On Friday, the ABC soap All My Children will conclude its groundbreaking, GLAAD-award-winning six-month story of Zarf — a male rocker who came to terms with his inner woman, and started living and dressing as Zoe. Here was a unique opportunity: Fabulous clothes and progressive gender politics. Unfortunately, the wardrobe department blew it, and Zoe’s frumpy outfits caused the storyline to trip and tumble on chunky-heeled pumps.
Broadway actor Jeffrey Carlson threw himself into the part with zeal and the character occasionally made for compelling television. Zarf/Zoe attended a moving support group of actual transgendered people. Cops found her hormone vials and thought they were the poison that had tainted poor dead Dixie’s pancakes. (Don’t ask.) But most of the time, with Carlson being shoehorned into a parade of Dress Barn rejects, we couldn’t watch without wincing. We met Zarf as an international singing sensation whose first scene involved meditating naked in the middle of someone’s office, but then were besieged with a buffet of tunics and shoulder pads more befitting Murder, She Wrote: The Musical.
While we empathize with the unique challenges of dressing a character of this type, what we don’t understand is why AMC erred on the side of Frumpsville when it could have gone for Awesome. If anything, the words “Transgender Rock Star” should have inspired the wardrobe crew to new heights — fabulous feathers and leather instead of cheap lipstick and frumpy separates. Surely a successful character with the financial and creative resources of a younger David Bowie — the archetype for Zarf — could be more imaginative and less safe. Zarf may want to be a woman, sure, but does she want to be someone who dresses in Golden Girls hand-me-downs?
In fact, while real-world transgendered folks might — like the rest of us — have trouble finding cute outfits, the citizens of Pine Valley generally look fabulous even when they’re stuck in jail or trapped in a well. (You try getting Susan Lucci to forsake her foundation.) So how is it that Zarf was aces at eyeliner, but Zoe looked like a five-year old let loose in her mother’s cosmetics drawer? Why did Zoe get stuck with a bunch of caftans Joan Collins would have dismissed in 1987 as “too passe, darling,” while Zarf rocked the tight pants?
All of which makes us wonder if the costuming was less a character choice than a balk by The Powers That Be. Was AMC afraid to go all the way and back again with a character so potentially controversial? Rather than really test daytime-TVAmerica’s willingness to embrace the material, they tiptoed to the edge of complex gender identity issues and then crammed Carlson into palazzo pants and made him sing to children about rainbows. He didn’t become a woman as much as he became someone’s totally non-threatening maiden aunt, neutering both the character and the show’s message. Seriously, it’s impossible to concentrate on Zoe’s monologues about inner pain when she’s dressed for bingo out on the sunporch.
AMC should have trusted its audience by pushing this thing further, even in zany directions, because Zoe — and her real-world counterparts — deserved something bigger and better and decidedly more fabulous. Let’s just hope Zoe’s storyline-ending departure to Europe for that sex change operation involves lots of shopping and some fancy couture. She’s earned it. —The Fug Girls