Josie Totah Leads the Trans Charge on TV
The former Disney star talks LGBTQ+ relatability on ‘Saved by the Bell’ and what’s next for trans representation
By Chris Azzopardi
If you were expecting more of the same from “Saved by the Bell” when Peacock revived the series in 2020, you wouldn’t just be mistaken — you’d be pleasantly surprised.
A staple of TV for a generation of teens, the show, which originally ran from 1989 to 1993, has undergone a woke update that, this season, includes a powerful trans storyline.
Yep, in 2021, Bayside High now naturally reflects the world as we know it. And so there’s Lexi, the popular girl who just happens to be transgender. No big deal. At least that’s how the show treats it, and how former Disney star Josie Totah, the 20-year-old trans actor known for roles on “Glee,” the NBC comedy “Champions” and the Disney Channel series “Jessie,” prefers it.
Recently, Totah spoke about the important message for trans allies in the show’s latest season of “Saved by the Bell” and how she thinks trans representation on TV has finally started to depict transgender people in a relatable and authentic way.
This is not the “Saved by the Bell” I grew up with when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation. What does it mean to you to be a major part of that kind of representation on this more evolved and more queer-inclusive revival that’s far less hetero-centric than the original?
It’s awesome. Our show is so funny, and we get to tell so many cool stories that weren’t told in the original that are [relevant] to conversations that we’re having today, that represent people who’ve been around since the inception of time. And it’s awesome. It’s such a privilege.
Have you gone back and watched any original episodes of “Saved by the Bell”? I just wonder how you interpret the conversations that were being had then versus the conversations that are a part of this reimagining.
Yeah, we went back and watched it as a cast. I mean, I had seen the show before just in its rerun phase in the early 2000s. I feel like that was a very big thing. I really based my character on the classic “Mean Girls” trope that we all know and love, and [I] flipped it on its head and gave her some surgery to make her very interesting and cool. Less stereotypically basic.
Being a part of this show was so important to you that you put school off to be a part of it. Can you explain why?
Well, I put school off, and then school put me off because the pandemic happened. So I was ahead of the curve, but I’m still in college. Somehow, I’m still graduating in May. [Showrunner Tracey Wigfield] told me that she had an idea of a character that she wrote for me, and I fell in love. We met up at a coffee shop in downtown L.A., and she’s just so cool. I love that woman so, so much, and that’s sort of how it happened. It’s one of the best opportunities I ever said yes to.
As a producer, can you talk about what kind of input you’re giving when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation on the show, specifically as it pertains to Lexi?
I got to sit in the writers’ room this season, which was so fun. I joined once or twice a week and sat in and had a great time. Just to get to be in the room with so many fantastic writers from so many different walks of life and getting to bring my own authentic journey and story to the show was awesome. And I think it [made] the story truer to real life and more entertaining because it was more unique, and there’s relatability. So getting to that was awesome, but also getting to be a part of the other stories that we get to tell, like Aisha [played by Alycia Pascual-Peña]; her journey through her life, particularly in episode seven, was super fun. I remember being in the writers’ room that week and getting to delve into that.
Episode five blew my mind, especially as a fan of the original series. If I would’ve seen episode five when I was a kid, it would’ve changed my life. How did the idea to explore Lexi dealing with a really serious incident of transphobia evolve?
Tracey has been very cool from the beginning and she’s just like, “We can talk about however much you wanna talk about when it comes to Lexi’s gender identity.” It was clear to us that we wanted to tell a story that sort of delved into her identity in a way that was more nuanced, that we hadn’t been able to come to last season, and that also sort of progressed her arc as a character outside of her gender identity. I just had my second COVID vaccine at the time in March when we were pitching different things of how we would tell this story, and someone came up with an idea for Lexi to write a play that would solve transphobia, which I think is literally the funniest thing in the entire world. It just is a ridiculously beautiful episode in that way, and it’s so funny.
It deals with a really important societal issue — who carries the burden of having to make change for the trans community when transphobia happens? How did that resonate with you on a personal level?
That’s just a very real thing when it comes to the burdening of trauma, and it’s crazy how people put the oppressed in charge of educating and solving things that everyone really should be working on. It was sick to get to tell it; it was very cool. And I’m glad that we show people probably how not to be an asshole when it comes to things like that, and also how to be a better ally.
By the end of the episode, Lexi realizes that she’s got real support in her peers. But you also have Slater, played by Mario Lopez, on your side. You’ve got Jessie on your side. The original cast is advocating for you; they’re allies of the community, clearly. What kind of conversations did you have with the original cast concerning that episode when it came to any kind of LGBTQ+ issues and transphobia?
None of the original cast, but Belmont [Cameli, as Jamie Spano], Dexter [Darden as Devante Young] and Alycia are some of my best friends in the entire world, and I’m so honored, particularly with Bel and Dex and Mitch Hoog [as Mac Morris], just to have three guys who are straight and cis and really understand me and see me for my full self and not just one part of me. But also recognizing that life is different for me. It’s so beautiful, and particularly with Bel and Dex just because they were in that episode the most. They’re just the most supportive guys ever. And I felt so loved and so privileged. It brought me to tears. We shared a lot of love, and I really felt like they were carrying me on their shoulders that week.
It’s important for straight men to see that it’s cool when you stand up for people in the queer community.
Yeah, it’s hot.
What was your high school experience like?
I mean, I went to a Catholic high school where I would call teachers by their first names and they’d be like, “Shut the hell up, sit down. My name is Sister Rebecca.” And I’d be like, “Becca.” I thought that I was really cool, but I wasn’t. [I was] kind of just this kid who people knew from the Disney Channel and they’re like, “That’s that weirdo.”
Yeah, I was crazy, but I met two of my best friends there, and we’re still best friends to this day, and we survived. I think if you can survive Catholic high school with people, you’re with them forever. But also it was an awesome Catholic high school, I will say. Very supportive of gender diversity and sexual orientation, and they were very cool. I was very, very privileged to not have a toxic experience.
I grew up Catholic too, and you don’t hear that very often about the Catholic experience.
You really don’t, but they always told me, “Boo boo, like, you might be weird, but God created you. So we blame him and not you. And you’re meant to be who you’re meant to be.”
There’s obviously been so much talk over the years concerning trans representation. How can we improve the representation of trans characters in TV and film? And how do you think Lexi advances trans representation in a positive way?
First and foremost, it’s played by me, an actual trans person, which obviously is unfortunately revolutionary since so many of our stories have been appropriated and have been told by people who have no idea what the trans experience is like and have surrounded it with [the] negativity of violence. Also, I’m a producer, which is sick. Like, that’s amazing because I think it speaks to the authenticity in front of and behind the camera, which is very, very important. I’m not just being tokenized; I’m being listened to and I’m being valued, and it does change the show. It makes it better in my opinion, at least I’d hope, because it makes it more authentic. And I think that’s sort of the goal, right? Not just placing people in these positions to sort of fill a diversity hire, but valuing their experience and capitalizing on their experience and their willingness to share for the benefit of the story, which is awesome. It makes our show so good.
Like you mentioned, so many trans narratives are told through the lens of trans struggle.
That’s important, but it’s also important to tell other stories too, because we’re fully encompassing human beings.
Do you see a change in how Hollywood is representing trans people that isn’t focused on trans struggle?
I think we’re turning a corner, but I wanna see a trans rom-com of a girl starring in her own movie and living her best life. I wanna see an undercover spy movie where a trans girl has to travel to Bulgaria and take down a drug heist. There are so many different realms that I wanna see and I’m going to do. And I’m so excited that I get to be young and able and afforded that opportunity to throw my hat in the ring. I’m grateful that I’m living in this time, and I’m also excited to hopefully be able to tell other trans stories and other stories of people of color and people from different marginalized communities too, and highlighting their own journeys as well, which I think is very important.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.
Photo by Peacock