Representation in TV and Movies is Starting to Suck a Little Less (But It Still Often Sucks)
There has been a lot of discussion the past few years about LGBTQ representation in the media, especially with how trans folks are portrayed in TV and movies, and who gets to play those characters. When Transparent debuted five and a half years ago, the main character — Maura — was trans, but the actor portraying her — Jeffrey Tambor — was not. Before that, in 2013, Jared Leto, a cisgender man, won an Oscar for portraying a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club. In 2016, Eddie Redmayne, another cisgender man, received an Oscar nomination for playing transgender pioneer Lilli Elbe in 2016’s The Danish Girl.
More recently, trans men and women are portraying trans men and women, but the characters they are portraying are still often problematic. 2015’s Tangerine followed the lives of two transgender prostitutes through the streets of LA. Although they were at least portrayed by amazing trans women (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, and Mya Taylor), the perception of trans women in media either being deceptive, sex workers, or victims, still is in play. In 2018, with Pose! we saw a whole new level of trans and queer participation in television, but they were still portrayed as being on the margins. Sex workers. Addicts. Murder victims.
The current trend in valid trans representation in TV and movies even seemed to get it’s start with Sofia Burset (portrayed by the incomparable Laverne Cox), a convicted felon. As revolutionary as it was to see a trans woman playing a trans woman on the screen in 2013, Cox’s character — at the end of the day — was a convicted felon practicing the most cliche of trans woman professions while in prison — that of hair dresser.
Before anyone jumps on me for criticizing any of these roles, please know that I adored every one of them. I don’t know that I could be a bigger fan of Laverne Cox without being called a stalker. And Pose! Is incredible in its authenticity, amazing writing, and probably the best acting by cis and trans actors alike.
And there are, of course, other representations that have come about recently that are not as problematic. All the trans characters in Transparent who aren’t portrayed by Jeffrey Tambor, Nicole Maines’ role in Supergirl, Aneesh Sheth’s character in Jessica Jones. Michelle Hendley in Boy Meets Girl, and Jamie Clayton in Sense8. And recently, a pleasant surprise: Jen Richards portraying a young Anna Madrigal in the new Tales of the City.
What About Literature?
That’s all TV and movies, though. Although some of the recent characters come from comics, there are very few novels, short stories, and even graphic novels depicting trans characters. And fewer still that have unambiguously positive, strong central characters who are trans.
As a lover of fiction — especially novels — and writer of such, I lament this dearth of trans main characters, especially in genre novels.
It’s not a total desert. Occasionally there will be something written with a trans character. Extra points if it is written by someone who is trans.
One series of crime novels that I have been finding very entertaining are Dharma Kelleher’s Jinx Ballou series. Jinx is a20-something bounty hunter who also happens to be a transgender woman.
Although her being trans definitely finds its way into the plot (in one book she loses clients when she is publicly outed; in another, the main antagonist hates her mostly because she is trans), it is not the whole plot. And it is certainly not like some of the films and shows I mention above where most of the story revolves around her being trans and dealing with life as a trans woman.
Another crime fiction author with a trans protagonist is Renee James, who has a series of books featuring a trans woman hair dresser who also somehow finds her way into the middle of murder investigations.
I do sometimes run across trans women characters in romance, especially queer romance, but few of those are written by trans people, and the characters often fall flat (for me, anyway) for that reason.
Finally, there’s sci-fi/fantasy, possibly my favorite genre. To be fair, there have been trans women and trans men authors in sci-fi/fantasy going at least back to the 1980’s and Rachel Pollack. However, Ms. Pollack rarely included trans characters in her novels.
More recently, we do have more trans, gender non-conforming, and/or non-binary authors who sometimes have trans and non-binary characters: Caitlin Kieran, Charlie Jane Anders, and Annalee Newitz are three I’ve read recently. And I’ve always loved Susan Jane Bigelow’s Superhuman Union series.
I haven’t read every book by each of those authors but so far I have not come across many transgender main characters.
That Brings Us to My Character
So, partly in response to the small amount of trans main characters in genre fiction and partly because I write what I know, I have been writing my first novel and the main character is a trans woman.
The two genres I like most are crime fiction and sci-If/fantasy. So it’s no surprise I’ve combined the two. The setting is a multi-verse in which various universes (called realms or planes) are home to various species, including all the creatures we’ve heard of from folk tales: the Fae, elves, Ogres, nymphs, dryads, even vampires and where wolves. My MC works for a quasi-police organization that enforces a century-old treaty intended to keep each realm from harming or exploiting another one. The Earth plane, whose inhabitants mostly lack magic (or any real belief in it), has always been the most vulnerable, especially to the Fae.
As the story opens, they have relegated my character far from the work she wants to do — investigation and detective work — mostly because she came out as trans and transitioned while on the job. One day she is on the detective track, the next she is teaching basic skills (very basic) at the Academy just because she came out as trans.
If I do my job right, she will be a likeable and compelling character who just happens to be trans.
Attitudes Toward Better Representation are Changing, Just Not Quickly.
To learn how to give my character a suspenseful plot that will keep readers following her exploits to the very end, I attended a crime fiction authors conference in November.
I learned a lot from master classes, but the conference was also a chance to network with other authors and people in the publishing business. The first night at dinner I told the basic set-up of my story — the one I’ve described above — to the woman sitting next to me.
She thought I needed to make my character being trans a bigger part of the story. This gave me visions of the film Trans America, or any similarly exploitive and demeaning depiction of trans female characters in which we see the trans woman doing her make-up, working on her voice, revealing herself as trans in the climactic scene, etc.
I wasn’t planning on following that advice anyway, but it still was nice when a new friend spoke up for me, telling me not to let anyone tell me how to write my characters.
I probably should have felt validated the next day when the woman who made the original suggestion approached me and told me she had just talked to a literary agent about my character. She said I should “go for it,” because the agent had said that #own voices were very popular right now. Spoiler alert: I didn’t exactly feel validated having my character regarded as a trend.
I bring this up because I think it is important to remember just where we stand regarding transgender representation. Traditionally, few non-LGBTQ people have felt compelled to read about trans characters unless they were Buffalo Bill or Myra Breckenridge.
Change is coming, but something else happened that weekend that makes me wonder how fast. It also drives home the need for more positive representation.
Transphobic Narratives are Going Away Very Slowly
The weekend closed out with a presentation by a former forensic scientist. He presented one of the cases he had worked, building it up with sensational details.
Avoiding the sensationalism, here are the basics. Someone killed their spouse in front of witnesses. There was no dispute about the circumstances of the crime. There was no need to add anything to the story (unless you are a former forensic scientist who wants to look like a bigshot and the most important case you worked on relied very little on forensic evidence).
That didn’t stop this guy. It turns out that the perpetrator had “a dark side” (his words). Can you guess what that “dark side was?” Of course, this person (always referred to with he/him pronouns) was transgender. He called the person a cross dresser, but then went on to say the person was “transgendering into a woman.”
Right. I know there is no such word as “transgendering.” I understand he also made fun of how this person looked in women’s clothes and makeup, but I had left the room by that time. As soon as I realized the “big reveal” was that the “bad guy” was trans, I felt no reason to stay and listen to such garbage.
So here is where I find a small amount of hope. When I went to complain, I found I was not the first to do so. When the organization running the conference apologized in email and on social media a few days later, there seemed to be an outpouring of support.
And here is where I feel a little discouraged, too. Along with the supporters were people saying we “shouldn’t be offended,” and that the fact the perpetrator was trans was important to the case, not the sensationalism and transphobia it obviously was.
I can’t help thinking if we already had more positive transgender representation in crime fiction more people would have been outraged and walked out like I did. If the dominant narrative weren’t still that trans people (especially trans women) are deceptive and hiding something, that they are always the “bad guys,” I wonder if the speaker would have been able to get away with using this story at all. I certainly doubt he would have been able to present it the way he did.
Changing the Narrative, One Character at a Time
I know one character is just a drop in the bucket. Thousands of novels get published every year. I plan on self-publishing, so I have no idea how many people I will reach.
I know, too, that I am just one person writing one book. I harbor no illusions that my book will drive some new narrative in genre fiction, establish trans characters as the “good guys/gals,” and generally bring about peace and harmony throughout the world.
However, I do know we have to start somewhere.
I’m starting with my main character.