I’ve been on a TV binge for the past few days while waiting for the new semester to start. My boyfriend’s iQiyi (Chinese Netflix) subscription led me to a variety of amazing American TV dramas that I’d missed during my four years abroad. Fox’s TV series, Star, takes us on a heart-wrenching journey with two sisters beaten down by the foster care system and a rich friend they’d met on Instagram who gave up everything to follow their dreams by starting a girl group in the eccentric city of Atlanta.
While the three main characters are interesting in their own right, the one who moved me the most was Cotton, a transgender black woman with a fervently religious mother. During the day, Cotton works in her mother’s salon as a receptionist. At night, she works in a seedy strip club where she turns tricks in order to pay for expensive bottom surgery.
Cotton’s mother, Carlotta, struggles between her Christian faith and trying to accept her only child. She treats her late best friend’s two daughters more like family than her own flesh and blood which leads Cotton to resent Carlotta. The final straw for Cotton was the day her mother asked her boyfriend, a local pastor, to hold a group prayer in the kitchen. The pastor begins performing an exorcism ritual and tries to force Cotton to say “I am a man”. She breaks down in tears and runs away.
The juxtaposition between faith and marginalized identities is a common thread throughout Cotton’s narrative. Carlotta merely tolerates her presence but struggles to fully accept her as a daughter, yet she also sees the church as a source of comfort because she associate’s “worldly things” with the drugs that took away her best friend.
While sitting alone in an upscale bar, a wealthy Asian man approaches Cotton.
“I don’t do Asians,” she remarks.
The man whispers something in her ear which causes her to go with him. After what we can assume has already been a few dates, Cotton tells Elliot about her gender identity. To her surprise, he readily accepts her as she is. This gives Cotton the confidence to bring Elliot home to her mother. However, her mother becomes angry when she assumes that she’s brought “a john into the house”. Cotton, feeling betrayed by her mother’s distrust, runs upstairs.
While the new couple is out on another date, Elliot tells Cotton that he wants her to “stop hooking” and become “only his”. She hesitates at first but after some cajoling agrees to his terms. However, old habits die hard and the pressures of having enough for bottom surgery cause Cotton to get back into the game. Elliot catches her getting out of another client’s car and breaks up with her on the spot.
More hardship awaits when she comes home to find her roommate stole all of the cash she’d saved up. Desperate, she goes back to Elliot’s home, where she discovers that he’s already replaced her with a blonde white woman. This not only paints Elliot as a playboy but provides a glimpse into racial preferences which are often played out in the real world. White women are often put on a pedestal, especially by Asian men. Black women who date men of other races will often find themselves replaced with a white or Asian woman after they’ve served the purpose of fulfilling a sexual fantasy. Upon witnessing Elliot’s behavior, Cotton feels justified about stealing his checkbook. She didn’t want to be disposable and she couldn’t bear feeling taken advantage of. These feelings combined with the urgency of needing to feel right in her own body led her to the actions that would ultimately result in her arrest at the end of the season.
Cotton’s story is a tragic portrayal of a transgender black sex worker living in the south. Atlanta may be home to largest black LGBTQ community in America but the specters of racial and sexual violence as well as religious abuse place the most vulnerable in society in severely compromising positions. Because Cotton didn’t get to complete her bottom surgery or legally change her gender marker before she was arrested, she will be put in men’s prison. Trans women in men’s prisons are not given adequate access to hormones and are subject to rape from guards and inmates at rates much higher than their cisgender peers.
The existence of a multi-dimensional black transgender character on a mainstream cable network TV show points to the progressive direction the U.S. is heading. Stories like these will bring attention to all of the real-world Cottons from urban Atlanta to rural Ohio. That’s the beauty of Cotton.