Complexity in Transgender Media Representation

As TIME magazine’s “The Transgender Tipping Point” feature is keen to point out, a new era of trans representation in the media has begun, perhaps catalysed by the presence and agency of trans woman Laverne Cox in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. This so-called tipping point has invariably led to discourse about the impact that positive media representation has had on the trans community, discourse that has been led in no small part by Cox herself due to her newfound platform. Given the limitations of the feature-news form, however, there are several notable ways in which the conversation produced by “Tipping Point” is itself limited. These restrictions are observed by Jamie Colette Capuzza in “Who Defines Gender Diversity? Sourcing Routines and Representation in Mainstream U.S. News Stories About Transgenderism,” which highlights trends and problems in media representations of the trans community. According to Capuzza’s framework, the TIME feature is constricted by the cuts it had to make to be contained in a 3,800-word feature, hurting its diversity by rendering trans women hypervisible (at their own expense) and reinforcing binary notions of gender in order to remain comprehensible to TIME’s readership.

First, an examination of the format is in order. “The Transgender Tipping Point” is a news feature, or a human interest story, which usually comprises the central spread and cover of a newspaper or magazine. As a result, it is the story within the issue that typically garners the most attention. Despite this visiblity, however, Capuzza classifies feature writing as “soft” news, which deals with less “important” topics like “arts, entertainment, and lifestyle” (120). The results of her study reveal that the majority of trans representations in news media are in soft news (121), which is a major problem for the community’s overall presence in the mediascape[1]. By being pigeonholed into topics unrelated to the more severe issues transgender people face on legal, medical, and economic fronts (which, amongst other areas of interest, comprise “hard” news by contrast), the feature’s impact is lessened, despite what it emphasises on social and cultural fronts. Ergo, this disconnect with hard news effectively reinforces the stereotype that trans people exist primarily for entertainment, which regulates how groundbreaking the feature can really be.

Another constraint to feature writing is its word count. Though it does generally allow for longer articles than other types of writing like news or opinion, the feature remains as subject to publication restrictions like page design and editorial oversight as its alternatives. This means that for coverage of social issues like trans rights, explaining what trans even means in under 4,000 words is still to massively condense its definition, resulting in significant exclusions within soft news, too. Part of this discourse that does not make the cut is analysis of the Western gender binary, which author Katy Steinmetz effectively glosses over with a singular mention of how trans people “live in a world largely built on a fixed and binary definition of gender.” Instead, a significant portion of the feature has to be devoted to explaining the etymology of “transgender” and the history of its eventual production which, while effective in sidestepping a discussion fixated on genitalia, still avoids the gender binary itself beyond a brief reframing as a “spectrum.” Precious few news stories incorporated in Capuzza’s study addressed the gender binary at all (123), and as a result TIME’s feature, while it pushes the envelope slightly, is still bound by the need to fit its story onto the page.

While such exclusions are significant — if inevitable[2] — barriers to positive trans representation in the media, so too are problems with the representations that are afforded to the community. Capuzza notes that the majority of representations of trans people in her study were “male-to-female[3]” (122), and Steinmetz again corroborates this, featuring eight trans women as sources and only three trans men, implicitly justifying this by stating that “even in the trans community, male-to-female transitions are thought to be more common than female-to-male.[4]” What neither Capuzza nor Steinmetz do, however, is examine the cause or the outcome of this extra visibility afforded to trans women, with dangerous consequences. While Steinmetz notes that actual numbers on the ratio of transmasculine to transfeminine people are not conclusive, it is a fact that trans women face the overwhelming brunt of transphobic violence, and of those victims the majority are trans women of colour (NCAVP 58). This conflicts with the liberal-progressive assumption that media representation is inherently privileging; Capuzza infers that transfeminine people are “given a voice” more than transmasculine people due to a greater presence in media, but does not ask why, or to what outcome. Julia Serano does, calling the phenomenon effemimania, or Western culture’s “obsession” with male femininity. Effemimania at least partially explains why trans women occupy most of the spotlight when it comes to trans media representation[5], but also why the majority of recognised transphobic slurs and phrases (s*ssy, tr*nny, he-she, man in a dress, etc) have been historically directed almost exclusively at transfeminine people, who as a result endure the majority of transphobic violence. Thus, the media spotlight subjects transfeminine gender identities to undue scrutiny compared to their transmasculine peers — especially when that scrutiny is racialised.

A common detraction to this argument posits that trans women do occupy a privileged position within patriarchy that is predicated on sex assignment; Elaine McDermott asserts in “Tipping Point” that “males are always males… They cannot change,” essentially refusing to recognise transfemininity (if not transgenderism) altogether. Such ideology is inconsistent with Judith Butler’s performativity theory, which stresses gender as a series of actions rather than innately tied to sex designation from birth. She points out that a cissexist, binary system of gender concludes that “gender mirrors sex, or is otherwise restricted by it” (9), which McDermott affirms by uncritically conflating and equating the two. In contrast, Butler purports that to perform masculinity or femininity is what shapes one’s gendered experience in relation to power, even if it does often coincide with sex assignment, while transgressing that assignment challenges binary gender’s immutability in ways that affect all trans people.

However, Butler’s framework also emphasises that femininity, regardless of the body that performs it, is what patriarchy primarily takes issue with (21). That the vast majority of this criticism is directed at transfeminine individuals, as the result of disproportionate media visibility, is symptomatic of transmisogyny. Also coined by Serano, transmisogyny details the intersecting nature of the oppression faced by transfeminine people due to both their transness, and its movement away from (and therefore threat to) hegemonic masculinity, marking us in ways that transmasculine people do not experience. Despite being a significant issue for the supposed majority of the trans community, transmisogyny is utterly ignored by both Steinmetz and Capuzza, who fail to account for how it factors into media representations of transfeminine people; as Capuzza notes, trans people are not considered “legitimate voices of authority on gender as a set of power relations” (123), which creates a discursive emphasis on transness at the expense of how patriarchy functions within it. This means that even positive representations of trans women focus largely on issues that affect the entire trans community, rather than those that affect trans women specifically.

“The Transgender Tipping Point,” as with most media representations of trans people, is not concerned with intra-community intricacies or testing the community’s boundaries, but with its collective identity. Such framing is more digestible for TIME’s readership, who are by and large uneducated on transgenderism, and as a result those intricacies and points of entry get lost in the discourse. This is unfortunate, given that a year later, these issues are more important than ever; Laverne Cox declared a #stateofemergency on social media this month as the eighteenth[6] trans woman of colour was murdered in the US in 2015, an increase from last year when “Tipping Point” was published. While the feature does mark a significant change in attitudes toward the trans community as a whole, Cox provides a sobering reminder of how far there is to go.

References:

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. 9, 21. Print.

Capuzza, Jamie Colette. “Who Defines Gender Diversity? Sourcing Routines and Representation in Mainstream US News Stories About Transgenderism.” International Journal of Transgenderism 15.3–4 (2014): 115–128.

Serano, Julia. “Trans-misogyny Primer.” Whipping Girl. 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Aug. 2015. <http://juliaserano.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/trans-misogyny-primer.html>.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal, 2007. Print.

Steinmetz, Katy, and Eliza Gray. “The Transgender Tipping Point.” TIME. TIME, 29 May 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.

[1] TIME itself largely ignored the trans community up until this point with a conspicuous degree of intention. Two months prior to “The Transgender Tipping Point,” Laverne Cox was a frontrunner for the publication’s annual “100 most influential people” list, placing fifth in the reader poll on its website. Despite this, she did not appear on the final list at all, sparking outrage in the trans community. While some have explained away this snubbing as being due to the forthcoming feature, this explanation belies a misunderstanding of the news cycle, which works at a much faster pace than that and is more likely to have been formulated in response to the backlash. More importantly, if she was the 10th most popular nominee, whose presence on the poll at all proves that TIME acknowledged her, then why were 91 other candidates given precedent in the final list?

[2] By nature of being mediated, something is always going to be cut, and this is always a political act.

[4] As a member of the trans community, this is the first I have EVER heard of this idea. Trans men and other CAFAB (coercively assigned female at birth) trans people have always been far more ubiquitous in my experience — outside of the media, anyway.

[5] And indeed, why the general impression is that there are more of us.

[6] I had to change this number three times while writing; three more trans women were murdered this week alone.

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