Transgender women are most commonly represented in two areas of media: comedies and documentaries. We’re nearly omnipresent in mainstream humor — practically any half-hour of Comedy Central is guaranteed to contain at least one joke about us, and almost all sitcoms and late night talk shows will eventually get around to making some sort of “tranny” references.
In some instances, we’re shown to be hairy, hulking men in ill-fitting dresses, the very image inviting mockery. At other times, the “humor” comes from a cis man (quick lesson: “cis” means all you folks who aren’t trans) initially recognizing a woman as a woman, and reacting poorly to the discovery that she’s “really a man” — the notion that someone could take her gender history in stride is just unthinkable. Viewers apparently see no need to reconcile the vastly different assumptions underlying the immediately apparent man-in-a-dress and the indiscernible just-another-woman. We can be both repulsively masculine and yet feminine enough to satisfy the well-trained eyes of male heterosexuals, both deluded caricatures of womanhood and also stunning enough to seduce men who would never see us coming.
A supposed remedy to these insulting stereotypes is provided in the form of documentaries about us, almost universally focusing on the process of physically transitioning — as cis people see it. Shots of women doing their makeup, putting on dresses, being wheeled into an operating room and having their bodies cut open are so cliche that they’ve become the subject of their own drinking game. These documentaries are presented as a factual corrective to the overt derision of comedy, offering cis audiences the apparent moral salve of compassion and understanding for trans people. Yet just as in the case of comedy, this is again filtered through cis people’s perceptions of us – cis writers, cis reporters, cis producers. It’s merely the other, more insidious side of the same coin.
If the most effective lies are those mixed with some truths, there is no better demonstration of this than trans documentaries.
If you’d like to read the rest of my article on trans representation in media, please continue to The Trouble With Depicting Trans People, my first post for Thought Catalog.