In the past few decades, the dawn of the Internet has seen an increase in trans visibility. Transgender representation in media is crucial to inform the masses about the community and give an accurate understanding of the community to trans children. The Internet has been revolutionary for the trans community in that it can provide them with access to resources and language to describe their gender identity. According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), only 0.6% of adults in the U.S. identify as transgender or transsexual and 80% of the world population do not personally know a transgender person, making them especially susceptible to relying solely on the media they consume for an understanding of the transgender community. Nick Adams, the GLAAD director of Trans Media and Representation, says that these statistics also extend to trans people, most of whom have never personally met another trans person and often look to the media to find and understand their community. As a result, trans youth are taught how they should think of themselves through the media they see represented.
For years now, the LGBTQ+ community and allies have been calling for more trans representation in the media, as to portray a greater spectrum of the community and cultivate a deeper understanding of the community, but to little avail. The paradox of trans representation is that the increase in media representation correlates directly to the increase of trans violation. In the 2019 Netflix documentary “Disclosure”, American actress Jamie Clayton references this phenomenon, noting that “the more positive representation there is, the more confidence the community gains, which then puts us in more danger.” A big major player in his paradox is the result of widespread misrepresentation of the trans community in media.
The mockery of trans existence has translated to the public perception of the trans community and is driven primarily by the depiction of the community historically in media. From the dawn of filmed entertainment, gender nonconforming or trans characters in media only existed in the realm of humor. Depictions like such can affect how trans people perceive themselves, as they don’t represent and don’t comport with the reality of the trans community. Actress Jen Richards calls for a broader spectrum of trans representation in media that trans people can genuinely identify with. Films often portray gender nonconforming or trans characters as the “butt of the joke,” conditioning the public to believe that the trans community exists solely for its comedic relief and entertainment. The way trans people are represented on screen implies that they don’t exist beyond for mockery purposes.
This trend of entertainment at the expense of a marginalized community further creates a plethora of racist expectations within the trans community that arose from media coverage. Actor Brian Michael Smith cites the 1914 film “A Florida Enchantment”, where a white female Lillian Travers consumes a magic seed and wakes up a man, as being a highly influential example of trans representation. However, the controversy of the silent film surrounds the Black handmaid, who after swallowing a magic seed, becomes violent and aggressive, creating a fantastical image of the Black transgender community that lingers to this day. While Travers remarries a young wealthy woman and acts like a “high society dandy”, the handmaid reverts to aggression and violence. Feeding off of this twin fascination of blackface and crossdressing, the film effectively created a double standard for the way trans people of color should be thought of within the transgender community and in the general public.
Black men, in particular, are often depicted in media to be hypermasculine, aggressively violent, and dangerous. The symbolic legacy of this stereotype and that of white supremacy is their subjection to a long history of emasculation. Historically, when black men were lynched from the 1880s to the 1960s, they were often castrated as a method of figuratively removing their masculinity and making them less intimidating. Over time, this tradition translated into comedy, particularly the popularization of cis, straight black men dressing up as black women for the sake of satire imitation, which has since become almost a rite of passage for black male comedians. In the eyes of the colonizer, the most emasculating thing a black man could do is to wear a dress, taking away the threat and tendency towards violence historically associated with black masculinity. Notable examples of this pattern of emasculating black comedians include Sheneneh Jenkins, Wanda Wayne, and Madea Simmons, all of which were popular crossdressing characters whose presence served for comedic effect. The accumulation of these stereotypes is the conditioning of the general public to immediately react with mockery and taunting when encountered with a non-cis-passing trans person.
Additionally, the notion of transgender women having overwhelming jealousy towards cis women that will inevitably manifest in violence was also derived from inaccurate representation in the media. For example, “The Silence of the Lambs,” a 1991 horror film about psychopathic serial killer Buffalo Bill who wore the skin of his female victims to appropriate the female form, served as a point of reference for what transition was like for the majority of the decade. In the 1980 thriller “Dressed to Kill”, sweet, innocent homemaker Kate Miller is brutally slain by a cross-dressing murderer, a trope that remains prevalent in horror films to this day. More recently, in “The L Word,” Max transforms from a likable loving man to a hostile prick after starting testosterone. This violent imagery paired with the implication of a sex change created a wave of fear among the cisgender community of transitioning women without providing an accurate representation of the experience. While, in reality, testosterone may cause increased agitation, the extent to which it is displayed in media pits a bad light on the trans community, which is incredibly influential in the way trans people are regarded today. The media capitalizes on people’s fear and teaches the public to react to trans people with fear, leading to inevitable prejudice and discrimination.
The transgender community has long been plagued by the cis obsession with trans anatomy. In her 2011 interview with Lea T, Oprah asked the supermodel on national television about where she hides her genitalia, to which Lea T was clearly uncomfortable and hesitant. The show later received widespread backlash for the violating language used in the interview and the inappropriate request. The media’s comedizing of trans existence created a societal expectation for trans people to be willing to offer up their anatomy for discussion, which is incredibly damaging for their public perception and for the individuals themselves.
The question arises of how can this damage be reversed. Media misrepresentation is an ever so pressing issue for the trans community, as it affects how the community is viewed and how trans people regard themselves. Being an ally to this cause necessitates taking accountability for past ignorance and being open to having these uncomfortable conversations about the pain, humiliation, and dehumanization that the trans community has experienced. Openly fighting for and defending trans visibility for the whole community, not just celebrities, is crucial for reminding the public that trans people exist beyond the realm of their transness. Trans visibility can only truly be an act of celebration if the representation and dismantling the misconceptions of the trans community is a crucial part of the process.
Picture Credit: Photo by Baran Lotfollahi on Unsplash