Trans Media Representation Without Inclusion Is Nothing More than Exploitation

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for transgender representation in film. First, Michelle Rodriguez announced that she will be starring in a bizarrely-premised film where she portrays a hitman who is “tricked” into undergoing gender-altering surgery and then goes on a revenge spree. Last week, it was announced that cisgender actor Matt Bomer will be playing a trans woman sex worker in the new film Anything, based on the play of the same name. The pair of movies are perfect representations of how disappointing the state of trans representation is mainstream media remains.

Anything, in particular, fall into some depressingly familiar patterns laid down by films like Dallas Buyers Club and The Danish Girl and shows like Transparent that continue to make plain the notion that, while there appears to be a distinct interest in narratives that feature transgender themes, there is little in the way of appetite for actual transgender people, and that the mainstream creators of Hollywood still view trans women as little more than men in dresses.

When the casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles is questioned, one of the most frequent arguments is that straight actors routinely play gay characters, and vice-versa. However, as trans activists and educators have been attempting to explain for decades, sexual orientation and gender identity are completely separate issues. In the modern era, casting directors do not regularly cast cisgender men in roles where they portray cisgender women, and any film or television show that attempted to do so would most certainly be met with extraordinary outcry. So why does it remain acceptable for men to play trans women?

Casting professionals will often hide behind the supposed lack of availability of recognizable transgender actresses. Of course, because the industry continues to refuse to cast trans actresses and give them the opportunity to become recognized, this complaint is a self-perpetuating one. They have similarly defended the choices due to a lack of recognizably trans actress, which is cuts to the core of one of the key issues at play here, that the wide mainstream creative community still views trans women as men, or at the very least, as much close to men than to women. Inherent in this belief is the notion that trans women must inherently be recognizably, visibly trans for the comfort and understanding of a cisgender audience (and indeed, perhaps the creators). Indeed, the reality is that trans women span a wide spectrum of appearances from very cisnormative to profound and intentional transgression of gender norms. Given this, perhaps it is not actual transgender narratives that the creative community is seeking, but rather the spectaclization and exploitation of trans identities for entertainment value.

Transgender characters and narratives in more mainstream film and television have been limited to a few very specific themes that have little do with the actual experiences of trans people. The most common fodder continues to narratives that focus narrowly on the topic of gender transition. The “transformation” aspect of these narratives (featured in Transparent and The Danish Girl) seems to have long captured the public imagination, dating back to the days of bad daytime talk-shows. The consumption of these narratives by the wider cisgender public consistently feels prurient, treating trans people as objections of fascination and turning one of our most personal, formative experiences into what feels like little more than sideshow spectacle. This notion is reinforced by the fact that these narratives also largely focus on the external aspects of transition in both meanings of the term— that is, the physical changes of transition, but also the effects that transition has on those around them. This kind of narrative is so common as to have its own set of oft-discussed tropes within the trans community, such as shots of the character applying makeup, scenes focused on clothing choices, unnecessary sexualizing of the experience, etc.

Even when trans characters are featured outside of the well-worn transition narrative, the variety of stories and characters written is depressingly lacking in variety: trans women as sex workers, trans women as murder victims, trans women as deceptive deviants, trans women as the profoundly mentally ill, and trans women as violent murders. All of these narratives play back into the predominant usage of trans women a spectacle concept and an object of fascination, and seem to affirm the largely puerile interest that the wider public has in our stories. Trans women are portrayed as something to be pitied at best, and something to be feared, mocked, and disgusted by at worst.

This situation is so especially horrifying because trans women have so little opportunity to provide highly visible counterpoints to these dominant media narratives. We are hamstrung by our small numbers, our relative lack of social influence, and by our historic tendency towards intentionally invisibility. Many point to the fact that the gay rights movement was propelled forward by high levels of visibility, both in everyday life and within mainstream movement, with the thesis that the same should be possible for trans people. Unfortunately, by sheer numerical quantity, the trans community is only a fraction of the size of the gay community, which already places us a relative disadvantage. Further, when the wider gay rights movement began, gay people already existed throughout public life, and were widely represented throughout the creative media community, leaving them well-placed to have a significant degree of control of how their narratives played out as they became more commonplace in wider media landscape. Trans people lack that existing influence and infrastructure, and therefore often have functionally zero agency when it comes to shaping how we are portrayed by the dominant media culture. We are stuck in a position of being increasingly visible, but without a concomitant increase in agency, which a recipe for exploitation, which has very important real world consequences.

The ways in which trans women are portrayed has become increasingly concerning as the anti-trans rhetoric in the political arena reaches a fevered pitch. In our push for recognition of even the most basic rights (such as using a restroom without fearing arrest), we are forced to contend with both the historical social discomfort of those who transgress gender norms, but also a media narrative of our lives and experiences that was crafted specifically to play on the salacious fascinations of the public.

Additionally, the effects of this limited view of transness on the psychological well-being of the wider trans community and trans women in particular cannot be ignored. We are constantly bombarded with messaging that we are less-than-human, that we cannot hope to be anything more than victims, and that the rest of the world still views us largely as men. While those of us who are already out may have developed the resolve to endure this situation, it still becomes a drag on our mental well-being. In the simplest terms, it’s absolutely exhausting to be seen this way. Worse though, is affect this has on trans people who are still in the process of coming to terms with their gender identity. To call the current cultural view of trans people “discouraging” would be an understatement of the worst kind. That situation is only amplified for trans youth, who are far more impressionable and far more at risk.

What is extremely frustrating is that it is possible to do media featuring trans narratives well. When trans people involved in the creative process, and when we we’re actually cast to play trans characters, truly ground-breaking visual media is created. The Netflix series Sense8 is one of the highest profile examples, featuring the Wachowski sisters at the helm and trans actress Jamie Clayton. The series provides perhaps the most nuanced, humanizing portrayal of a trans woman seen in big budget production to date. On a smaller scale, the now Emmy-nominated webseries Her Story is perhaps one of the best possible examples of how much can be done with the actual experiences people, and its production included trans women in every aspect of the series, from technical to creative to performance. Indeed, there’s at least some sign that bigger networks are taking notice of series like these. Trans actress Laverne Cox will star in a new NBC legal drama, Doubt, this fall. The network hired trans woman novelist Imogen Binnie to write for the show, and it was announced last month that Her Story stars Jen Richards and Angelica Ross will make a guest appearance in the first season.
However, as films like (Re)Assignment and Anything, continue to be produced, it is clear that the hunger for exploitive portrayals of trans women has far from abated. While it is true that television and film are still, at their core, business ventures, the most financially successful art is often that which gives the audience something it didn’t even realize that it wanted. If creators are interested in making truly transformative film and television, it’s time to start betting that the appetite for the genuine experiences of trans women can outstretch the prurient fascination with our spectaclized existences that have long been the mainstay of our appearance on screens both big and small, and to start including the numerous talents trans writers, directors, and performers as trans characters become more commonplace in the media landscape.