All My Transgender Children

A new, um, face for a venerable soap.

Jeffrey Carlson portrays “Zarf” on All My Children

Thursday was, to my untrained eye, a perfectly ordinary day in Pine Valley, Penn., the fictional hamlet that’s home to the 37-year-old soap opera All My Children (ABC, weekdays at 1 p.m. ET). Jamie thwarted Babe’s attempt to reconcile with J.R., who, drunk and distraught, had recently tossed himself off a balcony and shattered his pelvis. Ryan took Annie and Emma, her daughter, Christmas shopping at the Pine Valley Mall, and Annie was quite grateful; last year, after all, she’d had to kidnap her own kid to keep Emma out of the clutches of her putative father, so they missed out on a lot of holiday fun. Elsewhere, Tad confronted Krystal with some reasonable questions: “What the hell were you thinking? Were you ever gonna tell me that the baby you’re carrying isn’t Adam’s—that it’s mine?” That last one turned out to be a nightmare of Krystal’s, but daytime soaps thrive on dreamlike contradiction—the leisurely, rococo plot work hosting blunt and immediate performances.

But there was also a new guy in town, and the big news is that the guy will eventually be a gal. The Associated Press had promised that—in a first for network television—yesterday’s episode would introduce a storyline tracking a transgender character, a man who will become a woman, from the outset of his journey. (May I, proctors of political correctness, just stick with male pronouns for now?) Jeffrey Carlson, whose looks are handsomely androgynous in the way of a Hunky Dory-era David Bowie, plays the transgender character, whose name is Zarf and who has achieved success as a rock star, despite having the stage name Zarf. In a one-episode appearance earlier this year, Zarf struck up a deal with Fusion, a Pine Valley cosmetics company, to provide music for an ad campaign. He also hit it off with Babe, the presumed heir to the supervillainness throne currently held by Erica Kane. *

There were no hints of gender dysphoria yesterday, only the notion that Zarf, in his fussy, rock-diva way, is committed to seeking his true self. A claque of female Fusion employees bustled into their office to find a naked Zarf sitting on the floor in the lotus position, the better to get closer to the true essence of things. He egged the three chickadees into joining him in the nude—”Too many things are obstacles to the creative force. … We shouldn’t hide behind disguises”—and they were just getting down to their La Perla when Kendall, a boss, of sorts, I guess, came in. It had been a rough morning for Kendall—her dream sequence had involved Ryan signing away all parental rights to Spike—and she did not delay in posing the reasonable question: “What the hell are you doing?” Not much, dear, just a fluorescent sort of character development. The ball didn’t get rolling until the end of the hour when Zarf, now clothed, locked eyes with Bianca as she emerged from the elevator. The word in the soap-opera press is that Zarf’s attraction to Bianca, who I ought to mention is a lesbian, will be the catalyst for his life-altering realization.

Agnes Nixon, the storied creator of All My Children, has long been devoted to exploring “controversial” social issues in the most sophisticated way that her art form allows. Her constituents are not having a meltdown about this latest plotline. While a scan of the discussion boards at finds that a segment of the AMC faithful blanched at the very news of the Zarf story line, far more comments reflect a broader discontent with the show’s narrative construction. According to this line of thought, the writers haven’t been able to get their simple baby-switches, drunken weddings, and returns from the dead to work properly of late, so of course their storytelling powers are bound to fail them again. And there’s a larger group whose main beef with Zarf is that he says nice things about that wench Babe. (In soap-addict slang, he “props Babe”; he’s a “character propper.”) Partisans of daytime TV, accustomed as they are to seeing everyday struggles worked up into absurd fables, aren’t getting bent out of shape about a tale from outside the sexual mainstream. Their response, in the main, is reasonable: What the hell.

* Correction, Dec. 1, 2006: This article originally misidentified the character Babe as the daughter of the character Erica Kane. She is not her daughter. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.