As a trans woman, I find it disconcerting that I can’t remember a single trans character from my childhood except for Alexis Meade from Ugly Betty. As a barely-out-of-the-closet queer 18-year-old, I watched the series with a feral intensity. I felt drawn to Marc’s unashamed flamboyance, his playful and loving friendship with Amanda, Betty’s ambition and growth, the Suarez family’s support of Justin’s queerness, and Wilhelmina’s conniving schemes to take over MODE. Despite the fact that Alexis’s coming out narrative is a large part of the first season and that she continues to play a large role in season two, I remembered very few details about the character outside of the fact that she’s trans.
Six years later, as a 24-year-old trans woman who is confident in the embodiment of her gender, I decided to rewatch Ugly Betty. I was excited to revisit some favorite characters, but I found the idea of revisiting Alexis particularly compelling. What would I think of her now that I have lived experience with gender exploration and transition?
As I began to rewatch the series, I realized that there were reasons that I didn’t remember much about Alexis after my first watch. It wasn’t just that I had repressed any thoughts about gender as a child; it was that Alexis has fundamental problems with her characterization that make her disappointing to watch and ultimately forgettable outside of being a plot twist. As my hopes for Alexis deflated, I noticed that there was another character, who, while canonically cis, felt more like a trans woman than the character written to be trans: Wilhelmina Slater.
Before we dive into Wilhelmina’s story, let’s examine why Alexis is not the radical trans character the series hoped she would be.
What’s Wrong With Alexis
After Alexis’s father, Bradford, tells her that he’d rather her be dead than transition, she fakes her own death, transitions in private, and coordinates her coming out announcement with the arrest of her father so that she and Wilhelmina can take over MODE Magazine. Alexis serves her rebirth into the world with a heavy portion of revenge. Forget MTF, she’s going full MTR (Male-to-Revenge). For that, I can almost respect her.
It’s the rest of the depiction of her transition and characterization that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Ugly Betty introduces Alexis as a plot twist, and this mechanism clouds her character for the rest of the series. I can see how the creative team thought they were taking a radical step in trans representation by introducing a behind-the-scenes trans villain and folding her into the plot to the point that she just becomes a regular part of the cast. In some ways, it was radical for a trans character to get that much airtime on a broadcast network in 2007. At that time, EW’s review of Alexis’s coming-out episode introduces the episode with, “Just when I thought Ugly Betty couldn’t take its level of camp any higher…” and later says, “He’s now a she! Or she’s a he underneath there somewhere. Or whatever,” suggesting that Alexis’s characterization is less important than the campiness of the conflict she introduces to the plot. This lack of care towards developing Alexis as a full character looms over her for the rest of her time on the show. We can also trace this issue back to casting: if a trans woman had played Alexis, she could have offered her lived experience to help develop the role.
Ugly Betty’s depiction of transition makes it seem like the writers googled “trans woman transition” once, read half a page of the first article they found, and decided to just run with it. Alexis’s transition is shown as one that is mostly surgical, including cosmetic procedures and bottom surgery. While recovering from surgery in the first half of season one, she is alone in a glitzy, private medical room, hooked up to tubes and machines, and seems to be mummified in luxurious satin bandages. For many trans women, hormone replacement therapy is a huge part of a medical transition, and yet Alexis only mentions her hormone patches once. She spews that the patch prevents her mustache from going back, which is a falsehood because feminizing hormone replacement therapy might slightly thin out facial hair, but does not make it go away completely.
Alexis’s characterization is flat and inconsistent. Pre-transition, she is extremely masculine, sporty, and serially dates women (often in competition with her brother Daniel). Post-transition, she is suddenly interested in fashion, never touches sports, and suddenly dates men. The compulsory heterosexuality is upsetting! When she comes out to Daniel, she says that she was “born in the wrong body,” hinting that she has some experience with dysphoria. In later episodes, though, she draws attention to her “former manhood” approximately three times an episode! I get it — I’m a trans woman and I talk about my transness a lot — but what trans person draws attention towards their dysphoria to every single person they meet?! She is constantly reminding people of her “former manhood,” saying things like, “I may be a woman… but I still know how to hit like a man.” Trans people don’t talk like this! Did they surgically alter her personality when they upgraded her entire body? In season two, she loses her memories from the last two years after recovering from a coma and has to come to terms with being a trans woman. She forgets how to apply makeup and then relearns in a day, looking just like we saw her in season one. She forgets that she’s a woman and uses the men’s bathroom. Alexis is a walking stereotype, a before-and-after picture from Reddit, the embodiment of cis people’s feeble understandings of trans people.
Wilhelmina Slater is a Trans Woman and I’ll Prove It
Wilhelmina Slater is an iconic character. A legendary supervillain with enough moments of tenderness to remind you that she’s human. She has the type of extreme tenacity and drive that threatens everyone around her. MODE employees cower when she enters a room. She can kill men with a single glance and the lift of an eyebrow. She could spit on me and I’d thank her. What’s more trans than putting the fear of God into cis people just by entering a room?
How is Wilhemina, a canonically cis woman, more of a trans woman than a canonically trans woman, you may ask? Well, first off, it’s never explicit that most characters are cis; we just assume that unless specifically noted, every character is cis. More than that, though, Wilhemina is a fully fleshed out character with a backstory that we can read into as a more convincing transition narrative than Alexis’s. And then, just look at Wilhelmina’s hairline. You don’t see that male pattern baldness?
Wilhelmina loves stirring up drama on every level, from quippy social exchanges to conspiring to take over MODE. Despite her generally conniving nature, she has some special moments of connection. Her tender moments often come across as campy, especially with Marc.
Wilhelmina: I was a simple girl with an evil plan.
Marc: Fashion is our passion!
Wilhelmina: But Meade only has one fashion magazine and it will never be mine.
Marc: Oh! We’re doomed! Doomed! [begins to flail, falls to the floor, rolls around]
Wilhelmina: Off the floor, Marc.
Wilhelmina, after a beat: No, your instincts were right. Fall again.
Ugly Betty assumes that Wilhemina is a cis woman, and sure, it makes sense that she has such a flair for the dramatics while immersed in the fashion world, surrounded by queer men. But it makes way more sense for Wilhelmina to understand such things not because of her proximity to cis queer people, but because she is a trans woman. And not only is she a trans woman, but she is a career woman who will do anything to be on top. Of course she is dramatic. Unlike Alexis, whose coming out announcement is viewed as a campy twist, Wilhelmina lives, breathes, and shits camp.
Wilhelmina is a fully fleshed out character whose transition makes sense with the larger story of her life. The main evidence for Wilhelmina being a trans woman takes place before the timeline depicted on the series. When Wilhelmina was Fey Sommers’ assistant, Wilhelmina’s name was Wanda. After Fey gets pregnant from a tryst at Studio 54, Wilhelmina promises to protect Fey’s secret, and in return Fey pays for all of Wilhelmina’s cosmetic surgeries so that she can become a supermodel. Wilhelmina speaks of this period of her life as her “transformation.” As Wanda, she’s depicted as a mousy woman who wants to make it in fashion. I imagine that she is a trans woman, early in transition, who does not pass. The fashion world is especially transmisogynistic, enforcing violently limited definitions of what it means to be a woman. Wilhelmina has always had voracious ambition — I imagine her past self as a trans woman who is as restless waiting for her body to feminize as she is restless waiting for her career to take off. There is a deep connection between the embodiment of her gender and her career — the stagnation she experiences in her career triggers dysphoria about her gender, and dysphoria about her gender triggers anxiety about her career. Of course she seizes the opportunity to advance her transition when she has the chance.
And of course Wilhelmina erupts with anger when Daniel gets the Editor-in-Chief position over her. Wilhelmina, who worked obsequiously under Fey, who underwent extensive surgery to appease the insatiable demands of the fashion industry, who always believed in herself but knew she needed to work three times harder than anyone as a black trans woman to get ahead, gets passed over in favor of the Meade son who has no work ethic and very little experience. A tale as old as time.
Given the circumstances around which Wilhelmina transitioned, it makes sense that she remains stealth throughout the series.
Wilhelmina: “I thought I had gotten rid of all the pictures of Wanda. Apparently, I missed one.”
It’s possible that she could be out to Alexis and Marc. When the rest of the world rejects and ridicules Alexis, Wilhelmina stands by her side. Yes, Wilhelmina has ulterior motives to take over MODE with Alexis, but we already know that she has a tense relationship between her personal life and her work life. She sits with Alexis while she’s recovering from surgery. After Alexis comes out, Wilhelmina defends her from transphobic men, even punching one in the face at a bar.
We often see Marc administering Wilhelmina’s botox injections. Cosmetic surgery seems to be a continuously important part of her transition. Who’s to say that Marc doesn’t ever administer her estrogen shots too? Maybe we don’t canonically see her taking estrogen, but we see the meticulous upkeep of her gender. In addition, transition means something different to every trans person, even though there are some components that are more common. Wilhelmina’s commitment to botox is an important part of her transition, one that is customized to her values and how gender and the fashion industry’s narrow sense of beauty coincide in her life.
The notion that Wilhelmina’s transition is an infinite and continuous one is a refreshing depiction of transition, compared to how Alexis transitions in a discrete event. Alexis has a clear line, before which she was a man and after which she is a woman with a completely new personality. Even though Wilhelmina relaunches her career through changing her name and undergoing surgeries, her core personality stays the same: she’s a cutthroat woman who wants to be Editor-in-Chief of MODE Magazine. Both Alexis and Wilhelmina use surgery in a major way in their transitions: Alexis uses her family’s wealth to “become a woman” through a singular event, while Wilhelmina use’s her boss’s wealth to accelerate her lifelong transition to a point where she can access the resources she deserves.
Wilhelmina has some significant storylines regarding being a mother. We can go the realism route and try to find an explanation for everything, which works for part of her plotline. First, Wilhelmina has a teenage daughter, Nico. We don’t actually know who the father is, so it’s fair to assume that Wilhelmina adopted her.
The more complicated plotline is when Wilhelmina intends to marry Bradford so that she’ll oust Bradford’s ex-wife Claire and take over MODE. Right before dying, Bradford realizes that Wilhelmina doesn’t actually love him, and breaks up with her. However, she had already frozen some of his sperm and she intends to get pregnant with Bradford’s child and birth the heir of the magazine. Wilhelmina discovers that she has a “hostile womb” and cannot give birth, so she finds a surrogate whom she can control. Let’s forsake realism for a bit here. There is worth in reading a character as trans even if it doesn’t line up with what’s canon in the show. Trans women are largely considered to be infertile unless they freeze their sperm before starting hormones, so even the notion that she is infertile aligns her with an experience that many trans women face.
Wilhelmina’s arc ends with her getting the Editor-in-Chief position, her talent finally being recognized. It took her four seasons of villainy to get there, but let’s also remember that there is a long history of villains being queer-coded and gender nonconforming (e.g. basically every Disney villain, Him from Powerpuff Girls, Team Rocket from Pokemon, to name a few). Wilhelmina, though, subverts the trope because her villainy is based on the fact that she is trying to reclaim a position that should have been hers in the first place. Is it really villainy if she is fighting institutional oppression the entire time?
Alexis may be introduced as a villain for half a season, but she could never get close to Wilhelmina’s supervillain status. Wilhelmina approaches every situation with an unshakable amount of confidence. Sometimes her confidence compromises the few close relationships in her life — Marc, Nico, her lover Connor — but she shows love to these people through unwavering loyalty. Most of all, she moves through the series knowing what she wants and constantly taking action. Ultimately, Wilhelmina is the real trans woman of Ugly Betty not just because her transition narrative is more convincing than Alexis’s, but because she is a fucking amazing character. Trans women are some of the most interesting and ambitious people on the planet and we deserve characters who are transcendent. Why settle for Alexis when we can have Wilhelmina?