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Dead of Summer and Drew Reeves

May 29, 2023.

This review contains spoilers.

A trans man with long hair, wearing a flannel shirt

Drew Reeves, a trans man.

In Dead of Summer, a group of former camp attendees return to a summer camp as adult counsellors, each with their own motivation for recapturing their youth. The episodes lean pretty heavily on horror tropes and cheesy themes, but most of the character stereotypes are subverted, making the show more substantial than it initially seems.

One of the counsellors is a moody, aloof guy named Drew. He's a mysterious stranger who talks very little and doesn't seem at all interested in befriending his fellow counsellors, at least initially.

A trans man walking. He is wearing grey jeans and a flannel shirt

Drew's entrance in episode 1.

Blair, another counsellor who is an openly gay cis man, is immediately attracted to Drew and intensely curious about him.

A cis man smiling and raising his beer in a toast

"No one knows anything about him," Blair says, "Here's hoping he's gay!"

Partway through episode 1, Drew is distracted by a stereotypically spooky girl holding a red balloon, who lingers in the distance and stares directly at him. This moment sets the tone for the rest of his arc.

A girl standing in a dark forest, wearing a pink dress and holding a red balloon

The first appearance of Drew's tormentor.

At the end of this episode, Drew is revealed to be trans when he sneaks away from the other guys and takes a shower in a separate building.

A trans man about to pull shower curtains closed. He is wearing a sports bra

The first indication that Drew isn't a cis guy.

Over the ensuing episodes, we learn more about Drew. Unfortunately, some of what we learn is courtesy of Jessie, a cis young woman who deadnames Drew and blackmails him on the basis of his trans male status. She sneaks up on him when he's soaking wet and reeling from a supernatural vision. He's frantically trying to pull his shirt off his chest, dysphoric about his pre-op body, when Jessie throws a towel at him and says, "Dry off, Andrea".

A woman wearing a striped bikini, with curly dark hair. She is smiling smugly

Jessie cornering Drew when he is at his most vulnerable.

Jessie tells Drew that she has taken photographs of him showering, calling him a "freak" and threatening to out him to the rest of the counsellors. Despite how awful this is, she has a change of heart, later admitting that she never took any such photos.

A trans man and a cis woman sitting together at a train station

Jessie follows Drew to the train station to stop him leaving camp.

As a trans man myself, I was surprised by how little I hated Jessie, following this conflict. For a cheesy show, much of the character exploration and acting is top-notch, enough that I was keen to continue watching beyond Jessie's transphobia. (Jessie actually turned into one of my favourite characters.) Plus, Drew isn't helpless, and quickly gets over Jessie's bullshit. The pair become unlikely friends. With Jessie's encouragement, Drew remains at the camp and comes out to Blair, the cis gay counsellor who had been attracted to Drew from the very beginning. When this goes badly, Jessie is the one to comfort Drew and support him.

A cis woman hugging a trans man who is crying

Jessie hugging Drew as he cries.

Throughout episode 4, Drew has flashback scenes where we witness his childhood and adolescence. Viewers get to see a range of experiences, from the heartwarming to the bittersweet to the utterly devastating.

A trans man wearing a pink sweater over a pink button-down shirt

Drew is forced to wear feminine clothes by his mother, including skirts and dresses.

The little girl haunting modern-day Drew, as it turns out, is a version of his past self. Specifically, the apparition is reminiscent of a photograph taken of him in his youth.

A trans man looking at a photograph that shows a girl holding a red balloon

Drew reading a message written on the back of the old photograph.

Drew triumphs over the spooky vision pretty easily, and the show mostly moves onto other storylines. From that victory onwards, Drew is treated to some really sweet scenes of romance and friendship. He fares better than most of the other main characters, actually.

Two men walking together. The cis man has his arm over the trans man, and is leaning on him

Drew and Blair.

One of my favourite pieces of dialogue occurs when Blair and Drew are walking through the forest together:

DREW: I should probably be thanking you.

BLAIR: For what?

DREW: The way you looked at me when I first got here. It's how I've always wanted to be looked at.

BLAIR: Like a hot guy?

DREW: Like a guy.

The scene that follows this conversation is even more sweet. You can watch it below, although I recommend watching the show instead for the full emotional impact!

Ultimately, I really enjoyed this show for the trans/gay storyline. If you want to watch it for that reason, though, there are a few things that you should prepare for. Beyond the gore, blood, violence, ritual sacrifice, zombies, and death (all of which are pretty typical for a horror show), episode 5 has some particularly confronting scenes.

Joel, a main character, had a brother who committed suicide after experiencing hallucinations and delusions. In flashbacks, Joel remembers finding his brother's dead body. Later, Joel began to experience hallucinations too, leading to a violent outburst and a graphic self harm incident. If you or a loved one has experienced hallucinations or psychosis, you might be uncomfortable with the conflation of these experiences with supernatural themes. I don't think the end result is particularly well handled, although that's a matter of opinion. Regardless, if you're sensitive to graphic depictions of suicide and self harm, episode 5 is best avoided.

My other main criticism of Dead of Summer would be the casting of Drew. Zelda Williams got the role, despite being aware that she wasn't the best fit as a cis female actress. That in itself isn't necessarily the worst thing, given how well she performed as Drew, but what really stings is that she was chosen over trans actors who also auditioned for the role.

An interview with Zelda Williams.

While I do like Drew, I would've liked him all the more if he'd been played by a member of the trans male community. I'm prepared to forgive the casting of cis actors in trans roles when trans actors simply didn't audition, as occurred in Brace (2015) with Harry Rundle, but trans actors did audition to play Drew. We could've had a trans man involved in the publicity for Dead of Summer, and all of the trans viewers who connected with Drew would've then had a trans actor to follow and be inspired by. Connections like that can be lifesaving when you have no other trans men in your life. As nice as Williams' performance was, the impact ended there. And, beyond the impact that a trans male actor would've made both behind the camera and in front of it (trans actors have been known to positively influence the trans storylines they're involved in), it's also important to consider the context of anti-FTM transphobia. The idea that we're just deluded women masquerading as men is reinforced, especially to cis audiences, by actresses playing trans men. I became pretty firm in that opinion when I saw pictures of Elle Fanning attending the 3 Generations (2015) premiere.

Plus, in the interview above, it's a bit worrying to hear Williams say that the trans community wanted "a transgender actress" to play a trans man. (The comment is made at 1:59.) At best, this is a pretty damning slip of the tongue. FTM actors are not actresses.

So, taking all of that into consideration...

Yes, I did enjoy Dead of Summer. It has plot holes and cheesy themes, but it's alright. If you want to see a trans man coming out on top, despite all of the challenges he faces, this show will provide that. If you want to see a pre-everything trans male character in a relationship with a gay man, this show will provide that. As a cherry on top, he also gets a happy ending. Taken in isolation, the casting aside, this is a fun show.

Two men kissing. They are a cis gay man and a trans man

Drew and Blair at a party together.

I'm a man who looks critically at the media I consume, especially when it comes to trans representation. If you're a more casual viewer, Dead of Summer might just be the trans/gay horror series you've been looking for. After all... there aren't that many such shows in existence! Unfortunately, some of my response to this show is "I'll take what I can get". It is what it is.

One final note on the casting of cis actors in trans roles: There is always the additional factor that a presumed-cisgender actor might be a closeted trans person, and may have taken the role as a way to explore their own identity. I'm not ignoring that reality as I criticise Dead of Summer, and I'm aware that the public can never truly know what exists in an actor's heart. My criticism of Williams is based on the fact that, in the above interview, she resolutely labelled herself as a "cisgender actress", and spoke directly about choosing to take the role as a non-trans person.


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