”What do pop culture representations of transgender individuals tell us about current understandings of transgenderism?”
Disclaimer: I wrote this for my university unit about the way societal norms assign “otherness” to certain groups who “transgress” those physical “norms”.
I don’t profess to be an expert in any of the issues discussed and I truly hope that this is not a totally ill-informed piece of B.S. I realise this is a highly emotive subject for a lot of people whose lives are touched by these issues and I hope I’ve been sensitive to that.
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The growing representation of LGBTQ individuals in the media and the public sphere has been largely focused on lesbian, gay and bisexual narratives and discourse, but transgender representation in pop culture has undergone a slow, often independent transformation, from a pathology to an aspect of individual identity. The interaction between transgender narratives and societal norms is fraught and problematic with factors that include but are not limited to; ideas of deception and honesty, language, casting and representation, and user created content. The purpose of this essay is to explore the aforementioned issues in transgender representation in pop culture and how these factors effect and reflect societal attitudes using cultural and cinematic examples which demonstrate turning points or key signpost indicating attitudes to transgender identification.
I have made the choice to use the term “cisgender” where possible instead of “straight” as it is less problematic as it does not imply that being transgender is abnormal. Oxford English Dictionary defines cisgender as “Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” (Oxford Dictionaries, English, 2017). This is not a widely accepted term as it is a term defined through transgender discourse and many people choose to still identify as straight, but, as transgender representation is the subject of this essay I felt that normative terms would be counterproductive. The idea of transgenderism as inherently violent or deceitful and therefore threatening to a safe stable society is reinforced through the straight and “other” dichotomy, and the language that surrounds it, hence my choice to avoid the term straight, rejecting the idea of the “other” as being a force of corruption or deceit (Barker-Plummer, 2013).
There are two key approaches taken in popular media culture when engaging in transgender discourse, being the “Wrong body” approach and “genderqueer” approach (Barker-Plummer, 2013). These approaches vary considerably in their depictions of transgender individuals with “wrong body” approach explaining transgender experience in terms that still exist within a binary understanding of gender and is less troubling to the pre-existing heteronormative culture and discourse than the “genderqueer” approach which disrupts this gender binary and opens up societal understandings of gender by disassociating gender from sexuality, as the process of transitioning gender is not always linked to any change in sexual desire (Barker-Plummer, 2013) which is important when discussing media depictions because “wrong body” discourse often depicts the transgender individual as sexually deceptive, linking gender transition to dishonesty in a way that is not helpful or accurate.
Queer representation as a whole has come along in leaps and bounds in the past few decades with series’ such as Queer as Folk (Queer as Folk Season 1-5, 2009) and The L word (L Word, The – The Complete Series, 2004) gaining an extensive and varied pop culture following. But by contrast Transgender has been relegated to being the “other” in the queer communities with transgender identities being marginalised. Even within these queer communities, sometimes transgenderism is seen as embarrassing and not quite fitting into the LGBTQ community historically (Mills, 2006). The place of transgenderism in queer media is a relatively recent development by comparison.
Prior to the 1990s the dominant popular culture view of transgenderism was represented by extremely undesirable characters such as the murderous Norman Bates, based on the deeply troubled killer Ed Gein in Psycho (1960), diabolical serial killer Buffalo Bill of Silence of the Lambs (1991) and even the raunchy musical Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) which has often been reclaimed by transgender communities, features Dr. Frank-N-Furter as a sexually predatory mad scientist. Both of these aforementioned characters are vastly different, but are both linked to violence and deception, a common trope in transgender narratives to this day. The pathologizing of transgender identification in the media links transgenderism to deception, mental illness and often sexual violence.
Comedy depictions of transgender characters tend to render the transgression of socially accepted binary gender roles ridiculous and comedic. Examples of these cinematic depictions, especially prevalent in the 1970s to the present, are Tootsie (1982), The Birdcage (1996) and Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994). Unlike the pathological treatment of transgender narratives these lighter modes of cinematic discourse often reject the violence at play in the criminal transgender narrative, and whilst these films often poke fun at transgender people, they also deliver heart felt moments which can make transgender individuals more relatable without compromising their identity (Priscilla Queen of the Desert,1994). However these heartfelt moments are often borne out of the individual redefining themselves to fit within the gender binary, implying that it is because of their rejection of a transgender identity that they achieve humanity or redemption (Tootsie, 1982). Then with the advent of Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) the new trope of the tragic transgender figure emerged, this was a character who was a victim, rather than a perpetrator of sexual violence, often committed by homophobic and transphobic males.
In Boys Don’t Cry the story of Brandon Teena is depicted in heartbreaking detail, and as this was based on a true story Brandon became the iconic tragic transgender hero (Rigney, 2003) for a movement towards more sympathetic depictions of transgender individuals. Stories like this are brutal, devastating and crucial to societal understandings of the transgender experience, but it does not paint the whole picture. In order to be represented accurately the transgender community needed to not just be sympathetic but these characters need to be given agency in a variety of narratives. The lack of agency often afforded to transgender characters denies them equal importance by virtue of their non binary gender identification.
The tropes of commercially produced transgender narratives i.e.; the psychopath, the comedic figure and the tragic hero, are giving way to a new kind of transgender narrative, one in which the transgender individual is the self determining protagonist, in which the transgenderism is not uniformly a point of derision, revulsion or pity. In these narratives, such as Girl Meets Boy (2014) the transgender person is afforded an agency and power that is usually only given to cisgender characters. This move towards a less marginalised view of transgenderism is partially a result of greater acceptance of transgender identification and partially as a result of greater representation of transgender people in the media industries. This move towards the less binary “genderqueer” approach allows for a much greater societal understanding of the issues faced by individuals and communities that identify as transgender.
A common approach to depicting transgender characters is using the “coming out” storyline as the point of focus. This is a useful dialogue in that it engages in discourse surrounding societal gender norms. This process of coming out means that an individual expresses their queer identity to those around them. The media often depicts a negative fallout from this situation with the implication that the person coming out has been keeping the truth from their loved ones, further implying deception and malice rather than a process of discovery and divulging the discovery to trusted parties. This idea of secrecy and deception surrounding the transgender identity is echoed and reinforced by even some of the most earnest and well meaning transgender narratives. The process of linking honesty to coming out is apparent in the narrative and title of the recent series Transparent (2016). By linking coming out to honesty in the title implies that before the character “came out” they were being dishonest, and Maura’s adult children react in a variety of ways but a common thread is that their father was being dishonest by changing the way she identified her gender (Funk and Funk, 2016). Treating transgender identification as deceptive attaches a variety of negative connotations to the transitioning or gender exploration process which can have lasting repercussions on popular perceptions of transgenderism (Barker-Plummer, 2013).
In order to assess the level of transgender representation in produced media it is important to address issues of casting. Popular cinema has a history of casting cisgender individuals to play transgender roles. This suggests an unwillingness to display the transgender body, implying that it is undesirable and inappropriate for public viewing. Even in queer produced media such as “Boys Don’t Cry”, a breakthrough piece of transgender cinema, featured cisgender actor Hilary Swank as the transgender protagonist, Brandon Teena. In more recent times Amazon series Transparent has a male cisgender actor, Jeffery Tambor playing a female transgender protagonist, with transgender actors playing supporting roles. Greater representation is gradually being given to transgender actors in transgender roles with Laverne Cox playing prominent transgender roles in Orange is the New Black (2013) and the 2016 Rocky Horror reboot, and transgender actor Michelle Hendley starring in the 2014 movie Girl Meets Boy. This increased representation is still only a sliver of the commercially produced and distributed media however, it is indicative of changing views towards transgender bodies and a greater acceptance of genderqueer narratives in both audiences and media industries.
Online media, unlike previously discussed cinema and television media modes, has the ability to immediately reflect and react to changing perception of gender in society due to the increased accessibility to means of self publishing or production. As a result of this user generated content online social media platforms have a far greater level of transgender representation on formats such as YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress and Facebook (McInroy and Craig, 2015). YouTube in particular showcases positive transition stories, transgender information and has the ability to foster positive niche communities, with their own celebrities and figureheads that better represent their “genderqueer” identification. However not all of these online movements are organic, with social activism and advocacy finding a strong voice and online presence. The It Gets Better campaign, which asks prominent and everyday individuals to share messages of affirmation and hope with LGBTQ young people. This movement engages with “queer worldmaking activities” (West et al, 2013) creating a safe space for transgender identification, and making a conscious and concerted effort to carve out a positive outlook and hopefully future for transgender youths who have a statistically higher rate of suicide than those identifying as “straight” or cisgender (West et al, 2013)
Despite the growing acceptance of “genderqueer” thinking and transgender identification mainstream media still holds tight to most of the tropes that marginalized and pathologized transgenderism in the media. The creation of positive transition narratives and queer world building is falling to new media that is reliant on user generated content, allowing it to operate outside the gender politics of the traditional media and cultural structures and industries. The less filtered immediacy of social and user generated media allows previously marginalised groups access to communities they might never have reached otherwise. Whilst this form of DIY media allows transgender individuals to exchange and share information, form online relationships and form communities it can also be a source of disinformation if each contribution is not able to be vetted effectively by the reader, viewer or listener (Fox and Ralston, 2016).
The spectrum of popular culture is so vast that the narrow focus of this essay, that is television, cinema and user generated online content, whilst indicative of the current views of transgender identity, neglects some of the elements of popular culture such as music, visual arts, books and graphic novels which have often more quickly adopted “genderqueer” approaches. By not including an in depth look at these media modes I am not seeking to deny their importance, but rather address more widely consumed media modes.
The move away from the “wrong body” approach and transgender tropes, to honest “genderqueer” narratives that explore transgender issues with the same respect and depth as cisgender issues receive has been slow moving and sometimes reluctant in its progress but is being pushed on by a wave of support and representation from user driven content. The result of this push for more accurate transgender representation is a greater knowledge of gender issues in society at large, a greater acceptance of transgender individuals and the creation of safe spaces in online media for transgender people to interact and support each other. Societal attitudes towards transgenderism still tend towards marginalisation but there is potentially change on the horizon as levels of understanding and more open gender discourse filter through various subsections and branches of society.
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• Barker-Plummer, Bernadette (2013) Fixing Gwen, Feminist Media Studies, 13:4, 710-724, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2012.679289
• “Boys Don’t Cry”, director. Kimberley Peirce, 1999,.
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• Fox, Jesse, and Rachel Ralston. “Queer identity online: Informal learning and teaching experiences of LGBTQ individuals on social media.”Computers in Human Behavior 65 (2016): 635-642.
• Funk, Steven, and Jaydi Funk. “Transgender Dispossession in Transparent: Coming Out as a Euphemism for Honesty.” Sexuality & Culture 20.4 (2016): 879-905.
• “Girl Meets Boy”, director. Eric Schaeffer, 2014,.
• “Hedwig And The Angry Inch”, director. John Cameron Mitchell, 2001,.
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• McInroy, Lauren B. And Craig, Shelley L. (2015) Transgender Representation in Offline and Online Media: LGBTQ Youth Perspectives, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 25:6, 606-617, DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2014.995392
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• “Psycho”, director. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960,.
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• Rigney, Melissa. “Brandon Goes to Hollywood: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and the Transgender Body in Film.” Film Criticism, vol. 28, no. 2, 2003, pp. 4–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44019160.
• “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, director. Jim Sharman, 1975,.
• “Rocky Horror Picture Show; Let’s Do The Time Warp Again”, director. Kenny Ortega, 2016,.
• “Silence Of The Lambs”, director. Jonathan Demme, 1991,.
• “The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”, director. Stephan Elliot, 1994,.
• “The Birdcage”, director. Mike Nichols, 1992,.
• “Tootsie”, director. Sidney Pollack, 1982,.
• “Transparent”, director. Amazon, 2016,.
• West, Isaac et al. “Queer Worldmaking in the ‘It Gets Better’ Campaign.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2013, pp. 49–86. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/qed.0049.