “heteronormativity,” and still have room to admit how much they like Disney movies.
Mock’s show is one of them, and that’s entirely by design. Her metaphorical cockapoo is now a few months old (her literal cockapoo, Cleo, is older than that, and has her own Twitter account), and so far, Mock says, it’s living up to her vision. Though she says that a lot of her work is about ensuring that she’s not “the first” or “the only” for long, but just one of many girls like her who are given the opportunities she’s been given, this show is her baby—well, her puppy, at least. “Let us have a conversation, let us laugh, let us tell the truth on TV about lots of things. Let us enjoy ourselves. That’s a form of activism, too.”