How 'Gen Zed' Overcomes Internet Harassment to Showcase Diversity

Featuring the first animated trans character voiced by a trans actress.

Over the summer, a trailer was released for a new animated webseries called Gen Zed. The show is set to follow the adventures of Shona, a trans standup comedian who shares an apartment with a poet, a musician, and a rich drug addict who are trying to find themselves and make peace with what growing up looks like in this age of modernity. There are also guest appearances by actors like Richard Schiff and Hal Sparks, production work from some great animators, and editing by a former Futurama scene-splicer.

The trans protagonist character is voiced by an actual trans actress, which is an exciting step forward for representation. And was predictably met with a giant step backwards from the worst corners of the internet.

Why would a low-stakes animated slice-of-life webseries enrage people? We interview the creator and lead actress to find out.

Gen Zed is the brainchild of British writer and comedian Hayden Black, who previously created the show Goodnight, Burbank which was famous for making the transition from web-series to Hulu production to actual television. The diverse cast of characters are brought to life by a diverse group of actors — and this kind of positive depiction of underrepresented populations is somehow threatening to a weird subset of viewers.

Within a matter of days, a tidal wave of hatred began to flood the show creator and cast from every social media outlet. Criticisms ranged from seeing this as exploitative social justice propaganda all the way to attacking those involved for their gender, sexuality, or even religion. It’s the kind of ugly internet mob-based attack that no one needs to recap here, but there is something almost bewildering about the amount of original art and videos created to lambast a show that hasn’t even aired yet — and only exists for the public as a two minute trailer. Now the show must both address, and transcend, the controversy.

This week, I spoke with Hayden Black and lead actress Julie Rei Goldstein to talk about the show, their history with performing, and what it is like to break new ground and have the ground break you back.

Let’s get started talking about another show that people love to yell about online. Hayden, what’s the worst part of modern Doctor Who?

Hayden: The marketing. Why must they constantly hype up that the Doctor is about to die? Of course he won’t. There’s no series without him. I’m liking the two-parters this season but it didn’t take too long for the guff to descend (why didn’t the Zygon Invasion shapeshift into a good story?).

Tell me the backstory of Burbank and what made that so special, including your transition to broadcast?

Hayden: GNB grew out of a class I was taking at UCB. Someone brought up the idea of making video for the web and — get this — mobile phones (right? How fucking crazy is that?). Anyway, I looked into it and thought “Hey, this is January 2006. This sounds like the future.” I took an idea I’d had a couple of years earlier and wrote it up and we shot it thinking no one would ever watch. Within a month or so we were on the front page of iTunes. A few years later Hulu asked if I’d be interested in doing the series as a half-hour show so I wrote six of them.

Ultimately, the cast made it so special. Along with Laura Silverman, America Young, and Dianne Nicole Baxter, we had Miracle Laurie, Dominic Monaghan, John Barrowman, Camden Toy, Juliet Landau, and Jim Rash. Mark Cuban picking us up for TV the same day we debuted on Hulu was utterly surreal.

Julie, how’d you get the acting bug? How’d you get started professionally?

Julie: I actually never even thought about it until I was in college. I got heavily into anime and started meeting voice actors through local conventions and they inspired me to take my first theater classes. Back in 2005 I entered this competition call Anime Expo Idol. It was during the heyday of American Idol and they were doing this version for the Anime crowd to find voice actors and singers. I won the voice acting competition that year, which is how I got my first audition and gigs. From there I started meeting more people in the industry who helped guide me along the path. I recently did some work with Tim & Eric. Those guys are amazing. I played Eric’s date in an episode of their new show Bedtime Stories. What you see on screen is largely what occurs behind the scenes. They have a script but they use it more like an outline, where other shows they’ll want you to strictly stick to the words on the page. It was a crash course in adaptability.

What was the pitch of Gen Zed and how did you two cross paths?

Julie: It was pitched to me as a gamer group of friends who end up living together, led by a trans girl, Shona. It felt natural to me upon reading the script because each of these characters comes from a background they need to escape from, so it made absolute sense from personal experience that as a young trans girl in our society, there is so much volatility you’re consistently running from.

Hayden: Gen Zed is a look at how younger people who’ve spent their entire lives immersed in tech are going to deal with the world now they’re graduating into it. But it’s specifically about four misfits. A transgender girl who wants to be a stand up comic. An African-American who wants to build an OS that can fall in love with him. An Asian-American girl who wants to be a designer. And a white guy who doesn’t know what he wants. We also have two other regular characters; Mr. Jiminez, the landlord/building owner, and Quillam, a gamer they speak to but never see. They matter because despite being animated, they all come from real places. And, like all of us, they just want find acceptance.

Julie, was there any part of your reaction to this that was fearful about having a trans character created by a non-trans writer?

Julie: That part never hit a chord because Hayden has so many trans people involved in the project who he’s constantly running the script by. There was really only one time where I read something Hayden had written that I had a negative reaction too. I told him it was a little too far and he immediately nixed it. He really cares about creating an authentic and respectful trans narrative.

Hayden: I’m writing stories, like any writer, about people I’m creating. To create original characters with unique, authentic voices, I have to study. I’m doing that with everyone I’m writing for, whether they’re trans or African-American or whatever they might be that I’m not. However, studying and empathy aren’t everything, so thankfully I have many wonderful, talented people in the Trans community (and on the show) who I know that are signing off on most everything I do. Also, I’m not telling every single trans person’s story which helps. I’m only telling Shona’s story.

Julie: I love allies, but I think people use the word as a self-identity when it’s not. It’s a title that only the marginalized community can impart on someone. My biggest pet peeve is when someone tries to tell those within a marginalized community how to feel or react in a very “Father knows best” attitude and justify it by stating they’re an ally. The problem we have with not making the distinction clear is our society has a tendency to define Cis Hetero as the default. In our current society and state of media, when we fail to define characters as anything other than that they’re commonly Cis/Hetero-washed. I hope one day we get to a point where the distinction doesn’t have to be made, but unfortunately marginalized communities still have to deal with erasure in media.

How much is this character you?

Julie: So much of Shona’s humor is my own. She deals with all the shit in her life through comedy and that’s exactly how I am.

Hayden: I found Julie after I’d written the script. A mutual friend told me about her so I added her on Facebook, where I do most of my casting. If you’re on my Facebook friends list, there’s a good chance I’ll hire you. She was the perfect extension for Shona in the real world; and Julie’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal. She knocked it out of the park during her first and only audition and I didn’t have to bother reading other women for the role. She is Shona.

The show has a really strong, diverse cast. How did they get brought in?

Hayden: A couple of people — Miles Maker and America Young, I’m looking at you — were responsible for getting me Kevyn Richmond (Cameron) and John M. Keating (Huey). But I knew Emily C. Chang (Emily) from a comedy festival we’d both been featured in, and Julie Rei Goldstein (Shona) was recommended to me via a mutual friend. We then added some big names like Jane Wiedlin, Richard Schiff, Hal Sparks, Matthew Del Negro, and Miracle Laurie. I think Jane was the biggest surprise because she was the first “name” I went after and her response was that no, she didn’t want to read the one line I had for her. She wanted me to write her a featured recurring character. So that was a big and lovely surprise!

You announced that the show was happening and put up a trailer then did a little bit of press. Walk me through the timeline from being another webseries that no one cares about, to finding a following, to the first rumbles of backlash.

Hayden: We were lucky enough that a lot of people cared about Gen Zed right from the off. The script alone brought some big names and big talent to the show so I knew it was special from the start. The Huffington Post saw the trailer just before it went live and they loved it, so we actually premiered the spot to some amazing press quotes. The backlash arrived all at once and from a place I’d never thought about; the 4chan/8chan communities who saw the trailer a couple months after I’d originally posted it on YouTube. They exploded with hatred but they seem to explode with hatred every. single. day. Maybe it’s just gas.

Julie: I’d just gotten home from a family event when Hayden called me and asked if I knew of 4chan/8chan. Immediately my stomach sank.

Hayden: It was a Sunday evening and I was checking the comments on YouTube. They were filled with the vilest, sickest, racist/anti-semitic/transphobic shit I’ve ever seen. I thought “Hang on. Who showed my mother the trailer?”

Did you know about 4chan/8chan/gamergate before this?

Julie: Unfortunately I did. I’ve known people who have experienced the brunt of the gamergate mob and it terrifies me to think of what they’ve gone through.

Hayden: My knee-jerk reaction was to start deleting all the comments I saw. They were just so disgusting and I thought that if my audience saw this, they might be turned off. Ultimately, the audience can decide for themselves, obviously, but that was my knee-jerk reaction. The worst moments were the death threats. And seeing a photoshopped picture of Julie in a concentration camp with the words “Hitler had the right idea.” I did reach out to the police to open a dialog and they told me that for a two minute trailer to get this kind of reaction meant it was really special. So kudos to the police! They’re not all bad!

What’s the worst part of the hate mob? What’s the worst thing you’ve seen or experienced? What was the most laughable thing?

Julie: The worst part is really just the constant fear. Probably the worst I’ve seen is the level of anti semitism thrown my way. I’m used to transphobia, but not anti semitism. I was sent pictures of me photoshopped in a concentration camp and was mentioned in a pro-nazi podcast (I can’t believe these things actually exist) where they kept saying I should be thrown into the ovens. As for laughable, I’ve seen a lot of fan art that was obviously drawn in a mocking manner, but given the effort, actually feels quite endearing.

How do you make yourself okay while under attack, as so many women on the internet have to do these days? Any tips or tricks?

Julie: I game a lot. But sadly in MMO environments, we’re sort of forced into self-segregation. There were a couple of weeks I raided with people outside my Guild and I heard quite a few things that disconcerted me.

Tell me about the production of the show. How far along are you?

Hayden: It’s been an interesting production process in that I’ve never made an animated series of this length before so I’m learning as I’m going. The first series is already written, recorded, and mostly mixed — thanks to Paul Calder. He’s our editor and you might recognize his name as the editor of every single episode of Futurama. Terra Snover is doing all the 3D game play scenes (their “coffee shop” is an original video game so they shoot the shit while shooting aliens). Alex Bradley is our designer/animator and we’re in the middle of doing a deal with an animation house to step in and get everything rolling in a much bigger, faster way. We’re hoping to have the pilot out by late winter and the series will follow by summer.

Why did you make Gen Zed animated instead of live action?

Hayden: I spoke to an acquaintance who did animation. She liked the script and I started thinking “Hmm. What if this were animated?” There were already elements in the script that were high-concept and well-suited to animation. But I wanted to ensure that the voice-acting was balanced and natural. There’s a great dichotomy between these Disney-looking characters, their normal, organic voice-acting, and the dark shit that comes their way.

Where are people going to be able to see Gen Zed? And on what timeframe?

Hayden: Hopefully they’ll see it next year on this thing called the web. If things go according to plan — a new plan that addresses the time management issues Alex ran into — we should have the pilot in a couple of months and the other seven episodes by summer.

Do you have people outside of showbiz that are trans whose journeys have inspired you?

Hayden: I think that trans women make heroic leaps every day to be true to who they are. I find their courage inspirational and wish other people saw that instead of denigrating them for their desire to have their exterior match their interior. A cousin of mine is 12 and she began transitioning when she was 6 or so — so she’s definitely inspiring me and this series. And her mom went back to school to get her PhD because there were no professionals in her area that could guide them through this process. It’s people like her mom who are my heroes. People who decide to embrace love instead of fear.

To anyone who is trans entering the world of acting, what advice do you have?

Julie: Start by doing theater. Whether I work on camera or behind the microphone, I consistently rely on lessons I learned while working on the stage. It’s the most well-rounded foundation for any performer. Furthermore for trans actors, I’d say let go of the idea that your identity is directly connected to how a character you’re portraying is perceived. So many trans actors don’t allow themselves to dive entirely into character work because they fear perceptions of the character represents their own self-identity. The quicker you let go of that, the more versatility you’ll have at your disposal.

What do you want Gen Zed to be? What do you hope it effects?

Julie: So much of comedy involving trans people over the last few decades has been about making trans people the crux of the joke. As if the fact that we exist alone is something to be mocked. I’m hoping Gen Zed proves trans people can be funny without being made fun of.

You can follow Gen Zed’s progress on the show website.

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