Over the course of this past semester, I have taken the opportunity to do an in-depth study of the Transgender community of the United States of America through a variety of socio-political lens.
My research led me to want to take a more in-depth look out how a various media [both entertainment and news] representations affirm biases towards transgender people as well as whether or not there are any silver linings illustrating progress towards a better tomorrow for trans-individuals living in the United States.
Before even beginning to get into the nitty-gritty of gender and identity politics it is important to familiarize oneself with the definition of transgender, to begin with. Gender identity can be understood as how an individual identifies themselves regardless of the objectivity of biological genitalia. Just because an individual’s outward appearance may at first glance appear to be male or female that does not necessarily mean that they identify within that construct, or even within that binary. For example, throughout this past semester, I have had the chance to speak with a couple of USC students who, though outwardly appear either male or female, actually identify as gender fluid and prefer they/them/their/ pronouns rather than he/him/his or she/her/hers. It is obviously a huge learning curve when you incorrectly perceive someone’s gender expression, as their gender identity. The reason why this is difficult for us is complicated and has to do with our societal notions surrounding the binary of male/female. Even while typing out this draft Microsoft Word attempted to autocorrect the gender neutral “their” to his or her [see screenshot below]. There is a lot that needs to be accomplished in order to create a hegemonic sea change for the ways in which we societally view gender.
Transgender is often the result of the result of gender dysphoria, which means a person whose personal experiences as a result of sex and gender are at odds. Transgender describes individuals whose gender identity differs from their biological sex they were assigned to at birth; and yes, Transgender people can identify as gender non-conforming, which refers to the gender variant people – like those referenced above – who do not wish to follow the hegemonic ideologies that tell us as individuals that we must act a certain way based on the biological sex we have been assigned at birth. It is also important to not that being transgender has nothing to do with sexual orientation. A trans woman [M-to-F] can still be attracted to women, and a trans man [F-to-M] can still be attracted to men. Homosexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality, pans sexuality etc. Are never determined specifically by a transgender person’s identity.
Often, people assume that trans woman chooses to be trans because of a desire to conform to heteronormative, societal standards, this has been proven time and time again to be incorrect. American, transgender rock-and-roller Laura Jane Grace of the punk band, Against Me!, is a perfect example of an M-to-F woman who retains homosexual preferences for other women:
Beyond wrapping your head around all of these definitions and terms related to trans, and gender-nonconforming experiences it is vital for people to understand that the trans-experience and trans-identity are neither singular phenomena. The same way every cis-gendered experience is individual and unique the same is true for trans-people. People will mistakenly assume that every transgender person experiences their transition, their coming to terms with their identity, etc. the same way when in reality every experience is specific to that individual.
The media plays a critical role in all of this and for the most part as been doing a terrible job at adequately presenting multi-faceted, complex characters.
For starters, the mainstream, news media often fails to cover transgender issues, including the violent hate crimes and murders that trans-individuals, more specifically transgender women of color, are subjected to:
These are the transgender people killed in 2017 — all of whom are transgender women of color:
Alphonza Watson killed on March 22 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was 38 years old.
Jaquarrius Holland killed on February 19 in Monroe, Louisiana (identified as trans on February 28). She was 18 years old.
Ciara McElveen killed on February 27 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was 21 years old.
Chyna Gibson killed on February 25 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She was 31 years old.
Keke Collier killed on February 21 in Englewood, Chicago. She was 24 years old.
JoJo Striker killed on February 8 in Toledo, Ohio. She was 23 years old.
Mesha Caldwell killed on January 4 in Canton, Mississippi. She was 41 years old.
According to GLAAD, media reports fail to bring attention to this at-risk community, resort to victim blaming, treatment of the victims as mere statistics, rather than humanizing them and adding, “further insult to injury” regularly misgender the victims that they report on (Schmider).
Media representations are incredibly salient. The way characters are introduced into our living rooms can have the power to change our individual perceptions for the better, or –unfortunately- for the worse. When we are exposed to people of different backgrounds or to narratives that are at first, unfamiliar to us, we are challenged to think differently. Transgender media representations are increasingly more important as trans visibility and the transgender community becomes more assimilated into society at large. However, media representations are not all positive and television and film are often guilty of presenting a one-dimensional, problematic portrait of trans individuals.
Since 2002 GLAAD has documented 102 episodes and non-recurring storylines of scripted television that contained transgender characters. 54% of those were categorized as containing negative representations at the time of their airing. 40% of transgender characters were cast in victim roles and 21%, of the time transgender characters were literally demonized, cast in roles as killers or villains. These poor and often offensive representations reinforce negative stigma and perpetuate stereotypes. Things are getting better, shows like
These poor and often offensive representations reinforce negative stigma and perpetuate stereotypes. Things are getting better, shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black have succeeded incorporating multidimensional trans characters that fans can learn from and empathize with.
Shows like Will & Grace or more recently Modern Family,The New Normal, and Glee – though not entirely void of problematic stereotypes – are examples of media’s ability to change attitudes about gay people and same-sex marriage in America, for the better: “A 2012 survey conducted by an independent polling firm for the Hollywood Reporter found that support for same-sex marriage was increasing because of shows such as “Modern Family” and “Glee.” Forty-two percent of those polled — and 55% of those younger than 35 — said that depictions of same-sex marriage on TV shows had made them more aware of the issue,” (Collins).
Another of the main issues with the transgender community’s inability to gain acceptance in the American mainstream is a lack of positive visibility. A Gallup poll by Lymari Morales illustrates this phenomenon:
During the vox pop that I conducted on USC’s campus time and time again students stated that their first encounters with transgender people and transgender identity where via a slew of insufficient often offensive media representations. One student, in particular, recounted his first experiences with transgender characters were in parody cartoons like South Park,Family Guy and most surprisingly, The Fairly Odd Parents – a show I too watched growing up and is intended for viewers of all ages. These media representations, though seemingly harmless, have severe consequences. Why? Because they condition us to treat trans individuals as parody and typify them into stereotypical, often problematic, categories.
Fortunately, shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent have managed to create pop cultural icons like Laverne Cox, who many USC students cited as the first person they think of when asked about transgender media representations. A show’s appropriate decision to allow transgender woman and men to author their own narratives or present an authentic representation of a transgender character based on their own transgender identity is invaluable.
Social media has also been incredibly effective at destabilizing the stereotyped storylines: prostitutes, villains, and victims that have historically been placed on the transgender community.
YouTube has given a platform and agency to transgender individuals who may otherwise not get their foot in the doors of casting calls do to things like the casting politics of Hollywood. Video journals documenting an individual’s experience with their transgender identity or simply being trans while “vlogging” about their interests have exposed the world to transgender people and in doing so worked to de-stigmatize and create a sense of understanding a relationship between followers and creators. Gigi Gorgeous, who has over 2,600,000 followers on YouTube, in addition to her own documentary on YouTube Red, has documented her experience as well as being a make-up, fashion and lifestyle blogger. Her success and the successes of other women and men like her who leverage YouTube as a means of telling their story are essential. They play important roles as liaisons into understanding what it means to be transgender and the transgender experience:
“YouTube’s predilection for personal and the spectacular have made it a powerful tool for some trans people to construct the ways that their bodies are looked at and heard – and to connect geographically disparate people in intimate ways. To put it bluntly, these videos save trans lives,” (Horvak 581).
Though there is still a lot of work to be done, by research has indicated that we are headed towards a sort of “trans-tipping” point, where social media, coupled with progressive media representations are working towards normalizing the transgender community in society.
The takeaway from all this as we – communication and journalism students – here, at Annenberg, go out into the world and make an impact, is to continually be conscious of these issues and work towards adequately portraying trans people. Whether we become news anchors, copy editors, writers for a hit television show or radio hosts it is up to us to de-stigmatize when we can and cover these issues appropriately, when necessary.
Schmider, Alex. “GLAAD Calls for Increased and Accurate Media Coverage of Transgender Murders.” Blog post. GLAAD. GLAAD, 22 Feb. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.