The issue of representation is not a simple one. When it comes to the representation of transgender people in media, it becomes quite clear that there is significant work to be done still. This blog post attempts to analyze the ways in which representation functions – how is it positive or negative, who is represented and who is in charge, etc.? “American brands, which tend to be conservative marketers, have slowly embraced gays and lesbians in their ads. Transgender men and women, however, have barely been given a voice” (Guynn). Through my research I have come to the conclusion that the media plays an integral role in the way the lives of transgender people are perceived and accepted. The media, in essence, is a tool through which transgender stories are legitimized and recognized. Thus, it becomes ever more important to examine the ways that transgender characters are portrayed.
I chose to take a close look at three primary sources of transgender media to create a base line for representation. The medium that I found most relevant (and popular) was film. If a transgender character exists, it is most often in a film.
The first film I will discuss is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. This movie was produced by Michael White Productions and distributed by 20th Century Fox. The target audience for this film was a niche crowd of misfits and it has since developed a cult following. It was originally released in Los Angeles in 1975. This film centers around a character deemed to be a transvestite and his creation of a creature intended for sexual purposes. The identity of this character can be assumed first through dress and presentation. Frank n furter is dressed in a corset, fishnets, high heels, and has a full face of makeup on. The makeup is done with dramatic flair to the point of almost looking like clown makeup. Shortly after his introduction, he sings a song about being a transvestite from Transylvania. This then confirms the identity of the character.
Frank n furter is portrayed as a highly sexual character. His creation, Rocky, was made for his own sexual benefit. He also is shown as sneaking into two separate rooms to attempt to trick and coerce both a male and female character into having sex with him. Frank n furter is also a violent character. He is shown to have murdered another character because his thunder was stolen. He also has a slew of oddball, treacherous followers that do his bidding.
The main points to address about this portrayal of a “transvestite” character are as follows: the character is portrayed by a cisgender man, the character is highly sexualized, the character is violent, and the character is overly dramatic. On transgender characters being portrayed by cisgender actors, Raquel Willis writes in her article “Hollywood, You’re Halfway There With Trans Representation” “it features, yet again — in a tried and true Hollywood custom — a cisgender man playing a transgender woman. Not only that, but we’re also seeing the trans narrative played out through a cisgender lens. It’s akin to how I feel when I continue to see narratives of color translated through how white people see the state of race and race relations. As a trans woman, I must admit that it continues to be disheartening to see certain portrayals of my community’s experiences in the hands of cisgender people. When I see yet another cis man in a trans woman role, à la Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, it continues to elucidate how society understands us. Or how — in short — they don’t. The acceptance of the “man in a dress” trope continues to persist despite more awareness and representation than ever before” (Willis). By doing this, it undermines the actual lived experience of transgender people (especially women) who have to undergo severe transformations in order to fit into societal expectations.
The second film I chose to analyze is “Tangerine”, a film directed by Sean Baker and produced by Duplass Brothers Productions. The original audience was Sundance Film Festival, which is where it was first shown. This film was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s. The plot is centered on two transgender sex workers and their adventures throughout LA. Transgender sex worker Sin-Dee Rella, who has just finished a 28-day prison sentence, meets her friend Alexandra, another trans sex worker, at a donut shop in Hollywood on Christmas Eve. Alexandra accidentally reveals that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester has been cheating on her with a cisgender woman. Sin-Dee storms out to search the neighborhood for Chester and the woman. Both of the main characters are black transgender women who are played by transgender actresses.
The fact that this film centers around black, transgender sex workers is interesting in that it is taking an uncommon narrative and giving it a comedic twist. The statistics of transgender sex workers are especially high among the MTF (male to female) communities (particularly among transgender women of color). The fact that the narrative revolves around these women and their quest to right a lovers quarrel gives the director/writer an opportunity to share the lives of these women in a more accessible way to audiences. If an audience is able to laugh they will be more likely to listen to the narrative being discussed. Another detail is the focus on the immigrant and his life in America. The taxi driver is struggling to make ends meet in his multigenerational family. He is shown to frequent transgender sex workers exclusively. This brings up a side that is often not discussed. If transgender women are talked about in relation to sex work, they are often criminalized for their work. However, very rarely are the people who request sex work from these women talked about. In this film, the audience is actually given some scenes from the point of view of the client. He is given a backstory; a family, a career, a life. This film works to humanize both sides of the sex work industry and I find that to be a rare narrative.
Silence of the Lambs:
The final film I chose to analyze was “The Silence of the Lambs”, directed by Jonathan Demme and produced by Strong Heart/Demme Production. It premiered in New York in 1991 and has since received critical acclaim.
The character Buffalo Bill is one of the main antagonists of this film. His character is portrayed as a bisexual, transsexual serial killer. Buffalo Bill is given numerous mental health problems. He is shown to be sexual and violent in nature. Hannibal Lecter, who worked with Buffalo Bill, makes the claim that Buffalo Bill is not in fact transgender, but is something altogether more “savage and terrifying”.
Buffalo Bill’s gender identity is handled in a number of very problematic ways. First, his character is a classic example of the killer transgender trope. Transgender women are often represented as psychotic killers as a lazy method of responding to mainstream society’s fear of gender nonconforming people. This popular trope in film reinforces the idea that being transgender is unnatural and perverted, and pathologizes gender fluidity. In addition to crazed killers, Silence of the Lambs portrays transgender women as imposters. After analyzing the Buffalo Bill case files, Hannibal Lecter famously says, “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” This quote enforces the idea that other people can determine a person’s gender identity.
A Deeper Look:
So, what does this all mean? To piece together this information, I turned to an article written by GLAAD.org. GLAAD put together a review on all transgender inclusive television episodes over the past ten years. From this, they came to the conclusion that there is still much work to be done in order to achieve fair and accurate depictions of the transgender community. Since 2002, GLAAD catalogued 102 episodes and non-recurring storylines of scripted television that contained transgender characters, and found that 54% of those were categorized as containing negative representations at the time of their airing. Transgender characters were cast in a “victim” role at least 40% of the time. Transgender characters were cast as killers or villains in at least 21% of the catalogued episodes and storylines. Anti-transgender slurs, language and dialogue were present in at least 61% of the catalogued episodes and storylines (glaad.org). By encouraging and allowing this media mentality to continue, it directly contributes to the ignorance and lack of knowledge exhibited by the general population. It is also harmful for transgender youth that are taught through the media that they will be bullied or laughed at because of who they are. It is vital that media representation is improved if there is any hope of battling ignorance and promoting understanding. “We hope that representations of transgender people on television evolve to become as diverse, nuanced, and inspiring as the community those images reflect,” said GLAAD President Herndon Graddick. “Media has a history of telling the world a story that transgender people are always victims or villains, instead of true depictions that show the transgender community as citizens worthy of equality and respect.” (glaad.org).
Media is essential. In one study, researchers said “Existing research has identified the role that various media play for LGBTQ individuals in this process and suggests that media figures play an important role in their identity development. This research has also associated exposure to positive LGBTQ representations with resilience and well-being. One issue is that in mainstream media, LGBTQ representations are relatively uncommon. Even though they have become more frequent in recent years, the scope of portrayals is still limited for example, gay men are featured far more frequently than other groups while other identities remain nearly invisible. Further, these depictions are often stereotyped or otherwise bowdlerized and therefore provide limited learning opportunities” (Ralston). Media is an outlet for oppressed groups to find comradery, acceptance, and guidance. Without it, the stories of transgender people become lost in the shuffle. There is still a great deal of important work to be done. The best way to attack this is through the careful analysis and questioning that we have begun to work on through projects like this one. Overall, I will conclude by saying that finding pieces of myself in media was essential for my survival, but it left a lot to be desired. If I based my entire identity off of films, I would only believe that my life was meant to end in tragedy. That’s why representation is so important. It’s important for the young, transgender kid, scared of what their life is going to look like. I want to change the stories they see. If I could go back to my young self, sitting at home, terrified and questioning my identity, I would only say one thing: you do not have a death count. Your story does not have to be a tragic one. I want to share with the world that this life is not full of tragedy; that it is absolutely possible to grow up and be happy. That’s what’s at stake with representation, and that is why it is vital to continue to evolve and grow in the way that we portray transgender characters.
Jessica, Guynn and TODAY USA. “Transgender Ads Break Ground at Espys.” USA Today
Ralston, Rachel. “Queer Identity Online: Informal Learning and Teaching Experiences of LGBTQ Individuals on Social Media.” Elsevier 65 (2016): 635-42. Gender Studies Database [EBSCO]. Web.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Twentieth Century Fox, 1975. Film.
Tangerine. Dir. Sean Baker. Duplass Brothers Productions, 2015. Film.
Silence of the Lambs. Dir. Jonathan Demme. Strong Heart Productions, 1991. Film.
“Victims or Villains: Examining Ten Years of Transgender Images on Television.” GLAAD. 12 Jan. 2017. Web.
Willis, Raquel. “Hollywood, You’re Halfway There With Trans Representation.” TheHuffington Post. TheHuffington
Post.com, 14 Jan. 2015. Web.