As Bailey (Jess Barbagallo) and Tawny (Kai Movsovich) drive to a ten-year reunion, Bailey gazes at the heavens and asks, “Are you there, God? It’s me, Bailey,” referencing Judy Blume’s Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret, a hallmark of late-20th-century girlhood. “I don’t get it,” says Tawny. Confused, Bailey looks at Tawny, with her eye makeup, bracelets, and rings and assumes common experience. Yet Tawny, a trans femme, grew up on a diet of male signifiers, more likely to read Sports Illustrated than Blume’s novel about female puberty. But when looking back at Bailey, presenting as masculine in classic “bad boy” jean jacket, one may wonder if this is the first soap opera character dressed like James Dean to drop a Judy Blume reference. If the two characters bypassed each other on the gender spectrum en route to their current identities, the cultural residue of their journeys remain.
With the “reboot” of Room For Cream at The New Museum this fall, The Dyke Division of the Two-Headed Calf posits the soap opera genre, often disdained for its feminine subjects and audience, as the ideal medium to document gender variation. The show debuted in 2008 at LaMama and ran for three seasons, in which Brooke O’Harra, Jess Barbagallo, Laryssa Husiak, Laura Berlin Stinger, and company mimicked the fast-and-loose production style of soaps, writing scripts quickly and staging with limited rehearsal a narrative of lesbian and gender nonconforming friends who frequent a coffee shop in the fictional queer haven of Sappho, Massachusetts.
The storyline picks up with characters who split town in the intervening years returning for a reunion, most notably, Dire (Becca Blackwell), who moved to LA and now stars in a fictional hit show called That Trans Guy. Prior to Dire’s arrival, the Room for Cream regulars debate the show, mirroring real life dinner conversations around queer crossover successes like Transparent. “That show regurgitates the same bullshit,” says Sid (Escó Jouley). It’s “an insult to people who are actually struggling,”— an observation which, on the surface, could apply to Room for Cream itself, with its utopic, inclusive setting. Yet these debates stage all sides, and while each character has their own hot take on That Trans Guy, everyone knows the words to its theme song: “Stop your worries, Stop on by (bi)! Who’s that passing? That Trans Guy!,” with the “passing” being especially poignant here, alluding to the exuberant TV history of Mary Tyler Moore’s single working woman glide down the street, as well as strangers reading That Trans Guy as male: the complexities of transgender acceptance, visibility, and commodification bound up in a jingle.
The richest dialogue of these new episodes investigates this thorniness inherent to contemporary queerness. One character teases another for “dragging around that copy of The Argonauts … with a highlighter!” Another admits, “Sometimes I don’t watch ethical porn, and I still get off” to which someone cries out, “Ew!” A queer-studies professor botches another character’s pronouns. The soap’s ongoing format allows characters to react and learn in ways a one-night-only play would not. One barista points out the coffee shop has been “remodeled,” a joke on the show’s new context, its move from black-box theater to glass-walled art museum lobby, but also nods to queerness itself as perpetually in flux. Times have changed since Room for Cream’s Season 3 finale in 2010, and by returning, the show resists becoming a time capsule of a pre-Laverne Cox era, instead acting as a vessel to chart such shifts and pivot towards durational art.
Irna Phillips, the godmother of soaps, wrote the first episode of Guiding Light for radio in 1937. It jumped to television in 1952, and followed the same characters in the same setting five days a week until 2009. Those 72 years of uninterrupted story make Guiding Light the longest continuous narrative ever told, its plot extending longer than Homer’s The Odyssey, or The Bible, or even Law & Order. In a 1965 interview, Phillips said, “Doris Day movies end when the boy gets the girl. In soap opera, as in real life, that is just the beginning of the story.” Doesn’t the same apply to “girl gets girl” and “girl becomes boy?” Having not seen Bailey in years, Francesca (Mieke D) remarks, “Is that stubble?,” to which Bailey retorts, “I like to call it my two-year shadow,” a pun that encapsulates a soap and trans experience — change as inevitable, incremental, and queer.