Building on the previous research I published regarding trans- visibility and the use of YouTube by members of the transgender community as an empowering platform and tool, I decided to take a closer look at American media’s representation of the transgender community. Research #3 will deal specifically with the entertainment industry – television and film. In research #4 I plan to explore the news media’s coverage and its many failures in adequately covering trans-Americans. I utilized a research paper: “Redefining Realness?: On Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, TS Madison, and the Representation of Transgender Women of Color in Media” by Julian Kevon Glover, a report by GLAAD and a news article by Jessica Lachenal published in The Mary Sue for research #3. The two former sources are scholarly articles from reputable sources and the news source [The Mary Sue], though smaller in scale than say the Vox or Vulture, is a pop culture and entertainment publication with verifiable information.
Not unlike most minority groups, the history of trans-media representation has been marred with problematic stereotypes, parodies, and violent identity aggressions – be they blatant or micro in scale. GLAAD [The Gay % Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] has cataloged the media representation of over 100 episodes and non-recurring storylines or scripted television featuring transgender characters. 54% of the shows that were categorized were cited for proliferating negative representations of trans people. 35% were cited at a range from “problematic” to “good.” Only 12% were considered groundbreaking and accurate (“Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television”).
More often than not transgender characters are portrayed within a dichotomy of villains or victims. The most common profession transgender characters are depicted in is sex workers: 1- out of -5 characters is depicted in this role. Yes, while 50% of transgender women have reported working as sex workers the intricacies and problems of this issue – like discrimination and inequitable access to jobs – are seldom included within these plotlines. What’s more transgender characters are cast into victim roles 41% of the time and killer or villain roles 21% of the time (“Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television”).
mCis-Casting Trans Roles
There is then, of course, the problem of shows and films casting cis-gendered actors to play transgender roles. Most recent/notable Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. These sorts of casting decisions largely fall on deaf ears; however, transgender actress Jamie Clayton – who stars in Netflix’s Sense8 series called out Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer for failing to support the trans community:
Mis-casting of characters is nothing new. Hell, even Jared Leto scored an Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club and Felicity Huffman’s performance in 2005’s Transamerica earned her a Golden Globe. In spite of this, though, the sort of Hollywood casting practices are called into question all the time. Heterosexual actors playing gay and lesbian roles or actors playing people with disabilities have come under fire in the past. There are also issues like in the case of Transparent where the series starts with Maura (played by Jeffrey Tambor) deciding to fully transition from M-to-F. In regard to casting, the question becomes whether or not it is appropriate/respectful to ask a trans actress to present as a male transitioning to female or for a trans actor to do the same. Authorship and representation become issues when transpeople are not even given access to portray trans-characters. The good news is that things are getting better.
Laverne Cox’s multi-faceted role in Orange is the New Black and the inclusion of trans-actresses like Hari Nef, Alexandra Billings, and Trace Lysette in Transparent are examples of where Hollywood has begun to open the door to trans-talent more and more. Moreover, these inclusions lead to important steps more adequate and accurate representation, specifically for transgender women of color, who – as I have previously stated – are more often than not the most marginalized members of the LGBTQIA+ community:
“While it is important that the public encounters and understands transgender identities and the various experiences with discrimination that transgender women of color face on a regular basis, it is also important to understand that not all trans women have the same experience or relationship to their transgender identity,” (Glover).
The hope is that Hollywood continues to value and increase the volume of complex, trans characters. Entertainment is not frivolous, the soft power it can have to normalize trans people and the diverse, “trans-experiences” that these individuals go through can be incredibly salient. Furthermore, If cis-actors can play trans characters than trans actors should be afforded the same opportunities to do the same.