Diminishing of Transgender Women in Media

By Iman Shah and Manuel Valdez

Historically, representation of transgender women in the media has been nothing short of dehumanizing. They have been whittled down in television shows and movies to either be the butt of the joke or a pitiable sex worker. Trans women are portrayed as side characters whose only contribution the plot line lies in their gender. Even when they are a main character, they are still written into corners that diminish their chances at a fully fleshed out narrative. In multiple forms of media, trans women have the option to be this, that, or everything and then nothing. The diminishing of transgender women in the media ranges from stereotypical fiction to altered history. In any case, they are never the one and always the other.

Image: The Wrap
Serial killer and antagonist of the movie The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Buffalo Bill, is portrayed as a transgender woman. Her gender identity is sensationalized and equated to the other “unnatural” and “disturbing” elements of her character as a murderer. In this movie, randomly revealing the character as transgender is used as a plot device for a combination of humor, absurdity, and horror. The other characters in the movie also refer to this character with he/him pronouns, and repeatedly invalidate her identity because they dismiss her as “crazy.” The actor is also a cisgender man.

Image: Biography
While including a positive transgender character on television in the early 1990s on a show like Twin Peaks was fairly uncommon, the way the character of Denise Richards was portrayed is still problematic. When she’s introduced onto the show for the first time, a few of the other characters express their shock at her transformation, and her deadname is repeatedly used. She’s also misgendered for the sake of a couple of jokes during the show, and is for the most part treated as a spectacle. And similar to the previous movie listed, the actor was a cisgender man.

Image: Entertainment Weekly
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009) is a reality TV show that, while on the surface pushes the boundaries of gender identity and presentation, still perpetuates a lot of transphobia and transmisogyny. A few transgender women and gender non-conforming contestants have gone through the show, such as Carmen Carrera, Monica Beverly Hillz, and Violet Chachki. But a lot of the language the cisgender participants use is transphobic, including RuPaul, as well as how they make blanket generalizations about contestants’ identities with the use of “gentlemen” before each round.

Image: Bustle
The character of Sophia on the 2013 show Orange is the New Black is put through more consistent abuse than any other character, and it just escalates as seasons go on. While Laverne Cox was a wonderful casting choice as a trans woman of color, Sophia’s entire storyline soon becomes one of isolation, violence, and fear, as compared to other inmates who have more multifaceted experiences in prison. Other characters would repeatedly use slurs to refer to her, and while some might call this “realism,” it seems that the show puts Sophia through humiliation simply for the fact that she is transgender.

Image: Previously.TV
Similar to the problem that we see in The Silence of the Lambs, BD Wong’s character White Rose in Mr. Robot (2015) is sensationalized more than anything else. The character is portrayed largely as a villain, and because she spends half the show presenting as a man, it seems more like a flimsy excuse to make the character more shocking and mysterious than an attempt to actually represent the experience of a trans woman. And once again, the role is played by a cisgender actor.

Image: Time
Jared Leto’s character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) is a horrible portrayal of transgender women in media for multiple reasons. Firstly, Rayon is consistently used as a comic relief during the movie, and is basically a prop for the main character to outgrow his bigotry. On top of that, her character is depicted as the stereotype of a flirtatious sex worker. Jared Leto was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for that role, despite being a cisgender man. Overall, Rayon was a poorly written character that stemmed from a cisgender writer’s imagining of what a transgender woman should be.

Image: Focus Features
The Danish Girl (2015) depicts a trans woman named Lili, but it very much reduces the character down to the stereotype of a “woman trapped in a man’s body.” It features many exaggerated shots of what aspiring to femininity looks like, particularly through the eyes of a cisgender cast and production crew. Additionally, because it is based off of real historical figures, it leaves out some queer parts of the narrative that would have added depth to the movie.

Image: PBS
Stonewall (2015) features a cisgender actor portraying Marsha P. Johnson, the most prominent trans women involved in the Stonewall Riots and in LGBT activism. In the film, she is nothing more than mindless comic relief who is pushed to the storyline’s outskirts. A character named Ray is based off of Sylvia Rivera, another influential trans activist, and is played by a cisgender actor. She’s manipulative, vain, beaten multiple times, and demonized for being a sex worker. The film centers the beginnings of the gay rights movement around a white, cisgender, gay man and completely erases the role of transgender women.

Overall, while the representation of transgender women on screen has slightly increased from decades past, the nature of those portrayals are often negative. In their article “Media’s Influence on Perceptions of Trans Women,” Haley Solomon and Beth Kurtz-Costes argue that “although recent portrayals of trans women have become more sympathetic, they may still reinforce negative ideas. For instance, casting a well-known or highly masculine cisgender man to play a trans woman, even if the role is a sympathetic one, reinforces the notion that trans women are really cisgender men pretending to be women.” The film industry is doing a subpar job of writing meaningful trans individual. The characters on screen are dehumanized, shuffled to the side, and narrowed down to one personality trait or circumstance. As a result, the larger audience begins to associate actual transgender women with some of these harmful traits and behaviors. Additionally, Hollywood does a poor job of casting and selecting production crews for films about trans characters. Films like The Silence of the Lambs, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Danish Girl are directed by cisgender men. All the acting roles as well go to cisgender men, further reinforcing this idea that trans women are imposters. Trans activist and journalist Paris Lees describes how “industry insiders get their information about transgender people from things they’ve seen or heard in the media. In other words, from shows produced by people like themselves. It’s an important point, but one few industry insiders wish to hear. People switch off when you criticise them. They may well agree with what you have to say, but they’ll want to forget about it as soon as you leave the room.” Until movies are produced by and representative of the trans and queer community, media consumed by the masses will continue to be framed through a cissexist and heteronormative lens.

Solomon, H. E., & Kurtz-Costes, B. (2018). Media’s Influence on Perceptions of Trans Women. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 15(1), 34-47. doi:10.1007/s13178-017-0280-2

Trans people need a voice. (2014). Broadcast, Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/1502868819?accountid=7118

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