The Ongoing Problem With Trans Representation in Media
In 1992, as a budding Transgirl who hadn’t yet heard the word “Transgender” nor knew anything about gender or sexuality, I watched an film by Neil Jordan called “The Crying Game.” It was dubbed “The Most Shocking Film Of The Year” by entertainment magazines. At the time, I had an insatiable longing for people I could relate to on film, and often had to substitute women as figures of my future intent; I wanted Richard Gere to sweep me away like he had Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I wants to slither around like Catwoman, with that brilliant confidence that was the perfect mix of bad ass girl power and unapologetic confidence. She was my revenge idol. I wanted to flip-flop, cartwheel and yoga pose into school and kick the shit out of my bullies while making them all love me at the same time.
But the Character of Dil in “The Crying Game” was most accurate to who I knew I was becoming. This androgynous, beautiful woman captivated me. Dil was the lover of a soldier, Jody, played by the incredible Forest Whittaker, a man held prisoner by the IRA who pleads with a fellow solider and friend, Fergus, to protect Dil. She unwittingly becomes the subject of both fascination and affection of Fergus.
Through the course of the film, the two fall in love, and when it comes to the pivotal moment where the characters start becoming intimate- it takes a dark turn.
As Fergus begins to disrobe Dil in the bedroom of her bedroom, he gets on his knees, expecting to find female genitalia and instead reveals a penis.
Yes, right there. A penis. And if you saw it in the cinema, a 12 foot tall image of a penis. On a woman. Fergus twisted away in disgust and proceeds to vomit immediately. Then, he hits her.
I remember being horrified- my breathe caught in my throat- not because she had a penis, but because he acted with such sudden and unexpected repulsion over someone he was just kissing and intending to bed.
The film was marketed on the Trans “Surprise.” Studios launched campaigns for audiences not to give away the ending.
In the afterglow of The Crying Game, Transphobic rhetoric became more aggressive than ever in cinema. Who can forget Ace Ventura, played by Jim Carey, belllowing “Einhorn is a man?!” in reference to the character played by Sean Young, and then heaving into the toilet at the very notion an attractive woman might not have a vagina.
Transwomen were reduced to bawdy, comedic or grotesque twists by lazy writers in Hollywood. The go-to joke. The trend continued throughout the 90’s and well into the 2000’s. With what little Trans characters there were on screen, they were always the subject of comedy or villainy. Because, for some reason, it’s still an outrageous knee-slapper to see a sexy woman you suddenly discover has male genitalia or much easier to hate her, so they make her the freakish bad guy, such as in Sleepaway Camp, like some dangerous modern day Frankenstein who will curl their hair, twirl their penis then sit your throat.
More recently, the Trans representation in film has changed in context- with sweeping period dramas like “The Danish Girl” — which won an Oscar for the cisgender actor, Eddie Redmayne, playing the role of a Trans woman. Or, the “Dallas Buyers Club” — which won an Oscar for the cisgender actor, Jared Leto, playing the role of a Trans woman. However, the year that Redmayne won his Oscar for putting on a dress and pretending to be Trans, a film that had been far better received critically, Tangerine, which featured two actual Transwomen played by Transwomen, was snubbed, despite receiving nominations or awards by every other organization the entire awards season. The Academy demonstrated they’d rather give an award to a man tepidly playing a Transwoman, than a Transwoman giving an incredible performance.
Of course, those Transwomen were playing sex workers. I have it on good authority from my Trans identifying actress friends that it’s almost impossible to get roles for anything else. “All I get offers for are prostitutes,” one accomplished actress told me. “If we want access to work we either have to be a prostitute, a mistress, a self-hating trans person, dead or dying of AIDS, or willing to be ridiculed for comedic value. That’s where we are. In 2018.”
But, some will argue the merits of “Transparent,” The Amazon series that features a middle aged man, portrayed by Jeffery Tambor, who transitions from male to female later in life. It is the first television show to take viewers on that journey, one which details the experiences of those in the orbit of the transitioning main character, including her children and ex wife, without exploiting it as sensationalist. “Transparent” features a plethora of Trans identifying artists, both in front of the camera and behind it. While the primary stars are all cisgender performers, Alexandra Billings, Trace Lysette and the iconic Candis Cayne are all series regulars. Zackary Drucker and Our Lady J feature as producers. It appears to be our staple; our one single thing we’re allowed. Unfortunately, although heavily awarded, it’s not got very broad appeal. It’s a series by Transgender people, about Transgender people… so mainstream remains a little stand-offish. It’s “That Transgender show.”
That’s not surprising. We Trans people working in media have to pave our own way, create our own projects, self produce them, star in them. If we try to intermingle cisgender society within our works, we’re typically turned away. As a writer, I’ve had my screenplays turned down by many companies exclusively because, despite having a cisgender lead, it has a trans character. In a fantasy film I wrote which was a finalist in Outfest International’s Screenplay competition, the response I received from interested production companies wanted me to turn the Trans girl into a “traditional” girl. Every film I write has a Trans character, not just because I’m politically advocating the normalizing of Trans people in everyday society, but because I refuse to create worlds in which we do not exist simply for the comfort of mainstream audiences. “Why does she need to be Trans?” An agent once asked me.
“Why not?” I answered.
Orange is the New Black was lauded for it’s inclusion of a Trans character, played by a Transgender woman, Laverne Cox. Because gender diverse characters in media are so rare, it catapulted her well beyond the boundaries of performance into the realm of social activism. That same attention and expectation destroyed Caitlyn Jenner who was no longer just allowed to be the tabloid mainstay by proxy of the Kardashians, but now had to be our fearless leader, our ambassador to cigender tribes. There are about five Trans figures that cisgender audiences can name: Caitlyn Jenner being the most notable along with Cox on a lesser scale. Others paying attention know that the Wachowskis, directors of the successful Matrix franchise both transitioned and Jazz Jennings, the teenager with her own reality show on that channel that also shows My 600 lb Life and Sister Wives. Cis people don’t know Janet Mock, although her work is invaluable, but they heard a Transgirl took on Rose McGowan at a book signing. Our names cross their facebook feeds when the news reports our deaths. Beyond that, we’re people not allowed to use bathrooms in certain states, a word that is banned by the CDC, and reduced to that one Transgender person who did something that one time which the media loves to exploit for a headline in a fleeting story. Especially when it’s salacious. When former Playboy Playmate, Kendra Wilkinson’s basketball star husband, Hank Baskett, had an alleged affair with a woman, the media latched on like a thirsty tick to the ass-end of a fat dog because that his mistress was Transgender. Of course, despite evidence, he denied it, and the couple leveraged the scandal to maximize ratings and profits by following the controversy on their reality show. They even starred in their own one-hour special to discuss it. Similarly, the media pounced at the opportunity to reveal the alleged affair that Jennifer Lopez’s then boyfriend, Casper Smart, was having with a Transwoman he met on Instagram. Then there was the story of Michael Phelps, the olympic gold medalist who had an ongoing, but secret relationship with an intersex woman- one which he never denied, but ignored instead. In every case, the transwoman is vilified by the media, like some sexual predator; A succubus who cast a spell of seduction on innocent men. That’s when the media pays attention.
That’s problematic. The fact that mainstream society possesses more general awareness of cis actors who play Trans characters, or random Transwomen involved in scandals does nothing to improve our actual visibility, or integrate us into mainstream culture. It alienates us further onto the fringes of society.
We’re like the unicorns of media. When one of us pops up and garners any attention for something other than simply being Trans or scandalous, people react with; “Wow, you really do exist.”
Far and few are the opportunities for Trans actors and actresses, filmmakers and film writers. It’s not because there are too few of us, it’s because when Hollywood looks at us, they don’t see our potential, they see a political cause. An embattled, marginalized person. When we disclose our trans status to people, they suddenly lose sight of our face and instead see the last anti-trans headline they read splashed across out forehead- and maybe they feel sad. Maybe they feel that if they’re uncomfortable or distracted exclusively by the fact that we’re trans, moviegoers, television viewers and the greater cisgender community will be too.
Perhaps this is why we haven’t really seen a transgender performer portray a non-trans role- unless you count Candis Cayne playing a fairytale creature in The Magicians. Cayne is such a brilliant performer she could play anything. She’s stunning, she’s captivating onscreen, she’s a staggeringly talented actress…
But apparently, despite the multitude of cisgender actors playing trans in media, she isn’t allowed to play a ciswoman… just trans, and maybe a unicorn.