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Jul 11 2013

Thought Catalog: The Trouble With Depicting Trans People

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.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Grokked, sister. *fistbump of solidarity*

  2. 2
    besomyka

    I read it when you originally tweeted it, but missed the part in which you wrote it at first. Was about to say something along the lines of:

    That seems like a very fair, pretty accurate, take on the issues. I’ve always thought that it’d be hard to portray trans* people because in order for the audience to know, you’d have to out them in the same problematic way. It’d be better if some of the various roles were simply played by trans* people w/o it being the subject of concern at all. I think that author get that as well, and it’s refreshing.

    Then I noticed it was you and I became less surprised.

    It reminds me of a comic that was referenced, I think by Natalie Reed, that showed trans* people could be portrayed in a sensible way. Only bringing the past up when it mattered to the story and present, otherwise just being one of many things that are interesting about a character, and something not mentioned until after viewers/readers already know the character apart from those particular facts.

    Anyway, any article that gets me thinking and piecing things together with some self reflection is a pretty good. Enjoyed it!

  3. 3
    Abdul Alhazred

    In some instances, we’re shown to be hairy, hulking men in ill-fitting dresses, the very image inviting mockery.

    This is about on the same level as the old black face minstrels.

  4. 4
    Scr... Archivist

    Zinnia,

    In the full version of this post, you wrote, “There is no realistic hope of a representation that’s truly positive in its own right — merely one that’s as absent of negatives as possible.”

    Would that also apply to science fiction? I expect that there is a lot of horrible characterization there, overall, but it might be easier to find positive depictions in futuristic settings than in mundane ones. Or is that not sufficient representation because the context is not the real, lived world of trans people in the here and now?

  5. 5
    Yellow Thursday

    The best fictional depication of a trans character I’ve seen* is Claire in Jeph Jaques’ webcomic “Questionable Content.” Other than a couple days’ worth of comics shortly after the introduction of her character (where Claire came out to the main character), there’s been no mention of Claire being trans, and she hasn’t been treated any differently than any other character in the comic.

    *Granted, I’m a cis woman, so my perception may be off, I haven’t gone out looking for depictions of trans characters, and it’s not exactly a mainstream piece.

  6. 6
    Great American Satan

    Archivist @4 has a good question and I hope you get around to answering it, of course understood if you don’t (peeps are busy). I’d further elaborate on the question because sci fi raises the possibility of doing far more unusual possibilities in depicting trans* folks, and I suspect most of them are problematic.

    But I’ll only mention the one that first springs to mind. In a sci fi setting, one could potentially have more perfect transitioning technology. One example occurred in a transphobic element of the movie “Surrogates,” where someone who couldn’t pass in a flesh and blood body used a robot avatar to live as a woman, and was naturally mocked for it. Oh, I even think the character was a murder victim, for shit to be more fucked up. Anyhow,

    Is that problematic to show trans people using technology or magic that isn’t real, because it sets up some kind of message that people shouldn’t even try until the magic gender switching booth becomes real, or some other reason I can’t think of? What is an appropriate way to handle gender issues in sci fi and fantasy?

  7. 7
    Sassafras

    great1american1satan,

    Is that problematic to show trans people using technology or magic that isn’t real, because it sets up some kind of message that people shouldn’t even try until the magic gender switching booth becomes real, or some other reason I can’t think of?

    I think it’s slightly problematic that it sort of frames transition as the realm of fantasy and not real life, and also because a lot of cis people already think that transition is something that happens overnight (and on a whim), so reinforcing that can be a problem.

    That said, I personally can’t universally condemn such portrayals because I know when I was a kid, every time I read something about someone changing sex through magical means it gave me a nice fantasy to retreat to when I needed it.

  8. 8
    Great American Satan

    Aww!

    :-)

    Yeah, transition isn’t always great, quick, and the best thing going for a trans person. Life is harder for some than others, due to the caprices of biology. I really hope the presto-chango does come along some day, because the sadness I see is pretty brutal.

    On a geekier subset of this conversation, I know a cis guy who said he played a trans guy in Dungeons and Dragons. In that RPG, there’s a “cursed” item that “reverses” one’s gender, with magic and stuff. Shouldn’t he be playing a magically cis-guy with a possibly secret past (if “stealth”)? I don’t know.

    But it’s a life and death subject for some people, and has been a trope of fantasy for a long time, where it’s usually treated as a joke. Kinda sucks.

  9. 9
    Scr... Archivist

    If I recall correctly, people can change sex in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, but the transition takes about a year. He mentions this in a couple of stories, but mostly in Excession where it is central to the relationship between two of the main characters. Also, I think the change is started by force of will after some deep mental switching in some kind of trance state. Culture people are born with various physiological and neurochemical modifications that can be invoked as they learn how to use them.

    Unfortunately, their level of technology is thousands of years beyond ours, which is why I asked if exploring such remote experiences was really a good thing for audiences today. Does this offer a kind of hope? Or is it only temporary respite from our backward society? What are most trans* SF readers looking for when it comes to characters like this?

    Furthermore, that subplot in Excession is also tied more to pregnancy than identity, so I’m not sure if it’s an appropriate example. I wonder sometimes if these cis, male SF writers just go for “weird” to appeal to their cis, male readers.

    Closer to our world, I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. He brings in some characters with sexualities that are unusual by today’s standards, but I found his terminology jarring. Some of it wasn’t accurate for 2012, let alone the twenty-fourth century (although who knows how words might change meaning by then). And the book was still kind of heteronormative, although I expect that even three hundred years from now some people will be that way.

    We get to know a few of the main characters pretty well as individuals long before we learn about their sexual and reproductive lives. I liked this approach because it allowed me to react more along the lines of taking on one more detail about this person I already know and like, rather than having them introduced and thus essentialized as “Weird Future Person, Exhibit A”.

    Does anyone know of any trans* people who review science fiction novels? I’d be interested to know if they have reviewed either of these books.

  10. 10
    Mae Rogers

    I enjoyed this article and the one about jeans in Maine immensely,thank you for sharing your unique and accurate perspective on trans issues.I wonder if anyone even stops to think how expensive getting rid of a “five o’clock shadow can be?Keep it up hon,I’ll be watching for your articles.

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